There are many people interested in former transportation companies, whether they were trucking companies, railroads, airlines or ocean lines. They are called “fallen flags,” and the term describes those companies whose corporate names have been dissolved through merger, bankruptcy or liquidation.
On this date 81 years ago, the new Gulf, Mobile & Ohio Railroad (GM&O) took control of the Mobile & Ohio Railroad (M&O), which had declared bankruptcy.
This was a key railroad consolidation in the south-central United States. With its acquisition, it was the end of the M&O, which had been founded in 1848. By acquiring the M&O, the GM&O took possession of a network of nearly 2,000 miles of M&O track that connected St. Louis with the key port cities of Mobile and New Orleans.
The Gulf, Mobile & Ohio – the sum was greater than the parts
The Gulf, Mobile & Ohio was made up of three former railroads – the Gulf, Mobile & Northern (GM&N), the Mobile & Ohio (M&O) and the Alton Railroad.
The GM&N’s history began when the Mobile, Jackson & Kansas City Railroad (MJ&KC) was organized in 1890. It was established to construct a line from Mobile, Alabama to Jackson, Tennessee as a direct competitor to the nearby Mobile & Ohio. The first 49-mile segment from Mobile to Merrill, Mississippi followed along the banks of the Pascagoula River. Construction began in 1896 and that section was opened by 1898.
The MJ&KC acquired the narrow-gauge (3 feet between the tracks) Kingston & Central Mississippi Railway on June 30, 1902. The MJ&KC converted its acquisition to standard-gauge (4 feet, 8.5 inches between tracks) in 1904.
The northern end of the railroad began as the narrow-gauge Ripley Railroad, chartered on May 12, 1871. The Ripley opened its first 24-mile segment between Middleton, Tennessee and Ripley, Mississippi on August 30, 1872. The goal of the railroad’s owners was to build the line to the Gulf Coast.
It managed to build another 37 miles of narrow-gauge track between Ripley and Pontotoc; that section opened in June 1887. However, the railroad failed, and was renamed the Gulf & Chicago Railroad (G&C) on February 20, 1890. The Gulf & Chicago was subsequently leased to the MJ&KC on July 1, 1903.
By June 27, 1905, the MJ&KC had rebuilt the narrow-gauge line to a standard-gauge rail line. Under G&C’s charter, service began from Mobile to Middleton on May 1, 1906.
That was followed by the merger of the G&C and MJ&KC on December 1, 1909. The name of the new railroad was the New Orleans, Mobile & Chicago. Unfortunately, the new railroad failed in 1913. It was reorganized on January 1, 1917 as the Gulf, Mobile & Northern Railroad. The GM&N began an extension to Jackson, Tennessee, which was finished that year.
During the 1920s the GM&N grew and sought further northern and southern cities to serve. In the north, its link to Jackson gave it an outlet for freight moving on the Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis. An extension was built to Dyersburg, Tennessee; it opened just prior to the Great Depression. The extension gave the GM&N a connection with the Illinois Central and Louisville & Nashville railroads.
To the south the GM&N acquired the Meridian & Memphis Railway, which ran between Union and Meridian, Mississippi. In 1926 it also acquired the Jackson & Eastern Railway; it finished the line from Union to Jackson, Mississippi in 1927. Lastly, it gained control of the New Orleans Great Northern Railroad in 1929. This was the GM&N’s final expansion before the Great Depression.
The Mobile & Ohio was originally chartered in early 1848 to build northward from Mobile. In the 1850s the company laid broad-gauge track (5 feet between the tracks) from Mobile through Mississippi and the rail line was completed to Columbus, Kentucky (along the Mississippi River) on April 22, 1861. This was 10 days after the American Civil War began.
Nearly 20 years after the war ended, the M&O completed an extension to Cairo, Illinois. At Cairo the M&O could interchange with the Illinois Central. (To read FreightWaves Classics articles about the Illinois Central, click here for Part 1 and here for Part 2.)
