The Memphis and Charleston (M&C) Railroad was the last link in a chain of early railroads connecting the Atlantic Coast to the Mississippi River. Its route from Memphis to Chattanooga across Tennessee, Mississippi, and Alabama is still an important rail line as part of the Norfolk Southern system.
Railroad fever gripped Memphis following the Southern and Southwestern Railroad Convention held there in 1845. Out of it grew the idea for a railroad running east from Memphis toward the Atlantic Coast. Tennessee Governor James C. “Lean Jimmy” Jones led the campaign for funds. The company was chartered in 1846 and construction was completed a few years later. The new railroad incorporated two existing lines, one in North Alabama and one in West Tennessee.
The first railroad west of the Appalachians was a two-mile line for horse-drawn cars built in 1832 at Tuscumbia, Alabama, as a bypass for the Muscle Shoals on the Tennessee River. The line was soon expanded to a forty-three-mile steam line. The LaGrange and Memphis Railroad was launched in West Tennessee about the same time, but it was never successful.
The M&C provided the only rail connection between the eastern and western parts of the South. From Chattanooga, lines extended to Virginia and Georgia. Goods and passengers that had previously gone by roundabout water and overland routes could now go directly by rail. Travel time from Memphis to New York was reduced to seventy-nine hours. The railroad was a major factor in the growth of Memphis over other Mississippi River towns in the mid- to late nineteenth century.
The M&C was strategically important to the Confederacy. The railroad was the scene of heavy fighting early in the Civil War–the April 1862 battle of Shiloh was fought near it–and it was inevitable that the line would be a target for destruction. The war completely demolished much of the railroad.
Postwar recovery saw rapid consolidation of the South’s fragmented rail network. Under the leadership of Richard T. Wilson, a partner in a New York banking and cotton brokerage firm who had served as the Confederacy’s commissary general, the M&C became part of a system that included the railroads in East Tennessee. The consolidation movement continued and in 1894 the old M&C became part of the Southern Railway System, which was organized by international banker J. P. Morgan. The route remained part of the Southern until 1982 when the Southern merged with the Norfolk and Western to create the Norfolk Southern, one the nation’s major rail systems.