Tanglefoot Trail, located in the Mississippi Hills National Heritage Area, preserves the abandoned 43.6 mile railroad corridor assembled in part for the Gulf and Ship Island Railroad by Col. William C. Falkner beginning in 1871. The asphalt trail offers multi-use recreational opportunities as it winds through six communities – New Albany, Ecru, Pontotoc, Algoma, New Houlka and Houston and three counties – Union, Pontotoc and Chickasaw.
First traveled by Native Americans, the Trail was also used by early explorers Hernando De Soto and Meriwether Lewis. Trappers and traders followed as did invading armies. At one point the Trail crosses what is now known as King Creek near a spot that was home to the last Chickasaw King Ishtehotopah. Later, pioneers in wooden wagons traveled the King’s Highway, looking for farm land and hoping to build new communities. The Civil War took its toll leaving behind a terrible path of destruction.
The railroad made its appearance in the New Albany area in 1886. One engine that performed admirably during early construction was the Tanglefoot, a ten wheeler with driving wheels 36 inches in diameter and operated at a steam pressure of 60 psi. It was a narrow gauge engine and retired when the line became standardized.
Today the Tanglefoot Trail offers outdoor enthusiasts the opportunity to be active, enjoy natural surroundings and experience the hill country of North Mississippi.
Pre-Historic Era and its People
Buried under the soil and clay of the Mississippi hills are vast deposits of Late Cretaceous fossils from 65 million years ago. Teachers, students and collectors often study sites in the area east of the trail. Ammonites, echinoids and exogyra are common to this area which was once part of the Gulf of Mexico. Fossils from the area are exhibited in county museums.
Tanglefoot Trail encompasses flatwoods terrain and the hills of the Pontotoc Ridge, a distinctive upland divide in northeastern Mississippi with many creeks and rivers flowing eastward into the Tombigbee River and westward into the Mississippi River. The flatwoods soil, which joins the Pontotoc Ridge soil on the west, begins at the Tennessee line and continues through the counties of Union, Pontotoc, Chickasaw, and others.
A number of prehistoric cultures were present along the ridge area. The Woodland periods saw organizations of people planting maze and constructing ceremonial mounds.
Approximately one-half mile west of the Trail in Union County is the Ingomar Mound, a 2,000-year-old site which contained 14 mounds from the Middle Woodland period. One remains as a reminder of ancient culture. First excavated in the 1880s by the Smithsonian Institution, the mounds were mapped, and hundreds of objects were taken by the archaeologists. Some are on display at the Union County Heritage Museum in New Albany. The Mound site is a Mississippi Landmark listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
Approximately six miles from the Trail between Houlka and Houston are the Owl Creek Mounds, five Mississippian Period platform mounds built between 1,100 and 1,200 A.D. The nearby Bynum Mounds are located on the Natchez Trace near Houston. These sites are also on the National Register of Historic Places. The Natchez Trace was one of two other important trails in the area on which earlier explores and traders traveled.
Early Native Americans in the Area
The Chickasaw Indians first settled in this area after their separation from the Choctaws around 1650. The names of creeks, towns and counties along the Tanglefoot offer stories of their own. The Chickasaw-named Occonite Creek, means “clear water.” Lapatubby Creek means “a deer was killed here.” Chukantanchi Creek, means “hog corn”. Chippewa Creek means “to pucker up”. Pontotoc means “land of the hanging grapes,” and Algoma means “God abides.” Houlka means “a sacred object”. Chickasaw means “rebellion” or “he who walks away” and is supposedly a derivative of the name of the Indian leader, Chikasa.
The beginning of the end of the Chickasaw story can be found in Pontotoc. The Treaty of Pontotoc was signed in 1832 in the southeastern part of the county in Redland just north of Houlka where the Chickasaw Agency was located. At the current corner of Brooks and Oxford Streets in the city of Pontotoc, the U.S. Land Office was build to handle the sale of Chickasaw lands following the signing of the treaty. Appointees of President Andrew Jackson were sent from Nashville down the Natchez Trace to handle the transactions. Pioneers and speculators came and land companies opened. Chickasaw and Pontotoc were both proclaimed counties by the Mississippi Legislature on February 9, 1836. July 7, 1870 a portion on the north of Pontotoc was taken from the county to form the organization of Union County.
Today the Tanglefoot Trail traverses through the heart of the Chickasaw Homeland.
Explorers Along the Trail
Hernando De Soto traveled along the route of the Tanglefoot Trail, as he made his way toward the Mississippi River. Famed explorer Meriwether Lewis traveled it toward the end of his journey in route to Washington, DC.