Before the end of the 1880s, the M&O had direct entry into St. Louis via the Cairo & St. Louis Railroad (C&StL). This railroad had been chartered on February 16, 1865 and was built as a narrow-gauge line.
The goal of the C&StL organizers was to move coal from mines near Murphysboro, Illinois, as well as agricultural goods. Construction on the railroad’s line started on September 1, 1871; the 90 miles of track from East St. Louis to Murphysboro was completed on July 1, 1873.
However, the northern extension from Cairo was much more difficult because of the rugged terrain. Construction began on October 14, 1874; a tunnel at Kaolin and a bridge spanning the Big Muddy River were required on this section.
The C&StL line from Cairo to Murphysboro was finished on February 19, 1875; the entire route to East St. Louis was opened on March 1. However, the railroad had difficulties with its road bed and infrastructure during its early years, causing the railroad to go into receivership in late 1877.
The railroad was reorganized as the St. Louis & Cairo Railroad (StL&C) on July 14, 1881. Segments of the railroad’s right-of-way (including the tunnel) were rebuilt to improve operations. The StL&C then sought direct entry into East St. Louis via East Carondelet.
Although it successfully completed this short extension in 1883, it remained a narrow-gauge operation. The M&O sought its own line to St. Louis, but started by leasing the C&StL on February 1, 1886.
Most railroads that were not already standard gauge were converting to that gauge. The M&O converted its property in 1885. After acquiring the C&StL, the M&O converted that railroad’s track, finishing on November 15, 1886.
The last major extension of the M&O occurred in 1898. It opened a rail line from Artesia, Mississippi along its Mobile main line to Montgomery, Alabama via Tuscaloosa.
Three years later, Southern Railway acquired the Mobile & Ohio, and owned the railroad for the next 30 years.
The Alton Railroad
The Alton Railroad began when the Alton & Sangamon Railroad was chartered on February 27, 1847. The railroad was to build a rail line from Alton (located just north of St. Louis) to Springfield, the Illinois capital. That rail line was built and ready for service in 1852. On June 15, 1852 the railroad’s owners renamed it the Chicago & Mississippi, and planned a direct route between those locations.
It completed its rail line to Joliet, just outside of Chicago, in 1855. It acquired rights to the Rock Island Railroad’s track for about a year until the Joliet & Chicago (which was chartered in 1855) opened in 1856.
In 1857 the various lines were renamed the St. Louis, Alton & Chicago (StLA&C). Direct entry into St. Louis was accomplished via the Alton & St. Louis. That railroad was chartered on February 4, 1859; it finished its rail line between East St. Louis and Alton in 1865.
The Chicago & Alton Railroad (C&A) was created on February 18, 1861; it acquired the assets of the StLA&C. Its St. Louis to Chicago route was the C&A’s eastern segment; its western route to Kansas City was leased during the 1870s. It leased the Louisiana & Missouri River Railroad in 1870 and leased the Kansas City, St. Louis & Chicago in 1878.
The two leased railroads helped the C&A complete a direct link from Kansas City to St. Louis. Although it now served three of the Midwest’s largest cities, the C&A struggled and was purchased over the years by various railroads including the Nickel Plate Line, the Union Pacific, the Rock Island and finally the Baltimore & Ohio (B&O).
In 1929 the B&O acquired the bankrupt C&A, which it renamed the Alton Railroad. The B&O purchased the Alton as a link in a corridor it sought to create that would connect Baltimore with Kansas City. However, the Great Depression and the B&O’s subsequent financial difficulties resulted in the company abandoning the idea. In 1942, the B&O allowed the Alton to slip into bankruptcy. The line was acquired and merged into the GM&O on May 31, 1947.
Isaac “Ike” Tigrett is regarded by railroad historians as the man most responsible for the GM&O. He was named interim president of the GM&N after World War I at the age of just 26.
During his tenure, he led the acquisition of the Birmingham & Northwestern Railway, as well as a short line in Tennessee.
