In the 1880s, a group of investors created the first railroad to traverse the rich farmland and timber country of the Alabama Wiregrass. Armed with financial support from one of the largest railroad tycoons of the era, the Alabama Midland Railroad took shape. It stretched from Montgomery to Bainbridge, Georgia, cutting diagonally through the Wiregrass region. The new railroad linked as never before the bountiful resources of southeastern Alabama to surrounding markets.
The railroad was organized in January 1887. The founders of the Midland were described as “men of means and nerve and pluck.” The Pike County contingent of the new company included merchant and state legislator Joel Murphree, Mayor Charles Henderson (who later served as Alabama’s 35th governor) and brothers Ariosto and Oliver Wiley, who loomed large as the railroad’s chief legal counsel and president, respectively. Among the residents of Montgomery who helped organize the company were German-born bookkeeper Sigmund Roman, banker Josiah Morris and cotton factor J. W. Woolfolk, who oversaw the rail’s construction.
That the partners in the new railroad enterprise were businessmen from Troy and Montgomery was no accident. The Midland was an effort to reorient the vast commercial agricultural interests of the Wiregrass region, away from merchants and wholesalers in Columbus, Georgia, who had long enjoyed great influence in the region.
While the early survey lines for the new railroad took shape on paper, a spur line of the Central of Georgia was also underway from Eufaula to Ozark. In New York seeking to shore up funding, Woolfolk found many doors closed to him. Blaming the Central’s influence, he made his way to the offices of railroad magnate (and Central competitor) Henry B. Plant, who was in the process of completing a sprawling network of seaboard railways called the Plant System. Woolfolk assured Plant that the Alabama Midland could reach Bainbridge, where it could adjoin one of Plant’s lines. A deal was made. In exchange for a construction loan, the Plant System would operate the Midland upon its completion.
Even amidst a surge of new railroad construction, news of the Alabama Midland spread quickly. The capital stock for the construction company was fixed at an initial $400,000. Investors and company men in Troy, Montgomery and New York took a combined $300,000. Boosters in communities along the route eagerly purchased the remainder.
With the survey completed, more than 1,500 sunbaked workers began the ruddy work of cutting the Midland’s path through the Wiregrass frontier. Many were indentured servants, convict laborers or contracted immigrants. There were accidents aplenty during construction. Hulking shovel cars moved tons of Wiregrass soil, leveling out the necessary grades and ditches for the rail lines. Steam-powered pile drivers pushed support beams deep into muddy riverbeds to construct bridges. Next to such large machinery and heavy, uncompromising steel, the flesh of men was fragile, indeed. In April 1889, two boats filled with workers breaking rocks for the construction of a bridge spanning the Chattahoochee River capsized. Five men were lost. Their bodies were never recovered.
By January 1889, workers had laid in place 17,000 tons of steel rails and half a million thick, wooden crossties. As the line neared completion, the company announced the order of 14 Baldwin locomotives from Philadelphia, as well as a number of elegant passenger coaches, including four “reclining chair cars,” the height of comfort, manufactured in Illinois. Shops in Anniston and Decatur built 50 air-ventilated fruit cars and more than 100 standard flat cars for the new line.
During the summer of 1889, the Midland’s long-awaited arrival in many Wiregrass towns became a reality. “Nobody can imagine how big it makes Ozarkians feel to hear the Alabama Midland engine blow,” a Dale County newspaper reporter wrote. “There was never a train looked upon with more gladness than was the Ala[bama] Midland,” observed a Dothan editor.
Few places benefitted more from the Midland than did Dothan, a village with only 250 residents when the first train rolled through. Within four years, the population increased more than 500%. In 1903, the bustling city became the seat of the newly created Houston County. Other towns and ventures along the route prospered as well. Soon after the Midland tracks reached Ashford, D. H. Moody and his appropriately named business partner B. F. Sapp purchased 11,000 acres of timberland and established a large turpentine concern, complete with their own distillery and depot. They employed nearly 100 workers.
At a reception for board members marking the third anniversary of the company, Ariosto Wiley offered a toast to the “Iron Link” now connecting the Wiregrass. Six weeks later, on Feb. 26, 1890, a crowd of boosters and company men watched as J. W. Woolfolk drove the ceremonial golden spike into place near Troy. The Alabama Midland Railroad was complete.
After subsequent additions of three spur lines, the Midland eventually stretched along for more than 200 Alabama miles. It cost $7.5 million to construct, roughly $36,200 per mile.
In its first year of operation, the Midland ferried nearly half-a-million tons of freight. This included 13,000 tons of grain, 18,000 tons of cotton and 25,000 tons of fertilizer. A direct result of the continued boom in construction throughout the region, the Midland also carried that year 21,000 tons of bituminous coal, 27,000 tons of iron and an astounding 91,000 tons of lumber, or roughly one-fourth of the railroad’s total tonnage.
In the summer of 1890, the Alabama Midland Railroad officially became a part of the vaunted Plant System. The New York-based company purchased the new railroad for $800,000. But the Panic of 1893 curtailed Plant’s subsequent plans to extend his reach into Alabama through the auspices of the Midland. Henry Plant died in 1899. Three years later, the Atlantic Coast Line acquired the entire Plant System, including the Midland. Since 1986, the line has been part of CSX Transportation. Many parts of the original route are still active today, a reminder of the first railroad through the Alabama Wiregrass.
Historian Scotty E. Kirkland is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He lives in Wetumpka.
This appeared originally in the June 2022 issue of Business Alabama.