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Railroad Shops Provided Jobs For Water Valley

By Charles Cooper

Hello everyone, I hope you’re having a good week. People have wondered why there were nearly a thousand men working in the railroad shops in their heyday? The machine shops as well as the carpenter shops were all located in the 20-acre block north of Wood street. The carpenter shop built the box cars from the wheels up.

An apprentice might start by carrying timbers and lumber to the carpenters, who were actually building the cars. As time went on and he gained some seniority, he would graduate to a carpenter’s helper. Depending on his ability, he might eventually become a full-fledged carpenter. The machine shops worked on the engines, brakes and running gear.

Many of these men came from Norway and Sweden and were skilled mechanics in their home country.  A steam locomotive required a lot of regular maintenance. The flues would begin leaking, the drivers would develop flat spots as they would contact the rails while hot, and sometimes the boilers would develop leaks.  

When an engineer would complete his run he would indicate on his report any problem areas. When any trouble was indicated, the engine was pulled out of service for a “shopping.”  When the servicing was completed the tender was filled with coal and a hostler would start the fire in the firebox and move the engine to an assigned space to wait for its next run. Sometimes an engineer would take it for a short trial run.  

In the early days an engineer bid on assignments on engines operating in a specified district, rather than on a particular run as it was in later years. He stayed with the engine wherever it went.  In addition to the shop force, the Master Mechanic’s office operated in a separate office and usually employed about 20 men.      

They were responsible for the payroll records and since there were no taxes, and they were paid twice monthly in cash – it was a relatively simple operation. The Water Valley division office was on the second floor of the depot, which was on the spot now occupied by the Casey Jones Museum. The division superintendent and the trainmaster operated out of this office.  

At its peak in the early 20th century, a train was either arriving or leaving on an almost hourly basis. Everything in those days was built around the railroad, for example Main Street followed the track through town. In those days if you worked for the railroad in any capacity, it was considered a plum job. Grocery stores were glad to extend credit to be settled twice monthly.  

Even with a population of nearly 10,000, Water Valley had one Marshal, Gene Rogers, who handled the job night and day with no deputy. He had the reputation of always keeping order. The Dow and Block boarding houses were located by the tracks to accommodate railroad men and traveling salesmen, called “drummers.” Livery stables were also located nearby. James Knox Baddley’s grandfather, Ed Baddley, operated one for several years and O. T. Tarver another.

The Block boarding house had an interesting history. Mr. Block sent his family out of town during the yellow fever epidemic of 1878 and was one of its victims. Mrs. Block and her children returned and the railroad asked Mrs. Block to remain and keep the hotel open. One of her daughters, Minnie, was married in the parlor to Earl Brewer, a local attorney. He was later district attorney and successful prosecuted the murderer, Ed Gammons. In 1915 Brewer was elected Governor of Mississippi.  

One of the first funerals I went on with Newman-Gardner was Ed Block, who lived on Wood Street. One of the last of the old railroad hotels was the Oak Hall, which was across the railroad from the depot and burned in the early 1930s.  As the late Walter Cronkite would say, “and that’s the way it was long ago.”  

Any input any of you can offer about this or any other subject will be greatly appreciated.  My email address is or write me at P.O. Box 613189 Memphis, Tn 38101 and have a great week.

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