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Lauderdale County History

 

The Great Meridian Cyclone of 1906

A Lauderdale County Web Exclusive
by Bill White

 Part One:  Meridian As It Was

T

he train began to slow as it turned the final curve before pulling slowly into Sowashee Station.  The sun had passed its zenith and the time was early afternoon on March 30, 1862, as a young Confederate soldier arrived in Meridian, Mississippi.  He had just completed his first train ride and, on a day replete with firsts, anticipated his first glimpse of the City of Meridian.

However, as the passenger car rolled to a stop, he was not impressed; actually he was downright irritated.  “I expected to find a ‘town’ at Meridian, but was sadly disappointed,” he wrote in his journal.  “In fact,” he said, “there is not a fine building in the place, no stores and no streets.”  Unfortunately, it was all true; such was the Meridian of the mid-nineteenth century.  The fledgling town had been incorporated only two years earlier, and she had not yet begun to spread her wings.  Nonetheless, thriving on the sustenance provided by the railroads, the community would survive and prosper during the next 44 years until in 1906 she was upon the verge of her Golden Age, poised to become truly the Queen City of Mississippi.

Had Private William Pitt Chambers looked away from the town, to his right instead of left, he would have had, perhaps, a more pleasant view.  The day was warm, caressing the land as a mild presence. Nature's grace rested gently upon the meadow. Far above the fields, a Mississippi Kite soared, casting a wary eye upon the land for the small mammals and reptiles that would provide the evening meal for her young.  In the valley the call of an Eastern Towhee could be heard in the distance as the Mourning Doves waddled, bobbed and cooed along the ground.  The Blue Jays lined up and swooped in one by one upon the wild blackberry brambles growing in prodigious quantity along the Sowashee banks scattering the Carolina Chickadees and Tufted Titmice.  A thrasher coolly wandered among the forest mast overturning leaves with his beak and retrieving tasty morsels.  In background, along with the undulations of the creek and the susurrations of the wind was the lilting melody of a mockingbird singing in his own unique voice.

To the south the terrain sloped away into the Sowashee Creek Valley, and then quickly rose again before reaching the slopes of the great sand hills that formed a high ridgeline overlooking the village.  The valley was covered with wildflowers and shrubs, many already in bloom.  The gently sloping soil was covered in shades of yellow with the Coreopsis holding court among the Buttercups and the hoards of Black-Eyed Susans were seen in profile, their single black eye facing toward the scintillant sun, which in its own yellow splendor complemented the field.  Sprinkled all around, rubescent Cardinal Flowers and, closer to the creek bank, virginal Queen Anne's lace reached for the heavens.

There were larger plants, as well.  Azaleas and Hydrangeas put in their appearances, while sedate Mountain Laurel cozied up to the southern bank of the creek and marched, in diminishing numbers, toward the hills.  Where the meadow moved through copses of trees, here and there was the majestic Oak, Red Maple, Sweet Gum and, nesting close around the creek, a few Birch, but among them all, the ubiquitous pine.  Here on the northern edge of the costal plane, the Longleaf Pine was still king and as the valley gave way to the hills, the king asserted himself and became more dense as if, in nature, it was his role alone to cloak the hills in verdant, evergreen velvet.

Here and there along the countryside and in the town were scattered huge, elegant Magnolia trees, some nearly 100 feet tall, that would, in a few weeks, flower in a fragrant and striking blossom.  The Southern Magnolia had populated this valley for time immemorial.  They had thrived here before the town and its inhabitants, before the Native American Choctaws that had lived here for thousands of years.  For seventy million years these trees had graced the countryside and would continue to do so for eons yet to come.  Chambers would also comment on the beauty of the land, but only several days later when he had taken the time to climb the slopes of the sand hills and with an eagle’s eye view of the valley below, at last, appreciate its true beauty.

