By J. K. Gurner
When a banana train passed through Water Valley headed north during the early days of the banana shipping business it was easily recognized. The refrigerated cars were painted bright yellow and had banana written on the side.
The cars had to be refrigerated to keep the bananas fresh and if there was a mechanical problem or the cooling system failed, the car would be placed on a sidetrack. Here in the late 1800s, there was a sidetrack where Railroad Park is now. It ran as far as Wood Street and is where cars were set out for downtown businesses to unload their merchandise.
Many of the old folks tell stories of the railroad company setting out a banana car on this siding, opening the doors and selling stalks of bananas for 25 cents. That funny looking yellow thing was something new. It was good, but after you had eaten a whole stalk, you really didn’t want another banana for a while.
Back about 1905, when Lem Dekle was still in freight service, he was called one day for a freight haul from here to Jackson, Tenn. The head brakeman lined him out of the shop and up the lead track to the north end. Then engineer Dekle – either by accident or on purpose – told the brakeman to couple up to the wrong train. There is some question as to how the confusion was engineered and carried out by the whole crew. But, the end result was that they stole a banana train that stood near their train and lit out for Jackson with it.
An investigation resulted from this breach of instruction and Mr. Dekle spent some months working in Georgia before he was put back to work with the Illinois Central Railroad. He later ran the Panama Limited out of Memphis and retired after a long service. No mention of the lost banana train.
In 1880, the I.C.R.R. shipped 22 carloads of bananas out of New Orleans. In 1881, 331 carloads of bananas were shipped from the New Orleans port. This was the beginning of the most prosperous period in the history of the Illinois Central Railroad Company.
Water Valley was very much involved in this time of prosperity. The shop yard was rebuilt and enlarged and employed eight to nine hundred people. A new large depot was built to house the Mississippi Division headquarters, where about 50 people worked. There was a new train crew added for each banana train that ran through this division. By 1947 the banana traffic had climbed to 52,757 carloads. Times were good in the Valley.
For the old engineers, every trip on a banana train was like a holiday. The dispatcher told him he had the right-of-way over all traffic. He got to run as fast as he could and still stay on the tracks. The fastest time ever made between New Orleans and Chicago during that era was in 1893, 912 miles in thirty-five hours forty minutes, with 40 stops.