- A Section of the Kansas City Southern in Hattiesburg, Mississippi
The cover art for this issue of Southeastern Geographer is a photograph taken in May of 2008 that shows a section of the Kansas City Southern rail line as it leaves downtown Hattiesburg, Mississippi on its way north to Jackson. The photograph seems appropriate as cover art not only because the University of Southern Mississippi is the new editorial home of Southeastern Geographer, but also because Hattiesburg’s history is closely intertwined with its railroads.
The scene in the photograph, located just a few steps from the intersection of Mobile and East 2nd streets, lies between downtown Hattiesburg and the historic Mobile-Bouie neighborhood. On the left are warehouses that belong to Economy Supply, a locally owned hardware store that opened its doors in 1941 and still has a dedicated customer base across Hattiesburg (Economy Supply 2011). Near the water tower in the back of the photograph is the flag pole of the C. E. Roy Community Center, which is adjacent to Hattiesburg’s African American Military Museum. The museum is housed in the old colored USO Club, the only one of its kind surviving in the U. S., which opened in 1942 to serve African American soldiers before the U. S. Armed Forces desegregated (African-American Military History Museum 2011).
The section of the Kansas City Southern shown in this picture is only one of numerous rail lines that crisscross Hattiesburg, virtually all of them constructed around the turn of the twentieth century during the longleaf pine logging boom (Hickman 1962; Hoffman 1992; Earley 2004). Hattiesburg became known as the Hub City during that period because of its location at the junctures of so many rail lines, which not only took South Mississippi timber to ports on the Gulf Coast and to more distant places, but also brought great numbers of people to fill boom-time demands for labor (Napier 1985; Hoffman 1992). Logging quickly took its toll on pine forests across the region. By 1925, the timber industry collapsed and South Mississippi, including Hattiesburg, sank into economic stagnation (Napier 1985).
The rail line in the photograph was originally owned by Gulf and Ship Island Railroad, which linked Gulfport and Hattiesburg in 1897 and extended north to Jackson in 1900. Following the collapse of the logging boom, Kansas City Southern purchased the section from Hattiesburg south and Illinois Central bought the northern section to Jackson. The line is still in operation today and is the primary freight train route between Gulfport and [End Page 1] Jackson (Illinois Central Historical Society 2007; Mississippi Rails 2011).
Freight transportation is steady business for a railroad company, but it is a far cry from the boom years of the early 1900s when railroads and logging enterprises worked in tandem to open up the expanses of longleaf pine forest in South Mississippi (Hickman 1962; Hoffman 1992). The logging boom is now part of the past, and while timber is still a big industry, the region has benefited more from the gradual (and more sustainable) rise of Hattiesburg as a regional provider of higher education and medical services (Mississippi Forestry Commission 2004; City of Hattiesburg 2009). Some, however, forecast a new golden era for railroads in the region. Following Hurricane Katrina, federally-funded reconstruction of port facilities at Gulfport has set in motion a plan to expand the old Gulf and Ship Island line into a major freight corridor. There is no way to know if this will bring new growth to Hattiesburg or will simply create more of a nuisance for downtown residents trying to beat the trains on their way to work. The idea is compelling, however, if only because it makes us realize that the sleepy scene in the cover art photograph was not always as it appears today and certainly it will not be like that forever.