By J. K. Gurner
I have often been asked how much train traffic passed through Water Valley in a day. Because I didn’t know for sure, I would give an example that I felt made the point. Main Street and the railroad ran parallel through town. So if you went anywhere downtown, you would probably have to cross both Main Street and the railroad tracks at some point. You needn’t bother to look both ways crossing Main Street, but you sure better look both ways before crossing the railroad tracks.
In order to be a little more exact, I went back to some of the old records that we salvaged from the depot when it closed in the mid-1950s. Among these records were a number of telegraph register of trains commonly referred to as train sheets. They are a 24-hour record made by the dispatcher of every train that moved in the Mississippi Division, the track that runs between Jackson, Tennessee and Canton, Mississippi.
The train sheet that I looked at was for Friday, Dec. 22, 1893. On that day there were 10 trains leaving Water Valley going south to Canton, and in the same period of time, 11 trains left Canton going north to Water Valley.
Most of those trains went on to points beyond, all traveling on a single-track.
By my calculation that comes to about 21 trains running on a single-track railroad between Jackson, Tennessee and Canton, Mississippi. All of those trains ran on a set time schedule and it was the dispatcher’s job to keep all of the trains on time. I doubt that many days passed that there was not some kind of delay that kept the dispatcher busy putting a train into a side track for another, more important train such as a fast passenger.
After all was said and done, it was the engineer who had to estimate how much time he had to get to the next siding so that the more important train could pass. Those old steam en-gines didn’t have speedometer on them. All the engineer could do was count telephone poles, listen too the sounds, and feel the vibrations to know when he was going fast enough.
It was a dangerous business those single-track railroads, because a miscalculation could lead to disaster. Just in 1900 alone, the year that Casey Jones crashed his train and was killed, over 300 enginemen died on the nation’s railroads.