Chambers would visit Meridian at least twice more in the next three years but after that he would return to his own cherished home and whether he visited again or not, remains unknown.  Had he returned to the village, by then a growing town, in the 1870s, he would have witnessed a city torn apart amid racial strife, Ku Klux Klan vigilantism and the wrack and ruin of fire.  In the 1880s he would have seen more fire and destruction brought about by the great recession of 1883 as business owners attempted to defraud insurance companies by burning their own buildings and stocks.  But, by the gay nineties, Meridian had suffered her travails and deprivations, and, as the country entered a period of economic expansion, so did the Queen.

By 1906 Meridian had undergone vast and sweeping changes in nearly every aspect of her growth.  Now there were good roads, especially the city streets.  Even the worst of the roads were no longer the muddy, rutted and tracked pathways wending their way carelessly through the town, that were seen by William. Pitt Chambers in 1862, but fine sand-clay streets that crowned at the center to allow the sometimes heavy rains to run into the city’s sewers and storm water runoff systems.  In 1898 city engineer Waldo G. Myers had supervised the surfacing of portions of Hale Avenue with bricks.  The bricks laid in a running bond configuration, were placed on a two inch sand base above a cement underlayment.  The small space remaining between the bricks was filled with sand to prevent them from shifting; they had proven to be sturdy and stable.  The city was rapidly expanding this demonstrably excellent road surface, and it already included many of the city’s main thoroughfares as well.

Meridian's Fifth Street looking west about the turn of the century.  One block down on the right of the drawing is the Marks Rothenberg Building (white, 5 stories.)

Not only were the streets much improved but also there were fine brick and stone buildings.  The construction of these new structures included comfortably wide sidewalks with high curbs that lined the streets as far as the eye could see.  Nevertheless, there were many temporary frame buildings near the tracks where expansion was continuing.  Adjacent to First and Second Streets where the many railroad lines serving the city deposited their freight, there was an ever increasing need for warehousing space.

Shortly before the turn of the century, streetcars had come to Meridian and now the Meridian Light and Power Company maintained several miles of trolley car tracks within the city visiting destinations in the west, north and near eastern parts of the city regularly.

Meridian was the largest city in the state, measured not only in population which was estimated to be 20,500, but in manufacturing and commerce as well.  She was one of the most important transportation centers in the south.  In her own right she was a major manufacturing center with lumber mills, producing lumber from the vast piney woods nearby, fertilizer plants, cotton-seed oil mills, cotton mills, cotton compresses and railroad foundries and shops.  The rich soil of the surrounding counties produced cotton as well as vegetables which were used locally and shipped all over the country.

The city’s gaslight era had its day and was on the way out.  Gas was quickly being replaced by the electricity that had powered the city streetcars for the former Meridian Street Railway and Power Company when it had been incorporated in 1883.

The physical size of the town had grown as well.  Although limited by a state law that set the size of the city at an arbitrary one mile radius from the center of town, the city had become a complex network of streets and avenues.  At the turn of the century, the city limits were bounded on the north by Twenty-Sixth Street; on the west by Fortieth Avenue; on the southeast by E Street; on the southwest by the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad shops; and on the east by Tenth Avenue.  Later this same year the state law restricting her growth would fall before the Mississippi Supreme Court and Meridian would once again begin to grow.

In the early days, Meridian had turned her face toward the hills of the south and the all important railroads that provided her lifeblood.  Travelers arriving in Meridian at one of the several passenger stations scattered along the tracks across town would have their first glimpse of the city from the windows of the passenger cars and, as if offering a welcoming smile, like many sleepy southern towns, Meridian storefronts faced the tracks, their large, shiny glass windows sparkling in the sun, the freshly painted store fronts gleaming.  However, as she grew in size and population, a new center began to form in the commercial district of town several blocks to the north of the railroad and the city gradually turned her face away from the hills.  The less glamorous enterprises were left to the wholesale district against the tracks.

