Edward Ward King, known later as the “King of Transportation,” was born in 1896 in Surgoinsville, Tennessee, the third of five sons born to Methodist minister John Rutledge King and his wife Margaret Collup King.
King grew up on the campus of Emory & Henry College, a Methodist college where his father was employed. He worked at the Overland automobile factory in Toledo, Ohio before volunteering for service in the U.S. Army in 1917 when the United States entered World War I. King was a private and served as a truck driver and mechanic in the U.S. Army Transportation Corps in France and Germany. After returning from Europe, he worked in automobile services in North Fork, West Virginia.
King married Myrtle Mae Charlton in 1922, and began a family that eventually included three sons and a daughter. After applying for a Studebaker dealership he was assigned to Kingsport, Tennessee. They moved to Kingsport in 1925 and opened King Motor Company.
Founding Mason and Dixon Truck Lines
Sitting at his dining room table, King founded the Mason and Dixon Truck Lines Inc. trucking company with partners Roy Moore and Tyson Steele in 1932. Their idea was to provide freight service between the industrial markets of the South and the North. At that time, the Mason-Dixon Line divided the North and the South. The slogan “Now joining the North and the South” developed, and was symbolized by the company’s iconic logo, showing Civil War generals General Ulysses S. Grant and General Robert E. Lee shaking hands. The name, slogan and logo reflected the commitment to business and community held by King and his family.
By 1939, Mason and Dixon became family-owned, when King bought his partners’ shares in the company. He served as President of the company until 1957, when he became Chairman of the Board.
Expansion and growth under the ICC
Like other interstate carriers, Mason and Dixon was regulated by the Interstate Commerce Commission (ICC) when Congress voted to give it that authority in 1935. The company originally only operated north to Buffalo, but it expanded over time. To grow under the ICC’s regulatory rules, most companies bought other trucking companies and their ICC-approved routes.
Mason and Dixon continued to grow organically, as well as by extending its routes by applying to the ICC for and through the purchase of the operations of several other motor carriers. For example, the company purchased Silver Fleet Motor Express in 1960, as well as other smaller companies, and expanded its operating authority into other states.
Through these efforts, Mason and Dixon became one of the largest privately owned carriers in the United States. Its primary operating territory was the East Coast from South to North. King’s sons, E. William and Jack King, both joined the company.
King’s death and the company’s demise
When E. Ward King died in 1977 at the age of 81, Mason and Dixon Truck Lines was primarily a truckload and less-than-truckload (LTL) provider. However, the company also provided flatbed service and operated a sister company that offered tanker service. In 1976 the company had 52 terminals, employed approximately 4,000 people and grossed $121 million in revenue.
From the mid 1930s until its bankruptcy, Mason and Dixon primarily used Mack trucks for its truckload and LTL operations. Its commodity service division for heavy equipment transports and its tanker line also ran Mack trucks, but also used Freightliners and Peterbilts as well.
The company’s trucks were outfitted with silver trailers with the blue Mason and Dixon sign with white lettering. Later, the company used light blue trailers with the Grant and Lee logo (see accompanying photos for examples).
The U.S. trucking industry was deregulated in 1980, and deregulation hit Mason and Dixon hard. It was one of the first companies to slash its prices to keep up with competition from other carriers that no longer had to comply with ICC rate and route regulation.
Unfortunately, deregulation was the beginning of the end for the company. In 1984, Mason and Dixon filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection. Part of its reorganization was an extreme wage cut of 17%. More than 2,000 drivers immediately went on strike, refusing to “buy back their jobs.” The decision was made to liquidate the assets of the company, and the Mason Dixon name was sold to a company in central Michigan that now operates as a flatbed carrier.
Prior to the sale of the company’s name, the joint companies operated 87 terminals, employed 4,500, owned 4,700 pieces of equipment and had revenues of $173 million. The company ranked 16th in size among 15,000 companies and was the largest privately held motor carrier in the United States.
There is a large historical archive housed in the Kingsport Library dedicated to Mason and Dixon Truck Lines, though the building that housed its headquarters burned down in 2015.
