Between St. John's and Laurel Hill Plantation lie the tracks of the West Feliciana Rail Road, the oldest standard gauge line in the nation. Conceived in 1828, chartered in 1831, finally completed in 1842, the rail road was built to haul cotton along the 27 miles between Woodville and the Bayou Sara Landing on the Mississippi River. Its foremost backer was Edward McGehee, who owned Laurel Hill; his son, J. Burruss McGehee, brought the rail road back to life after the devastation of the Civil War, and saw it safely within the Illinois Central System in 1892.
From first to last, the railroad was an exercise in imagination and iron will, an idea born before its time, conceived in a misalliance between the cotton economy and the wretched roads of the antebellum South. It sorely tried men -- their backs, their tempers, their skills, and their pocketbooks -- and if it did them any good, it did so at enormous cost and in the wrong economic frame. Its highest and best use came as a late 19th century "accommodation" train, forever and appendage to river traffic; its genial conductor making unscheduled stops for knickered little boys running pell-mell, late for school. As the old joke went, it was forever a Tri-Weekly Train; it left Bayou Sara for Woodville one week and tried to get back the next.
Still, it survived. Survived town fathers in Bayou Sara who thought the iron horse would explode and blow up the town; survived irate planters along the route who refused to allow the tracks to split cotton fields; survived contractors who lacked technical skill; survived a relentless economic struggle throughout its existence. Today, almost a century and a half old, the line is unlikely to service its latest crisis. It is virtually abandoned, its rails two streaks of rust scarcely visible amid the overgrowth of the road bed, its death knell sounded by a triumphant system of roads, whose sorry state long ago gave birth to a railroad built solely to haul cotton to the river.
Thanks to the West Feliciana Parish Historical Society for this write-up.
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