In 1905, the city fathers and the railroads had agreed that multiple passenger stations were inconvenient to the passengers and a waste of resources to the railroads.  The Meridian Terminal Company was formed from the officers of the various railroads to undertake the task of building a new modern passenger station.  To be called the Union Station, it was to be located a few blocks east of Twenty-Second Avenue on Front Street.  All passenger traffic for the city’s railroads would arrive and depart the city from this terminal building.  Construction had begun in 1905 and was nearing completion early in 1906.

Even though consumers now thronged the commercial districts of the city, along Twenty-Second avenue and Fifth and Sixth streets, the railroad continued to supply the needful things that would sustain the city.  The wholesalers, astute businessmen that they were, were well aware of where their fortunes had originated and from where they would continue to come.  They remained as close as possible to their supply lines, nestled gently against the railroad tracks.

The city streets had been laid out much earlier with fanciful but also meaningful names like Commerce and Sidney Streets, or Hale and Alabama Avenues.  The street names, assigned for their destinations, for important citizens or for other seemingly appropriate reasons, made it difficult for people, unfamiliar with the layout of the streets to move around the city.  Visitors and new arrivals to the city, would experience difficultly locating their destinations without guidance from the local citizens because of the many special names.  As Meridian began to grow and push the original city boundaries outward, the number of streets increased and it became a challenge to direct someone to Garland Street or to Mississippi Avenue.

To solve the problems inadvertently caused by the street names, the city council, always an orderly and civic-minded group took action to resolve the confusion and restore order by renaming the streets along a simple grid system.  The first street north of the railroad became First Street; the second street became Second Street, continuing from south to north within the city limits.  The first street south of the railroad became "A" Street, then "B" Street continuing to the south.  Hale Avenue became Twenty-Second Avenue and the avenues were numbered downward to the east and upward to the west accordingly.  In the end, the center of the wholesale district of the city was located near the intersection of Second Street and Twenty-Second Avenue.

First Street was a short, stub of a street that began immediately north of the railroad tracks at twenty-second avenue and ran westward from that point, along the railroad freight offices and warehouses of the shipping companies for a few blocks, then as abruptly as it had begun, it ended.  Second Street, the next street north of the railroad after First Street, despite the good intentions of Meridian’s fathers, did not remain Second Street for very long.  It soon reverted to its former and original name of Front Street and continued to be called Front without further regard to the wishes of the city’s present government or any subsequent city administration since, regardless of the fact that it no longer “fronted” on anything except itself.  To the citizens who had known this important street for so long, this was enough.

Turn of the century Meridian.  This photo appears to have been taken from the Courthouse with Sixth street to the immediate right, the trolley heads out Eighth street.  The Miazza-Woods building is to the left of the trolley, the old Post Office building to the right at Twenty-Second Avenue and Eighth Street.

South of the railroads, there were a few blocks of the city, then fields and farms running south and southwest into Lauderdale County to the so-called Sand Hill Mountains.   Although the sand hills rising south of the city and sweeping to the west were certainly not mountains, it is not difficult to understand that the local citizens would have been impressed with their size.  The sand hills formed a natural border south of the city.  They are said to be the foothills of the great Appalachian mountain range of the eastern United States, but rising only slightly more than 600 feet above mean sea level, they still towered more than 300 feet above the city.  Even so, they would hardly qualify as mountains.

Nevertheless, when standing in Meridian and looking up at the summit of Mount Barton, one of the higher hills in the chain, towering more than 340 feet above, the flat-landers of the county must have been impressed when noting that the tallest building in town was barely 70 feet.

The city streets were populated with wagons, buggies, carts, and shays.  The closer to the wholesale district one went the greater became the number of horses, mules, or oxen drawing the wagons and the heaver the load.  Toward the east end of town one could see great eight-wheeled wagons with six or eight animals bearing the load.  These huge wagons were laden with timber destined for the area's many mills or piled high with raw cotton headed for the gin or baled cotton headed for the railroad.