Then under Tigrett, the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio was chartered in 1938 and acquired the assets of the GM&N and M&O on September 13, 1940.
So the GM&O was a combination of the Mobile & Ohio and the Gulf, Mobile and Northern. Despite only having about 3,000 route miles, the GM&O competed with the larger Illinois Central (nearly 5,000 route miles) for business on the busy Chicago-New Orleans route.
The GM&O did not have many branch lines; it operated a largely end-to-end system that connected Chicago, Kansas City and Mobile. However, it did have extensions to New Orleans, Memphis and Montgomery. Its GM&N and M&O predecessors also meant that the GM&O had a network with two main lines running between Mobile and Jackson, Tennessee.
While it was not as large or powerful as the Illinois Central, the new GM&O was a much more efficient railroad. During World War II most railroads’ freight and passenger traffic was at record levels. That was true for the GM&O, which used the extra revenue to consolidate and improve its systems, and after the war sought an extension into Chicago.
However, after World War II there was little new railroad construction. In fact, the first abandonments began (although not on the scale witnessed in the 1970s and 1980s). Tigrett and his managers understood that construction of a nearly 300-mile new route from St. Louis to Chicago was not an option; they knew the GM&O’s path required the purchase, lease or control of another railroad.
Under Tigrett (who was the GM&O’s president until 1952), the GM&O acquired the Alton Railroad. The GM&O had its route to Chicago – and Kansas City as well.
The newly consolidated railroad became a major force in the railroad industry within just a few years. The GM&O became an even more formidable competitor to the Illinois Central once it had direct access to Chicago. The railroad handled a variety of freight including unit coal trains, Southeastern lumber products, Gulf Coast chemicals and general merchandise that moved between major cities and interchange points.
The GM&O’s largest terminals were located in Chicago and Venice, Illinois, as well as New Orleans, Montgomery, Kansas City, St. Louis, Meridian, Bloomington, Jackson and Mobile.
By the late 1960s, however, the GM&O was in financial difficulty (as were many other railroads). Created from three other railroads, it survived for less than three decades as an independent railroad.
With its financial problems mounting, the GM&O merged with its major rival, the Illinois Central. The Illinois Central Gulf Railroad (ICG) was launched on August 10, 1972.
The Illinois Gulf Central
Unfortunately, the merger of the GM&O and the Illinois Central was similar to the disastrous merger of the Pennsylvania Railroad and the Central of New York (which created the Penn Central). In both cases the two railroads largely paralleled one another and had been fierce competitors.
In the case of the ICG, the merger has often been questioned by analysts and historians because of the duplicate properties and routes with primarily north/south service areas. As noted in the previous FreightWaves Classics articles about the Illinois Central, the ICG spent much of the early 1980s shedding thousands of miles of track. By the end of the decade it had just 2,800 route miles. Then, on February 29, 1988, Illinois Central Gulf jettisoned the “Gulf” and its corporate name reverted to Illinois Central.
The Illinois Central’s end came 10 years later, when it was acquired by Canadian National Railway in 1998.
The GM&O’s legacy
While the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio Railroad no longer exists, its legacies are the busy Chicago-St. Louis and St. Louis-Kansas City main lines operated by Canadian National. Other remnants of its system are operated by short line railroads.
The GM&O was one of the first large U.S. railroads to replace all of its steam locomotives with diesels. The GM&O and its predecessors hold many “firsts” in the railroad industry; but from a historical perspective, all are tied to the Chicago & Alton Railroad:
- The Delmonico, manufactured by Pullman, is regarded as the first dining car; it went into service on the C&A in 1868.
- The first Pullman sleeper was built in the C&A’s Bloomington shops.
- One of the very first steel bridges was built by the C&A across the Missouri River at Glasgow, Missouri.
- The C&A was one of the first railroads to use reclining chairs in its passenger trains.
Author’s note: This article would not have been possible without the resources made available by Adam Burns of American-Rails.com. Those interested in learning more about the railroads operating now in North America – and those that are now “fallen flags” – should explore the American-Rails site.