Historic Natchez train at auction

Published 12:58 am Sunday, October 4, 2015

The “Mississippi” train will be auctioned off on Monday. (Submitted photo)

The “Mississippi” train will be auctioned off on Monday. (Submitted photo)

NATCHEZ — More than 175 years after oxen pulled the locomotive named the “Mississippi” to the top of the Natchez bluffs, a couple of local historians hope the locomotive will return to the state for its final destination.

Monday, the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry plans to auction off the locomotive, which is thought to be the first train engine of the South. The train is one of five items in the museum’s historic train collection to be sold at a Philadelphia auction operated by Bonhams, a San Francisco firm.

Executive Director of the Historic Natchez Foundation Mimi Miller said the locomotive is one of a kind.

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“It is one of the oldest, if not the oldest locomotive in the South,” Miller said. “The train tells so many stories related to Natchez’s attempt to get a railroad.”

“Everybody was racing to get trains,” Natchez archaeologist Smokye Joe Frank said.

In the 1830s, nearly every state in the nation was trying to be the first to win the railroad race. Mississippi was no different.

In 1836, a group of Natchez men would succeed in bringing the first engine to Mississippi. Named the “Mississippi,” the new train was built in Europe, shipped across the Atlantic and transported to Natchez via the Mississippi River.

According to an account written by famed 19th century Natchez diarist William Johnson, the locomotive was pulled up the bluff via oxen.

The Mississippi Railroad Company, organized by John A. Quitman, planned to run a line from Natchez to Canton.

“But those attempts failed,” Miller said. “The train is a tangible reminder of historic events that would play a role in the railroad’s failure.”

Those events included the Panic of 1837 and the tornado of 1840 that destroyed some of the Mississippi Railroad Company’s property.

Before the tornado the company completed the railway line from Natchez to Hamburg, a community in Franklin County.

“That would be as far as they would get,” Frank said.

In 1844, the company went bankrupt and the locomotive and line were abandoned.

The train is said to have served both Confederate and Union forces during the Civil War.

In 1893, the locomotive was part of the Chicago World’s Fair and was eventually donated to the Museum of Science and Industry in 1938.

It has been on display in the Museum since a 1965 restoration.

Miller said she would love to see the train come back to Mississippi.

“I would like to see it in a museum, preferably in Natchez or Jackson at the State Museum,” Miller.

Frank said he visited the museum several years ago and had his picture taken in front of the locomotive he has garnered his fascination.

“It would be heaven-sent for the State of Mississippi to be able to buy it.”

Bids for the locomotive could reach well past $100,000, Miller said.

It is unclear if the Mississippi Department of Archives and History is considering making a bid for the train. Efforts to reach MDAH officials Friday went unanswered.

Miller said she would hate to see the train go to a private investor.

“It needs to be in a museum,” Miller said.

For Frank it is a little more personal.

“No one but Mississippi needs my train,” Frank said, alluding to his personal appreciation for the train’s history and connection to Natchez.