The Southern Railway exemplifies the Class I Railroads of the late 1800s. It was the product of nearly 150 different small railroads that were combined, reorganized, and recombined throughout the mid 1800s. The Southern Railway (SOU) officially came into existence 1894 through the combination of the Memphis & Charleston Railroad, the Richmond & Danville system and the East Tennessee, Virginia & Georgia Railroad.
The first official predecessor of the Southern Railway was the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company (SCCRRC), one of the first railroads in the United States. The SCCRRC was chartered in 1827 and ran the first regular steam passenger route in 1830, beginning Southern’s tradition of innovation among railroads. In 1833, the SCCRRC had completed a 136 mile line from Charleston to Hamburg, South Carolina, the longest continuous track in the world at that time.
Throughout the mid-1800s many railroad networks sprung up in the South. By 1857 the Memphis & Charleston Railroad completed a link from Charleston to Memphis, Tennessee. Rail networks eventually spread across the South and the Appalachian Mountains. The Civil War halted all rail expansion.
During the Civil War, many important battles were waged over the South’s railroad network. The Battle of Shiloh, the Siege of Corinth, and the Second Battle of Corinth were all motivated by the importance of the Memphis & Charleston connection, the only East-West rail link across the Confederate States. The Chickamauga Campaign was also motivated by the importance of the Memphis-Charleston connection as well as other important Southern routes. Another route in the South, the Richmond & York River Railroad, was the major focus of George McClellan’s Peninsular Campaign, which culminated in the Seven Days Battles, devastating the small railroad. By the late stages of the Civil War, nearly all of the Confederate connections to Richmond, Virginia were lost or destroyed. The only remaining link was the Richmond & Danville Railroad which served to transport Jefferson Davis and his cabinet to Danville, Virginia just before the fall of Richmond in April 1865.
The Civil War left the railroads and economy in shambles. After the war, most of the railroads were repaired, reorganized and operated again. The Richmond & Danville System expanded throughout the South during the Reconstruction period, but by 1893 they had overextended and were left in financial trouble. J.P. Morgan gained control at this time. He then reorganized it as the Southern Railway, which included the Memphis & Charleston Railroad, the Richmond & Danville System, and the East Tennessee, Virginia & Georgia Railroad.
Southern expanded quickly, gaining control of the Alabama Great Southern and the Georgia Southern & Florida, and gained an interest in the Central of Georgia. During the 12 year term of Southern’s first president, Samuel Spencer, new shops were built in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Atlanta, Georgia, and more equipment was purchased. The railroad was also refocused from agricultural dependence to diversified traffic and industrial development. Spencer’s time in office came to an end when he was killed by a train wreck in 1906.
After Spencer, Southern acquired a line form Meridian, Mississippi to New Orleans, Louisiana in 1916. At that point, Southern had a 8,000 mile, 13 state rail system that lasted for nearly 50 years. The only major changes after that point were the acquisition of the Central of Georgia in 1963 and the Norfolk Southern Railway in 1974. Then in 1982, the Southern Railway merged with the Norfolk & Western to form the Norfolk Southern Railway.