CLARKSVILLE, Tennessee — The Middle Tennessee community of Clarksville was once a bustling transportation hub. It wasn’t just the riverboats plying the Cumberland River that made this region important. Railroads as well proved essential to the farmers growing tobacco in the region. The Memphis, Clarksville and Louisville Railroad was the first railroad to pass through Clarksville.
That railroad is the subject of my recent book. Which, I hope, offers a fascinating window into what it took to finance and build a railroad in the years before the Civil War.
The Memphis, Clarksville and Louisville Railroad: In the Beginning…
The railroad company was chartered in 1852. It built a line between Paris, Tenn., and Guthrie, Ky. that formed an integral portion of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad’s Memphis branch. This was a critical railroad link between New Orleans and New York.
I learned of the road back in 2002, and the story was intriguing to me from the start. I wrote a newspaper article about it in 2003 that highlighted the 135th anniversary of a February 1868 strike. That action effectively spelled ruin for the company, which had struggled to operate from its inception.
Putting together an historical puzzle
At most, histories usually only give brief mention to the Memphis, Clarksville & Louisville. Perhaps, that’s because few records of the railroad seem to exist, and the accounts that do are incomplete. Writing a history of this line required weaving together a narrative based on the limited files and the news accounts that survive.
The Louisville & Nashville purchased the line in 1871 and operated it for more than a century. A portion of the road survives as part of R.J. Corman’s Memphis Line.
Railroad Tragedy: A Day of Rembrance
Earlier this year, at my request, Montgomery County Tennessee Mayor Jim Durrett declared July 28 as Budds Creek Disaster Day of Remembrance. This was to acknowledge the sesquicentennial of a Memphis, Clarksville & Louisville Railroad disaster on July 28, 1869. Five people, including the train’s engineer, fireman and several passengers, died in a train wreck at Budds Creek in southern Montgomery County.
America’s railroads brought a vast country together
In the end, the Memphis, Clarksville & Louisville was like so many others born of a fever to construct railroads. It started with great promise, with its owners promising to make it an important connection to the outside world. But in the annals of history, it is merely a footnote.
But its footprint can still be seen today. These remains include an engineering marvel of a bridge spanning the Cumberland River in downtown Clarksville. In Clarksville itself, the old train depot, known by locals as the L&N Station, still stands.
While railroads such as the Memphis, Clarksville & Louisville Railroad are not as well-documented as other lines, their stories are still worth remembering. Knowing more about our onetime crucial rail links in America’s hinterlands might even change our understanding of history and the events that shaped the the America that we know today.
— Headline image: Clarksville, Tennessee, circa 1870. (Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.
US government image is in the public domain.)
Todd DeFeo has written about the Memphis, Clarksville & Louisville extensively for Railfanning.org. His book about the railroad published on Oct. 14. For more information, visit Railfanning.org/books.