The occasional motorcar puttered and sputtered along the street but these were very rare.  The primary mode of transportation was still the horse.  The Meridian Police Department, only a few years old, was mounted just as the Meridian Fire Department, which was still a fledgling association of paid city firemen and volunteer units, used horse-drawn wagons and carts to move their equipment around the city.

One such fire company, "Gen Company Number 5" was located on Twelfth Avenue at the corner of Fifteenth Street.  The company’s president, William S. H. White, affectionately known as “Cap’n Billy,” could rally his company to respond in a matter of minutes to a fire or natural disaster anywhere in his assigned quarter of the city.  In earlier times the company’s response included only a two-wheeled cart bearing the pumping equipment, but by 1906 the unit, like Meridian’s other fire companies, used a sturdy fire wagon.  The duty horses were placed in stalls adjacent to the front of the fire house.  When the alarm was sounded, the team, already wearing the bridles, was released from the stall and was trained to walk to the wagon and back into the harness which was suspended from the ceiling above.  Hooks were quickly snapped and the team was ready to roll out of the fire house.

In 1904 the Cumberland Telephone Company had installed a series of more than 50 call boxes around the city so that all that was necessary to report a fire was for the caller to raise the receiver of the calling phone and he or she was immediately connected to the fire department.  Fire had eaten away at the city too many times in the past and the fire department would tolerate it no longer.  These call boxes were top-of-the-line technology for Meridian.

Water was not transported with the wagon but had to be taken from cisterns scattered around the city.  "Gen Company Number 5" was the latest of five organized fire houses in the city and among the first to respond to incidents in the city’s east end.  They would soon face a challenge that would far surpass anything they had ever seen, a challenge that would press these brave souls far beyond any limits that they had known before.

There were many other organizations meeting in the city.  Several of these were militia companies.  Among them, the Meridian Rifles took their name from the former Company F, of the 46th Mississippi Volunteers Regiment of the Confederate Army, which had worn the moniker the “Meridian Rifles” with pride throughout the Civil War.  The unit had been commanded by Captain Constantine Rea, a famous Lauderdale County newspaper editor of the previous century who would fall in the line of duty towards the end of the war.  The Walthall Guards, a second Meridian infantry company, was also assigned to the city.  Both units met in the Armory at 2105 Fourth Street.  The Meridian Rifles, commanded, at the turn of the century, by Captain Gabe Jacobson, met on Tuesday night each week and the Walthall Guard, commanded by Captain E. M. Martin, met on Thursday night.

These two units were Companies A and D of the Second Infantry Regiment, First Brigade, of the Mississippi National Guard.  The Commander-in-Chief of the Mississippi National Guard was the Governor, the Honorable James K. Vardaman.  The First Brigade Commander was Major General S. R. Keesler.  A distinctive name in Mississippi history, Keesler lived in Greenwood, Mississippi, and was the father of First Lieutenant Samuel R. Keesler, Jr., a World War I flyer who was killed in action.  It is in his honor that Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Mississippi, is named.

In addition to the two companies of infantry, Meridian was also home to the Headquarters Company of the Regiment and Light Battery I of the First Battalion of Artillery.  In the event of insurrection or national disaster, riot or ruin, the Queen would be well defended and protected.

This, then, was the Meridian of the early twentieth century, the city as she was.  She was well organized, prepared to protect her citizens from nearly any catastrophe or attack.  She was safe and comfortable.  But the disaster that was about to come would shake her to the core and Meridian would learn that there were “more things in heaven and earth… than were dreamt of in [her] philosophy.”  Meridian was about to experience a visitation.  Somewhere, far to the southwest, beyond neighboring Jasper County, perhaps as far away as the bayous of Mississippi’s sister state Louisiana, the storm clouds were roiling and the conditions that spawned the Cyclone were forming.

Continue to Part 2:  The Tragedy Begins

 

Page Last Updated:   Thursday, 19 October 2017

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