CLARKSDALE — Instead of letting sleeping dogs lie, the Coahoma County Board of Supervisors had other plans three years ago when the Mississippi Delta Railroad stopped running — they bought the railroad and began the long process of rehabbing and renovating the 60 miles of track of the short-line railroad.
Then, a little more than a year after the board took title of the railroad, they began taking proposals from short-line operators. A dozen to 15 proposals were received from short-line operators all over the country and the board finally settled on C&J out of Jeffersonville, Ind. The company will soon begin its second year of a 15-year lease agreement.
Ron Hudson, executive director of the Clarksdale-Coahoma County Chamber of Commerce, said the short-line rail service in Coahoma and Tallahatchie counties is vital to the area.
“We feel that with I-69 coming through the area in the not too distant future it will be important to keep that rail service,” Hudson said.
The county obtained a $1 million rail loan from the Mississippi Development Authority (MDA), a $250,000 development infrastructure grant from MDA, a $250,000 rail loan from the Mississippi Department of Transportation, a $1.5 million Federal Economic Development Administration grant, a $250,000 rural development grant and a $300,000 low interest rural development loan for help with renovation and rehabilitation of the lines. The ongoing project is about $3 million. The line runs from Swan Lake to Jonestown, Miss.
“I think the county, the Board of Supervisors and (Coahoma) county administrator Hugh Jack Stubbs need to be commended for having the foresight to take over the railroad business in Coahoma County,” said Scott Middleton, general manager of Delta Oil Mill in Jonestown. Delta Oil Mill, one of the largest customers of the Mississippi Delta Railroad, purchased 10 miles of track from Jonestown to Lula in 1983 and owned it until they donated it to the county about three years ago.
Other railroad customers include Clarksdale businesses Delta Wire, Cooper Tire, Graeber Bros. and KBH, and in Webb, Due West Grain.
“I would imagine that there are several communities throughout rural Mississippi and rural America that look back and wish they had been more proactive in trying to keep their rail services,” Middleton said.
Coahoma County purchased another 20 miles of the short-line track for $720,000 from Canadian National. The last 30 miles of track which covers territory south from Clarksdale to the Swan Lake community was donated by Canadian National to the county.
The process of repairing the tracks has been a long one, and the second phase of the project still has not begun. When the first phase of the project, which includes adding new spurs and repairing old ones, is finished, the county will have the task of upgrading the track to the next level of operation, which will address crossings and other safety issues.
Reggie Howell, general manager of C&J Railroad, said the improvements made to the railroad by the county have been nothing short of amazing.
“The railroad tracks were barely passable when we began operations on July 1, 2001,” Howell said. “The work on the south half of the railroad up to Clarksdale is complete. Work north of Clarksdale to Jonestown is now underway.”
Howell said the Mississippi Delta Railroad is important to the communities of Coahoma and Tallahatchie counties for several reasons, but the main reason is the alternative form of transportation it provides to businesses and industries, which is helpful when economic development officials are recruiting new business and industry.
“Rail service is always high on the list of pluses that a new business looks for in a prospective community,” Howell said. “The Mississippi Delta Railroad traverses two counties. Both counties can expect to see future industrial development along the railroad.”
As a result of the railroad’s continued use, Howell expects to see strong economic growth in Tallahatchie and Coahoma counties, and, he added, “We plan to be there to assist in making that growth happen. It is our desire to see long-term, high-paying jobs come to these counties and we want to help make it happen.”
During the past 12 months, 900 railcar loads of freight, including both agricultural and industrial products, moved over the Mississippi Delta Railroad. This is equal to about 2,700 semi trailer truckloads. C&J expects to move 1,200 carloads during the next 12 months.
Stubbs hopes the county’s investment in effort and time will pay off.
“In the long term it will be a good economic benefit to the area here,” Stubbs said. “But it’s just like everything else. You have to try.”
At least one benefit can already be found, however, and that is with Delta Oil Mill.
“There were some discussions in the direction of us leaving,” Middleton said.
Before C&J began providing rail services over the 60 miles of track now owned by Coahoma County, Delta Oil Mill did not have rail service and had not for two years. Customers in Clarksdale had continuous rail service but the former rail operator of the Mississippi Delta Railroad had discontinued serving Delta Oil Mill, which meant that Delta Oil Mill was shipping its products by truck to Crenshaw and from there products were shipped out via rail. Through it all, Delta Oil Mill has stuck it out.
“We never took the idea of leaving Jonestown very far, but anytime there’s a change in operation you’re forced to look at all the possible alternatives and certainly that was one that was looked at,” Middleton said.
But, Middleton admitted,” We like it here and want to stay here. Having rail service helps that happen.”
Contact MBJ staff writer Elizabeth Kirkland at email@example.com or (601) 364-1042.