De Soto and his men made their way into the area around 1540. Historians write that in the winter of 1540-41 De Soto made camp south of Pontotoc and on Christmas Day the first Christian marriage in America was performed between Juan Ortiz and Se-Owana, a Seminole princess held captive by the Spaniards. A WPA mural in the Old Pontotoc Post Office Museum depicts this scene. It was at the Ingomar Mound site that historians believe he made his second camp in the spring of 1541, then made his way westward after a disastrous fight with the Chickasaws who left his pigs burned, thus leading some to proclaim the birth of barbeque took place in what is now Union County.
Meriwether Lewis, in his latter yeas of serving as governor of the Louisiana Territory, planned a return to Washington regarding some War Department payment discrepancies and other personal matters. It is believed Lewis was not in the best health – mentally or physically. In 1809, during his final journey from St. Louis to Fort Pickering near present day Memphis, his travels took him through the present day New Albany and Ingomar area through the King’s Territory to the Chickasaw Agency where he stayed two days either to rest or to wait for a guide. He left the Agency for Nashville following the Natchez Trace. Lewis reached Grinders Mill near the Tennessee line, where he died. While most historians believe he committed suicide, some contend he was murdered.
On journeys such as this one, it was customary for Meriwether Lewis to leave behind a presidential peace medal. In the 1920s a farmer south of New Albany unearthed a Jefferson Peace Medal. A replica is now in the Union County Heritage Museum. The original was repatriated to the Chickasaw Nation.
Skirmishes, Raids and Reminders Along the Trail
There were no major battles in Union, Pontotoc and Chickasaw counties. However, communities were plagued with bands, companies, and regiments raiding towns along the Trail during the time of battles at Harrisburg, Brice’s Crossroads, Shiloh and Corinth. Resistance was met by local militia and occasionally Confederate troops camped along the Tallahatchie River. Several battle activities are noteworthy.
During the Seige of Vicksburg in 1863, Union Col. General Benjamin Grierson camped several times as he was sent to the area to keep troops occupied in an effort to block supplies to Vicksburg. Van Dorn with 2500 troops camped at the river after leaving Holly Springs. On June 13, 1863, Colonel Phillips , with two regiments of cavalry after plundering Ripley, marched to New Albany which he burned before moving on.
The Battle of Mud Creek, a victory for the Confederacy, occurred a little later in 1863 in Pontotoc County slightly west of the Trail in the Shady Grove area. Both armies traveled the road toward the battle site. The first machine gun, a Williams Prairie Gun was used during the battle. More than 60 Union raids occurred throughout this area of North Mississippi during the year.
In 1864, just before the Battle of Harrisburg in Tupelo, a skirmish occurred in Pontotoc County near the antebellum home Lochinvar located south of Pontotoc and east of the Trail. It stands today restored after heavy destruction from a tornado in 2001. During the war it was occupied by both Union and Confederate troops and was spared burning because of a kindness extended to a Union soldier there. The home is listed on the National Register of Historic places.
The Tabb Home in Houston was also used by Union and Confederate soldiers.
Untold numbers of men and boys left home to fight for a cause they considered ‘just and right’ for the Confederate States . One outstanding officer from Chickasaw county, Brigadier General William Feimster Tucker enlisted in the 11th Mississippi. Many from the present Union County area enlisted in Company K, 21st Regiment of Mississippi which was attached to the Army of Northern Virginia.. Known as the New Albany Grays, Company K reached Manassas and Leesburg and was the last to march through Richmond at the time of surrender. Jack Jones, a storeowner from southwest of Ingomar achieved the rank of Colonel in the 27th Mississippi Infantry. South of Mile Marker #37, the Trail crosses Jones Creek, named after the soldier.
The Falkner Connection
(Credit to: The Ripley Railroad by Herbert C. Murdaugh; The Gulf, Mobile and Ohio by James H. Lemly; the GM&O Historical Society and the Union County Historical Society)
The first rail link of the Tanglefoot Trail came to New Albany in 1887 sixteen years after the Ripley Railroad Company was chartered and approved. Ripley’s Colonel William C. Falkner Southern gentleman, attorney, veteran of two wars, statesman and great-grandfather of Nobel Prize winning author William Faulkner, was appointed President and R.J. Thurmond appointed Secretary. In June of 1872, he began his quest to construct a narrow-gauge railroad connecting plantation interests in Ripley, Mississippi with the Memphis and Charleston Railroad at Middleton, Tennessee. To ally his line with development in the southern part of the state, Colonel Falkner changed the name to Ship Island, Ripley and Kentucky, then to Gulf & Ship Island. Later, after an extension south of New Albany to Pontotoc, he changed the name again to Gulf and Chicago. By this time the dream had grown larger and the Colonel and his partners were interested in tying their line into a much bigger scheme.
