I’ve Been Working On the Railroad

Ira Bell grew up in Stewart of Houston Co., the son of K. I. and Eura Martin Bell. He served in W.W. II, and worked for L & N Railroad for 41 years, retiring in 1985. Prior to this, his father had worked for the railroad for 43 years, retiring in 1956. The following speech was given at the Erin Railroad Park in Erin, Houston County, TN, on September 1994. He is now deceased.

“Mayor Finley, Erin County Officials, Houston County Officials, other Municipal Officials, Fellow Houston Countians, and Visitors, I consider it a great honor to have been asked by Mayor Finley to say a few words about something that is very close to me and my family: The L&N Railroad as it has affected Erin and the rest of Houston County, and also some of the history of the area where today this great park is being dedicated.

From the time of the State of Franklin (1784-1788) in East Tennessee with John Sevier as Governor, until the early 1840’s a very few people had moved to this area. Tennessee was admitted to the union in 1796, and by 1799 one family lived near what is now Stewart. A few others later moved into various areas mostly around what are now Arlington and Erin. Because of this slow growth, in 1842 the government passed the ‘Tennessee Settlement Act.’ This act gave land grants to people who would move to this area. It also gave charter right-of-ways to railroads that used the right of ‘Eminent Domain’ to build railroads across the country. The right of Eminent Domain allowed for the condemnation of property that was then purchased for operation of the railroad.

The railroad that received the charter right-of-way through this area was the Memphis, Clarksville, and Louisville Railroad whose charter was given to them by then Governor Andrew Jackson in 1852. This railroad ran from Paris, Tennessee to Guthrie, Kentucky. At Paris it was to connect to a railroad chartered also in 1852, known as the Memphis and Nashville Railroad. This railroad was later renamed the Memphis and Ohio Railroad. At Guthrie it was to connect to the Bowling Green and Tennessee Railroad that was being built by the Louisville and Nashville Railroad Company. The Tennessee River Bridge at Danville was the last link completed on these three Railroad lines on April 10, 1861, with trains operating through here from Memphis and Louisville on the same date.

My great grandfather, Lemuel Allsbrooks Bell, was given a land grant at Stewart in 1854, which was traversed from east to west through the center by the railroad’s charter right-of-way. The grant was signed by Governor Andrew Johnson, later vice-president under Abraham Lincoln, and then President when Lincoln was assassinated. Some of the property is still subject to this land grant. He cut cross ties on his property for the railroad. My grandfather, Lemuel Bell, is listed in Goodspeed’s history (History of Tennessee, Montgomery, Robertson, Humphreys, Stewart, Dickson, Cheatham and Houston Counties; Goodspeed Publishing Co., 1886, Nashville, p. 990) as one of the men in this area who were killed by a band of Guerrillas (outlaws).

During the Civil War the railroad through this area occupied a very unique position in that it was in three areas: West or South end, sympathetic to the South; middle section, like this area which was mixed; and East or North which was sympathetic to the North. After the fall of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson, the North no longer needed the railroad for transportation. This area especially fell into disrepair. The L&N finished the Civil War in good shape and in good financial condition, but the MC&L, through here, and M&O to Memphis were in bad shape, both structurally and financially. The L&N aided both, and later purchased and restored them in 1872. They were operated from that date forward as L&N until 1982, when it became the Seaboard System. The Seaboard System operated the line until 1985. The track was taken up in 1986.

We need to remember that Houston County did not exist when the railroad was first built through here. This area was of course part of Stewart County until January 1871, when parts of Stewart, Dickson, and Humphreys Counties were taken to form Houston County. In fact on November 1, 1803, the General Assembly passed an Act which formed Stewart County from Montgomery County. This new county reached south to Alabama and Mississippi, and west to the Mississippi River.

During the construction of the railroad through Erin, construction was also in progress on the railroad through McEwen and Waverly. The Erin and the McEwen-Waverly crews were both Irish immigrants. The difference was, at Erin and in this area they were of the Protestant faith, and those in McEwen and Waverly were of the Catholic faith. This being evidenced by the absence of Catholic churches, until recently in this area, and their long time presence over there (in McEwen and Waverly).

