A Southern train plus e-bike adventure (part two)

Posted by Malcolm Kenton
on Friday, December 24, 2021

Read part one here.

My northbound Crescent departed New Orleans on-time on what started as a warm and muggy Saturday, but quickly turned cool and rainy as a cold front passed through. We were on-time till Picayune, Miss. (the second stop of the trip), after which we began moving slow and took a siding for a southbound freight. This put us 40 minutes down, 10 of which we were able to make up by Meridian thanks to schedule padding. Upon arriving and claiming my e-bike on the platform, I pedaled immediately to the Jimmie Rodgers Museum, where a member of its board of directors had agreed to meet me for a private tour after their normal opening hours.

My e-bike, having just been offloaded from Amtrak train 20 at Meridian, Miss. on Dec. 11, 2021. All photos by the author.
The Jimmie Rodgers Museum has just moved to its third location in Meridian, a grand eclectic mission revival-style house four blocks due north of downtown. It was originally housed in a 1979-built replica vintage train station in Highland Park, which I visited by bicycle on Sunday. Built by the Meridian Light and Railway Company as one of many streetcar pleasure parks in the US, Highland Park still displays a 1917 Baldwin-built steam locomotive donated to the city by the still-extant Meridian and Bigbee Railroad, as well as one of only two late-19th-century Dentzel carousels still in operation in the U.S. A stone monument to Jimmie Rodgers also still stands in the park, next to the locomotive and former museum. The museum’s second home, from which it relocated within the past month, was a storefront on Front Street downtown, a block from Union Station.

The museum contains many artifacts that showcase the country and folk music pioneer’s lifelong connection with railroads, such as letters he wrote on the stationary of the railroad companies he worked for, including the Florida East Coast. Rodgers’ railroad career, which included a number of track maintenance and train & engine crew jobs, exposed him to a variety of musical influences, particularly the blues played by his Black peers. Even after Rodgers had earned sufficient fame and fortune from his music that he didn’t have to do other work for a living, he continued to work various railroad jobs around the South at his father’s insistence. This likely contributed to his untimely death from tuberculosis, which spread rapidly in railroad workers’ camps in the early 20th century.

The Jimmie Rodgers stone monument with the M&B Baldwin locomotive and my e-bike on Dec. 12, 2021.
Meridian — like Greensboro, N.C, where I grew up — is a city built around the railroads that became a hub and connecting point for five different roads, now down to three (Norfolk Southern and Kansas City Southern, plus the M&B Railroad, a Class III short line that is part of the Genesee and Wyoming empire), with three lines converging there. The railroads gave Greensboro the name ‘The Gate City’ as it was the gateway to many points by rail, and Meridian is dubbed ‘The Queen City’ after the name of an early premier passenger train that served the city. 

Since 1971, Meridian has been served by, and has served as a crew change point for, one daily passenger train in each direction between New Orleans and New York (operated by the Southern Railway until 1979 and by Amtrak after that). The same train provided the only intercity passenger service to Greensboro from 1975 until North Carolina’s state-supported train program began in the late 1980s. Sadly, Mississippi has not similarly benefitted from efforts to expand service in the Amtrak era. 

The waiting room at Meridian Union Station, seen on Dec. 12, 2021.
A proposal to split the Crescent at Meridian, with one leg going to New Orleans and the other going due west to Dallas/Fort Worth on the joint NS/KCS Meridian Speedway, seemed close to fruition in the mid-2000s but never came to pass. Perhaps the seemingly more passenger-friendly outlook of Canadian Pacific as it merges with KCS, evidenced by its recent commitment to host a daily New Orleans-Baton Rouge round-trip, bodes well for a future revival of the ‘Crescent Star’ proposal — though new Amtrak long-distance equipment will also likely be needed.

Like Greensboro, Meridian’s downtown was in rough shape in the 1980s. The original Southern Railway station had been demolished, leaving Amtrak passengers only a small waiting room in the former Railway Express Agency building (which now houses a soon-to-open railroad museum) in a run-down part of town. Luckily, John Robert Smith, who served as Meridian’s mayor from 1993 to 2009 (and simultaneously as Chair of Amtrak’s Board of Directors in the mid-2000s), was able to see to fruition his vision of a grand new train station and multimodal transportation center anchoring a revitalized downtown. Meridian Union Station, a new building in a vintage style, opened in 1993 and served as a model for other Amtrak-served locales to revamp their stations as community gateways.

View of downtown Meridian and next-door Union Station from the roof of The MAX on Dec. 11, 2021.
Right next door to Union Station is the Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Experience (The MAX): a large two-story museum, performance and community arts space that opened in April 2018. I visited The MAX right after the Jimmie Rodgers Museum on the Saturday afternoon I arrived. It contains an interactive Hall of Fame of artists, performers and creators of all kinds who were born in Mississippi and an interactive exhibit showcasing the cultural and environmental influences on the visual art, music, entertainment and cuisine exported from Mississippi to the world, from musicals and Muppets to the blues and rock ’n roll. The building also houses two-dimensional and three-dimensional art studios, a recording studio, and a rotating exhibit space, all of which are well-used. 

Among my other stops in Meridian was the Threefoot Hotel, which opened in 2020 in a 1929-built, 15-story Art Deco tower that had been an office building until 2015. I had breakfast in its restaurant with a train-inspired name, 6:01 Local. I also enjoyed libations at Threefoot Brewing Company a block away, which opened in 2018 in a former bank building. There, I chatted with its manager Jerome Trahan, who was on Amtrak’s marketing staff from the mid-2000s to 2018, when he retired.

Enjoying a brew at Threefoot Brewing with bike in tow on Dec. 11, 2021.
I spent that Saturday night in a very comfortable Airbnb, occupying half of the main floor of a Victorian house in a neighborhood just a half mile west of the center of town. After a 19-mile e-bike ride on a crisp, clear Sunday morning that took me to Highland Park and Bonita Lakes Park, I boarded a 45-minute-late train 20 (taking my bike to the station agent on the platform, where he tagged it and loaded it into the baggage car) for a smooth and pleasant ride back to D.C., making up the lost time by Charlotte and pulling into D.C. Union Station a few minutes ahead of schedule.

Meridian’s civic boosters are working to attract more tourists to the area. If the city’s attractions are enough to entice a car-free Northeast Corridor denizen like me to come and spend 24 hours, imagine what could happen if multiple daily trains connected Meridian, and other small cities and towns like it, to more destinations. Then maybe, somewhere out along the rails, another creative individual will find inspiration to follow in Jimmie Rodgers’ footsteps.


Disclaimer: The author is a freelance contributor to Trains and is employed as a proposal writer for Keolis Transit America, part of an international transit operations & maintenance contracting firm. Prior to joining Keolis in October 2021, his consulting clients included Herzog Transit Services, Inc., the Association of Independent Passenger Rail Operators, DB Engineering & Consulting USA, ELERTS Corp. and the Eno Center for Transportation. He is an avid and frequent train traveler, and serves on the volunteer national advisory body of the Rail Passengers Association. The views expressed in Observation Tower are solely his own and do not necessarily reflect the positions or business interests of any of his current or former employers, clients or associations.

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