Like his neighbors, Falkner had lost heavily in the collapse of the South after the Civil War. Since he was a lawyer, he had little hope of recouping his fortunes by representing destitute friends. Therefore, he turned to writing, with some success though he never acquired the skill or the fame of his great grandson. However one novel, The White Rose of Memphis did bring him some fame and provided a source of income until he turned his attention to promoting and building a railroad for his hometown.
The Colonel named at least two towns along his railroad. Ingomar was name after a fictional Indian chief in his novel The White Rose of Memphis. When the railroad reached Ecru in Pontotoc County, the town was evidently having a dispute over the name as they had moved from Cherry Creek to the west to be closer to the railroad. When Falkner arrived, he took charge of the situation, pointed to the depot and asked, “What color is that?” The reply was “Ecru”.
Some suggest that Mitchell’s Switch, located on the trail north of Ingomar, is possibly named after railroad shareholder C.B. Mitchell.
When Colonel Falkner’s narrow-gauge rail line was constructed to New Albany, his grandson, Murry Falkner moved from Ripley to serve as the station agent. It was during this time that his son, William C. Faulkner was born on September 25, 1897, on the corner of Cleveland and Jefferson Streets in a house not far from the town’s depot. William Faulkner’s roots are evident through his works. Yoknapatawpha, his fictional county, combines many aspects of Ripley; New Albany, his birthplace; Pontotoc; Oxford, his home; and other area towns. Yoknapatawpha’s center was the fictional town of Jefferson, which was 40 miles from a University town and Colonel Falkner’s story was told through the fictional character of Colonel Sartoris in The Unvanquished.
The Tanglefoot Trail runs through William Faulkner’s “little postage stamp of native soil” for all to enjoy.
Ripley Railroad to the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio
(Credit to: The Ripley Railroad by Herbert C. Murdaugh; The Gulf, Mobile and Ohio by James H. Lemly; the GM&O Historical Society and the Union County Historical Society)
The story of the growth of Gulf, Mobile & Northern (GM&N) prior to its merger with the Mobile and Ohio in September 1940, to form the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio Railroad (GM&O) is one of the postwar South – one of small and difficult beginnings undertaken by men of courage and vision. By schemes, scandals, duels, and murder; through bankruptcies, mergers, acquisitions and construction pieces of lines came together from early1871 to 1920 and beyond. Through the years, by merger and consolidation, the GM&O created a strong coordinated rail system which was financially successful through its formative years. It was not until 1972 that the GM&O merged with the Illinois Central Railroad to form Illinois Central Gulf.
The first successful start on one of the sectors of the GM&N was made in the hilly farm region of north central Mississippi in 1871 by Colonel William C Falkner of Ripley, Mississippi. His reputation was one of military daring and fast action but little else, though he became determined to build a railroad for his home town in order to improve trade.
In 1871 Falkner along with his business partner R.J. Thurmond borrowed $10,000 per mile for the construction of the railroad from Ripley, Mississippi, to Middleton, Tennessee, to connect with the Memphis and Charleston, a distance of 25 miles. Col. Falkner applied to the state for aid and received a grant for $4,000 per mile for construction designated for all standard gauge railroads built in the state. Falkner had plans for a narrow gauge but under the existing statute the state could not subsidize a narrow gauge road. He put his legal training to work and persuaded the Mississippi legislature to amend the law to include narrow gauge.
The gauge of the Ripley Railroad was three feet, which was twenty and one-half inches shorter in width than standard gauge. Cross ties were six inches square and six feet in length. The rail was approximately 36 pound weight. Things began to progress although it soon appeared another grant was needed to complete the project before the subsidy law expired. Through maneuverings and the use of convict labor, Falkner completed the 24 miles of road from Ripley to Middleton on August 30, 1872, one day before the subsidy expiration. It was a grand and gala day for thousands of persons in Ripley when the first train came puffing into the station grounds. The little train carried both passengers and freight and was reported to be the first of its kind in America. The cost had been $12,000 per mile. Colonel Falkner shed tears of joy when his friends congratulated him on his success as a railroad builder. This line was the first narrow gauge railroad built south of Ohio.
Apparently in the southern end of the state, prior to the completion of the road to Ripley, Congress had voted federal lands to a company know as the Gulf and Ship Island Railroad (GS&I). The road was planned to run from Ship Island, Mississippi to or near Jackson, Tennessee through the east central part of the state. Although the road was not built, Col. Falkner became interested in extending his railroad southward to the Gulf and northward to the Great Lakes. His partner Thurmond was not interested. Falkner gained ownership. On March 16, 1872, the name of the Ripley Railroad Company changed to the Ship Island, Ripley and Kentucky Railroad Company.
The GS&I was rechartered in 1882 and work began in 1884 toward a junction point near the middle of the state. The plan caused the construction of about 38 miles of additional narrow-gauge line from Ripley to New Albany then to Pontotoc, Mississippi during the years 1886-88. The northern part owned by G&SI was operated in conjunction with Colonel Falkner’s line which he changed to Gulf and Ship Island Railroad in 1886.