King’s other business endeavors
Although the company he founded is gone, he started other companies as well. In addition, he was a major force in civic, educational and charity endeavors.
It was said that King’s entrepreneurial spirit led him “from bankruptcy in the Depression to begin a business of a kind not tried before, on money borrowed against his household furniture. He succeeded, and in the process built a company that filled a need and helped the entire region of the country to prosper.”
Continuing his great entrepreneurial spirit, King opened the following businesses in the mid- to late 1940s: The Motor Sales Company, a dealership for White trucks and tractors; Holston Auto Supply; and Cherokee Boat Company, a Chris-Craft Boats dealership that also sold marine parts and serviced boats.
Crown Enterprises, Inc., was a new corporation King put together in 1957. It evolved into eight divisions. Among them were: building and purchasing of lease properties; automobile leasing; data processing services; building supplies; heating and cooling services; and real estate development. The Mason Dixon complex, known now as Stone East and Crown Colony, a concept King envisioned as the future trend in residential communities, serve as examples of Crown Enterprises’ local projects.
In 1956, at the age of 61, King also founded Southeast Airlines, Tennessee’s first intrastate commuter airline. King’s ability to maximize the use of his time and talents through the use of his own company aircraft provided the vision of a cross-state commuter airline. After purchasing five surplus DC-3 aircraft from United Airlines and hiring personnel, he built a hangar and administrative offices at Tri-Cities Airport. On February 8, 1957 scheduled daily flights began with two westbound flights originating from Tri-Cities Airport and two eastbound flights leaving Memphis – serving the cities of Jackson, Dyersburg, Union City, Clarksville, Nashville, Tullahoma, Chattanooga and Knoxville. During the first five months of operations, Southeast Airlines flew 10,000 passengers throughout Tennessee. This encouraged expansion and two pressurized Convair 240 aircraft were added to the fleet in 1959.
King and the airline’s leadership understood that interstate transportation of mail, passengers and freight – as well as connections with other airlines – would be necessary to continue growing and to be financially successful, Southeast petitioned the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) for that authority. The CAB was the predecessor of the Federal Aviation Administration and regulated airline industry mergers and intercompany contracting.
Southeast Airlines’ bid was unsuccessful and another airline was awarded the routes it had sought. In August 1960, Southeast Airlines was forced to fold its wings. One of the airline’s Convairs, named “The General,” became a corporate aircraft for Mason and Dixon Truck Lines. Six years later, on Christmas Day, 1966, King and Mason and Dixon donated the airplane and thousands of dollars of spare parts to the University of Tennessee.
King’s service and legacy
King’s leadership extended to professional and community organizations as well. He served on the board of American Trucking Associations, served as president of the Tennessee Motor Transport Association, as chairman of the board of Kingsport National Bank from 1961-67, and as director of the Transport Insurance Company, which was located in Dallas, Texas.
In addition, he was honored with the American Legion’s “Distinguished Service Award” and the Tennessee Junior Chamber of Commerce’s “Pioneer of the Future” award.
Committed to quality education, King supported many area colleges and universities. He was one of a delegation of industrialists that presented the need for the East Tennessee State University Medical School to the governor of Tennessee, gave the challenge gift making possible Emory and Henry College’s John Rutledge King Health and Physical Education Center, the challenge gift funding the E. Ward King Aquatic Center at Hiwassee College, and funded the E.Ward King Auditorium at King College. In addition, King gave sustaining support to Emory and Vanderbilt universities, and Lees-McRae, Salem, Milligan and Tennessee Wesleyan colleges. He shared his love and appreciation for his Methodist roots, providing long-term support of Methodist conference schools and activities and serving as a Methodist Conference Trustee.
Honored as one of “Kingsport’s Treasures,” King was remembered in this way: “Though a man of tremendous influence, King liked to do things behind the scenes whenever possible. There was hardly a major regional or local call he did not answer. There was hardly a movement for improvement or advancement, political, social or educational, that he did not assist, all capturing his love for making East Tennessee a better place for his fellow man. Great men die, but E. Ward King’s influence and positive force for Kingsport lives on and on… for us to treasure through many generations.”