Long-Time Railroader Recalls First Engine
By J. K. Gurner
The first railroad steam engine built south of the Ohio River was constructed in Water Valley’s Illinois Central Railroad shop in 1879. The passenger-type locomotive was built under the supervision of Master Mechanic Jack White, according to a story in the Illinois Central magazine published in February 1926.
The article was based on an interview with W. J. King, who worked as blacksmith foreman in the shops. King had been working for railroads in Water Valley for 50 years at the time the article appeared. He started in early 1875 with the Mississippi Central and then the Chicago and New Orleans line and continued with the Illinois Central.
Running a steam locomotive was no easy task in 1926, but King said that the running men of that day would have a difficult time believing the hardships that had to be overcome by the crew who ran the old engine.
“They started with a tender full of wood and when it was exhausted it was replaced by having the entire crew looking for wood piled at various intervals along the line,” said King.
The engine was built under fairly primitive conditions at the old shops, which consisted of a crude frame building. When the old shop burned in November of 1891, and was replaced with a modern (for 1926) machine shop facility.
A portion of the old Mississippi Central shops, including the coach and foundry works, were moved by Henry Simpson McComb, president of the New Orleans, Jackson and Great Northern Railroad, a predecessor of the Illinois Central Railroad. McComb had moved the railroad’s maintenance shops away from New Orleans, Louisiana, outside of the attractions of that city’s saloons.
Land was purchased in Pike County and three nearby communities, Elizabeth-town, Burglund, and Har-veytown, agreed to consolidate to form the city of McComb.
King was a dedicated company man and in the article, he said that remarkable changes had been made in engines, tools and machinery. “I have seen the line grow from a tramp road to a mighty trunk line,” King was quoted in the article.
“I am proud to say I have already had 50 years with the company and I hope to keep my health for the next five years and get my reward from them in a pension, which is something every railroad does not give.”
Often we have people come by the museum with connections to Water Valley.
Last Saturday, Curtis and Jewel Askew and relatives Rick and Melinda Walsh of Albuquerque, New Mexico, and Ken Askew of Novato, California visited. Melinda is Curtis Askew’s daughter and Ken, his son.
Askew, 94, lived in Water Valley as a youngster and his father worked for the railroad. His grandfather was a dentist who traveled through the countryside to see his patients.
Askew has led an interesting life. In 1949, as Southern Baptist missionaries, he and his wife boarded a ship with their infant son, Ken, and sailed to Hiroshima, Japan, where they clothed and fed atomic-bomb victims as testimony of their Christian faith. They served in Japan for 25 years, establishing and growing six Japanese churches, including four in Tokyo, that still thrive today.
We believe that Askew Avenue in the northeastern part of the city is named for his grandfather.