William Jefferson Bell, the son of Lemuel Allsbrooks Bell, was my grandfather. My father was K. I. Bell, the descendant of one of those early Irish immigrants who came to Stewart County two years after Tennessee became a state to construct the railroad that I also served for 41 years.

It is rumored that they liked to meet at points between here and McEwen or Waverly on weekends, compare work, drink, and fight. On one such trip after a good ‘Ruckus’ one was taken with the similarity of this area and Ireland, and was reported to have said, ‘Erin go Braugh,’ (Ireland forever). After that, Hollister’s Field, as it was known then, was called Erin.

After Houston County was formed an election was held to choose a county seat. A number of places were entered. Hollister’s Field (now Erin), McMillin Farm (now Arlington), and others. No one received a majority, but Hollister’s Field and McMillin Farm received the most. They were placed in an election together and McMillin Farm won.

There were numerous complaints from the west end of the county about Arlington being the county seat. This was due to the difficulty in reaching it from that area of the county. It also seemed the railroad refused to recognize Arlington as a station because of the grade at Arlington. Going east it was impossible, with the hand brakes, to stop the train, and if they stopped going west they couldn’t get started going up the grade. Of course, the people of Erin were not slow to take advantage of this fact, and were very persistent in asking for another election. An election was ordered in 1878 and Erin won. At this time the railroad station was near the overhead bridge east of here to let trains get a run at Tennessee Ridge Hill.

In the beginning about all the trains were passenger, mail, and package trains with two or three cars loaded with general merchandise.

This area was rich in natural resources especially wood products and limestone. Also trains were hauling coal from Guthrie and Russellville, Kentucky to points beyond Memphis which made it necessary to reduce the trains (cut the trains in shorter segments) at both Erin and Stewart to get over Tennessee Ridge Hill. It became necessary to operate solid freight trains over Tennessee Ridge in two runs. They started putting two engines on the trains and found two engines could pull to Erin or Stewart the number of cars that would require three engines to pull it to the top of the hill. They then used a Hill Helper, Pusher, or Goat (it had many names), at Erin to do nothing but push trains to Tennessee Ridge from both Erin and Stewart.

This required a turntable at Erin so they could turn the engine around to be headed in the right direction. A coaling station and water tanks were installed as well as a new depot built just west of this location (Railroad Park in Erin).

I can remember a lot of Erin people who worked on this Hill Crew at one time or another as it required nine men to man the daily three-shift Helper Engine. Engineers, Miller and Satterwhite; Fireman, Gier; Conductors, Hagler, Freeman Cherry, Cecil Price; and many others from other L&N locations–especially Paris, Tennessee. There were many Houston Countians who worked in the depot at Erin. I remember D. M. Davis, Shemwell, Walker Neighbors, Virgil Bell, and of course Dad.

The Hill Engine was very busy, as there were a number of extra coal trains operated daily-also through freights and 10 passenger trains. Up until 1930 there was an average of 24 trains per day through Erin, but this number fell way off during the depression years 1930 through 1940. Then during World War II it picked back up so that tonnage was greater than ever. This included six passenger trains per day–all loaded, six fast freights per day, and about 10 extra trains per day. There was an average of 22 daily trains. The larger, more powerful locomotives permitted them to handle more cars.

While this route is 43 miles closer to Memphis than through Nashville, Tennessee Ridge Hill was instrumental in the decision being made to run the trains through Nashville. Several other reasons influenced this decision including the advent of the diesel-electric locomotive, and the cost of fuel–it only required three locomotives to take a train through Nashville that would require five down this way (through Erin). Another reason was the wooden bridges at the Red River and the Cumberland River in Clarksville, Tennessee. Also originating business, such as limestone, coal and other commodities fell to where a local train operated on a two or three times per week schedule became too costly to maintain.

Again I want to express my thanks to all for the honor and privilege of telling you about a railroad which the Bell family spent over 200 cumulative years working, and the effect that company had on Erin and the surrounding area.

I feel it is a great tribute to that company that the City of Erin has used this old railroad property to make a city park with a railroad theme for use by all its citizens. And a special thanks to former mayor, Betsy Ligon, for whom the park is named, for her effort and foresight to get it started and nudge it along the way.”


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