The railroad continued to grow as construction continued toward New Albany. Falkner was conniving in his dealings to locate the railroad and raise funds. At the same time The Kansas City, Memphis and Birmingham Railroad was constructing a line from Memphis to Birmingham. Colonel Falkner endeavored to get the narrow-gauge built to New Albany first, but he failed. Losing the ‘race to the crossing’ meant that he had to maintain the crossing and successor companies have since. Falkner’s Gulf and Ship Island line was completed into New Albany in August 1887.
The line was completed through Ecru and into Pontotoc in 1888. There was great celebration on July 4th in each community as the first excursion train consisting of nine cars drawn by two locomotives came rushing to the depots amid the blowing of whistles, and the playing of a brass band. Effie Dean Falkner, daughter of Col. W.C. Falkner drove the ‘silver spike’ in honor of the completion of the railroad to Pontotoc. Thousands came to witness the event.
With many political scandals and troubles associated with the road, a second collapse of the Gulf and Ship Island took place. At a foreclosure sale on August 1, 1889, Colonel Falkner bought the 38 miles of the G&SI line from Pontotoc to Ripley. Falkner’s own Ship Island, Ripley and Kentucky had also had difficulties and was sold by the courts. He managed to out maneuver his former partner R.J. Thurmond and purchased the company at foreclosure on July 23, 1889. Having both companies under his personal control he was ready to reorganize to operate the entire 62 miles of line. However fate prevented such when he was shot by Thurmond on November 6, 1889 after winning a seat in the Mississippi legislature. The line was left to his son, J.W.T. Falkner to complete the consolidation. The line never regained its strength in the northern end of the state, but was later reorganized into Hattiesburg.
At approximately the same time Col. Falkner was constructing railroads in the northern part of the state, a similar interest developed in Mobile, Alabama. Mobile had rail service east and west, but there was no direct line into the longleaf pine forest of Mississippi northwest of Mobile. A proposed road, the Mobile and Northwestern, was to run from Mobile to Hattiesburg then to Jackson and the Mississippi River. This line was later consolidated and became the Mobile, Jackson and Kansas City Railroad Company.
The Falkner properties were sold and eventually combined into the Gulf and Chicago Railroad on February 20, 1890. The new company began making plans for the conversion to standard gauge and to build southward toward the Mobile, Jackson and Kansas City Railroad (MJ&KC). In 1902, as the MJ&KC was expanding north from Mobile to Houston Mississippi, the Gulf & Chicago was sold to the MJ&KC. Widening of the tracks began immediately. For a time north of New Albany there were both narrow gauge and standard gauge rails. In 1904 the sector between New Albany and Pontotoc reopened with standard gauge and construction below Pontotoc was in progress. The line extended near the small town of Algoma, drastically altering the lifestyle of those residents. The town moved to the railroad, creating a virtual land boom. In March 1906 the village of New Houlka was incorporated so citizens could be near the new railroad. On April 16, 1906 the gap on the MJ&KC railroad between Houston and Pontotoc was completed and through trains began to operate between Middleton and Mobile a distance of 369 miles.
When the Gulf & Chicago was sold to the Mobile, Jackson and Kansas City it ceased to be a local railroad. Additional name changes and reorganizations followed. In November 1906 the MJ&KC was thrown into receivership and in 1909 was reorganized under the New Orleans, Mobile & Chicago Railroad. From November 1912 – February 1913, the line had a difficult time due to incessant rain fall, washouts and softening roadbeds. In 1916 the receivership was abolished and the Gulf, Mobile & Northern Railroad Company (GM&N) was organized. In 1919 this road extended to Jackson, Tennessee and within a few years was on a firm financial footing. In 1938 it acquired the Mobile & Ohio Railroad, changing its name to the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio (GM&O). After merging with the Alton Railroad in 1947 connections to Chicago, the Great Lakes, Kansas City and St. Louis were available. Seventy-six years and 2800 miles after Col. W. C Falkner dreamed of connecting a little railroad in northern Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico and the Great Lakes, his dream came true.
On September 21, 2013, over 125 years after reaching New Albany, the Ripley Railroad’s Engine #3, “Tanglefoot” opened a new chapter of history along this storied corridor of former railroads: Gulf and Ship Island; Gulf, Mobile & Northern; Gulf, Mobile & Ohio (GM&O); Illinois Central, numbers of others and lastly Mississippi-Tennessee Railroad.
This 43.6 mile recreational multi-use trail connects six communities and brings to them alternate transportation, health, environmental and economic benefits. Today from New Albany to Houston bikers, runners, walkers, skaters, families, friends and nature enthusiasts can enjoy the woodlands, streams, creeks, fields and hollows along paths once traveled by many before them.