Readers of a certain age may recall the series of illustrated American History books published by Time-Life in the latter part of the 20th Century. Between those dark-brown covers were innumerable tales of how the nation and its industry came to be. Published in 1973, the cover of the volume “The Railroaders” featured a color lithograph depicting a Union Pacific locomotive highballing through the mountainous California wilderness. Puffs of black coal smoke break up the greens and blues of the bucolic scene. The book’s first chapter was entitled “A work of visionaries — or of fools?” and began with a photograph of a lone surveyor standing in an incomplete railroad bed, imagining what it would one day become.
Scenes from Alabama’s earliest railroad history were a far cry from such romantic depictions. Still, there were railroaders here, men described as both visionaries and fools, who worked to crisscross the landscape of the young state. In the first generation after statehood, the dean of Alabama railroaders was Montgomery’s Charles T. Pollard. Many of the modern routes of south Alabama railroads came about because of his efforts. As railroad historian Wayne Cline noted, Pollard “saw the shape of America’s railway system and placed Alabama squarely in its path.”
He was born into a patrician Virginia family in 1805. At the age of 19, Pollard traded a comfortable life as a bookkeeper to pursue his own fortunes. After a few years in South Carolina, he arrived in Montgomery in the late 1820s and began making a name for himself in the riverfront town. In 1834, he joined the board of a railroad company determined to link Montgomery with West Point, Georgia. Pollard became the company’s president a few years later and held the position for more than three decades.
When available capital proved insufficient to build the road, Pollard and a few other investors leveraged their own real estate holdings to secure enough money to keep laying track. Coming amidst the financial panic of 1837, the move was no doubt seen as foolish by many observers — and an act of utter insanity when they did it again just five years later.
But faith in the Montgomery & West Point Railroad bore fruit, albeit slowly. Workers completed a 35-mile portion of the line between the Macon County town of Franklin and Montgomery in 1840. Receipts and contracts began to flow. Farmers could ship a cotton bale weighing up to 500 pounds to Montgomery for 85 cents. In 1843, the Alabama Legislature approved a loan of pass-through federal funds of $120,000 (nearly $4 million today) to complete the line all the way to West Point. Pollard used some of that money to purchase enslaved laborers to build the road. By 1860, he held nearly 120 men and women in human bondage.
The full line went into operation on May 1, 1851, after 15 years of construction. One Montgomery newspaper called it the “first road of any consequence ever constructed in the State.” In 1852, Pollard’s railroad transported 35,500 passengers and 33,000 bales of cotton. A branch line running from Opelika to Columbus, Georgia, was completed in 1854. The receipts continued to grow.
Still, Pollard wanted more. He envisioned Montgomery as a regional rail hub. He started by founding the Western Rail Road Company of Alabama with a plan to build a line to Selma, where it would connect with the successful Alabama & Mississippi Line. Prominent businessmen including Danial Pratt and Bolling Hall signed on as his partners in the endeavor.
As his new western route took shape, Pollard looked southward, lending his name to an effort to extend a rail route to coastal Florida. In the early spring of 1857, he drove in the ceremonial first spike for the new Alabama & Florida Railroad. Crews from Montgomery and Pensacola laid track toward each other. They met in 1861, building a station on the Alabama side of the border, at a newly created company town in present-day Escambia County. They named the town Pollard.
The destruction wrought by the Civil War descended upon the tycoon in both his personal and professional life. Pollard’s eldest son, Joseph, died in January 1863 from wounds sustained during the Battle of Stones River in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. “I strive to take it with proper fortitude,” Pollard wrote to his daughter, “but it is a deep affliction.” In the final years of the conflict, Pollard tried in vain to keep his railroad assets from the hands of advancing Union troops. Most of his railcars, tracks and bridges were damaged either by fire or “the liberal use of the sledge hammer,” as one observer noted.
In 1866, to repair his damaged stock and complete his line to Selma, Pollard appealed to northern financiers for assistance. For some southerners this was a bitter pill, indeed. Still, Pollard’s determination to link Selma and Montgomery was endorsement enough for most detractors. “We want no better assurance that a railroad will be completed than to know that its interests are under the direction and control of this indefatigable man,” wrote the editors of one Montgomery newspaper. When the line was finally completed in 1870, Pollard’s railroad ran unbroken from Selma to West Point. Four years later, his Alabama & Florida Line consolidated with the Mobile and Great Northern Railroad. The merger created an uninterrupted route linking Alabama’s capital with its port city. The mighty Louisville & Nashville Railroad later acquired the line.
His railroad successes afforded Pollard the trappings of excess. He built a fine Montgomery mansion a few blocks from his station. And he gave liberally to establish St. John’s Episcopal Church in Montgomery and the University of the South, at Sewanee, Tennessee.
Charles T. Pollard died on Jan. 10, 1888. The courts and public buildings in Montgomery were closed on the day of his funeral. For 30 days thereafter, the mighty engines that traversed the southern railways he helped make a reality were draped in black bunting to mourn the passing of this visionary Alabama railroader.
Historian Scotty E. Kirkland is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He lives in Wetumpka.
This story appeared in the January 2024 issue of Business Alabama magazine.