Muddy roads and pokey trains ere no fun
Travel in north Louisiana during Reconstruction anything but easy

By Wesley Harris
Journal Correspondent

Louisianans tend to complain loud and often about the state's roads but today's transportation problems seem minor compared to the challenges of crossing the state during the Civil War and the decades that followed.

Prior to the Civil War and through Reconstruction after the conflict, travel options in north Louisiana were limited. While north-south travel was available on waterways like the Mississippi, Ouachita, and Red Rivers, east-west journeys were taken on roads that were often poorly maintained. The railroad from the east ended at Vicksburg, so travelers headed west had to ferry across the Mississippi River and then continue as best they could.

In 1853, the Vicksburg, Shreveport & Texas Railroad Company was chartered to build a line across Louisiana. The V.S. & T. intended to use a transfer boat to take trains across the Mississippi to continue to Shreveport and points west.

Construction of the railroad from the river to Monroe was completed in January 1861. The 74-mile trip took six hours, with stops at Tallulah, Quebec, Delhi, Rayville, and Girard. Further expansion to the west was interrupted by the Civil War, delaying its completion for decades.

During the war, Confederate forces commandeered the V.S. & T. to transport military materiel and men. For the first two years of the conflict, it was a vital link in the supply line of arms and other supplies funneled from Mexico and Texas to Confederate forces in the East. As federal troops poured into northeastern Louisiana to begin the siege of Vicksburg, the Confederates dismantled portions of the railroad to keep the Union Army from seizing it for use to drive deeper into the state.

Some Union officers wanted to repair the existing line and extend it westward as a means of capturing the state capital then at Shreveport and then to conquer Texas. The supreme commander in the area, General Ulysses S. Grant, was more concerned about taking Vicksburg and the plan was shelved. When federal troops did try to reach Shreveport by marching up the Red River, the campaign ended in disaster and retreat.

Sir Arthur James Lyon Fremantle, a British Army officer spent three months in 1863 touring both the Confederate States of America and the North. Coming in from Mexico, he reached Shreveport where he took an eastbound stage at 4:30 one morning, reaching Minden at 5:00 p.m, a distance of 30 miles. Traveling at a rate of just over two miles an hour even less than walking speed had to be agonizing. Fremantle complained of "badness of the road, the jolting of the carriage, and having to occupy a centre seat."

Once the war ended, the financial situation in North Louisiana prevented prompt completion of the line. The V.S. & T. was broke with no funds to lay track. The bankrupted company exchanged hands several times before finding new life as the Vicksburg, Shreveport & Pacific Railroad. Throughout the entire Reconstruction period, no train service existed west of Monroe, although much of the line had been laid out and graded.

The road traversing north Louisiana from the Mississippi River to Texas was known as the Traveler's Road, Wire Road, or depending on your perspective, the Shreveport Road or the road to Texas. For east-west travel, a stagecoach line ran on this road from the end of the V.S. & T. line in Monroe through Forksville (near present day Calhoun), Vienna, Arcadia, Mount Lebanon,Minden, and on to Shreveport. The Monroe & Shreveport Stage Line, operated by the same men who ran the railroad, provided the only commercial conveyance between Monroe and Shreveport, a distance of more than 100 miles.

Stagecoach travel was brutal. The road was often muddy, slowing the stages to a crawl. Dr. Luther Longino wrote of riding the stage from Minden to Shreveport in the 1870s: "The stage coach was a very cumbersome vehicle, patterned after a very heavy buggy, or a light wagon, but with wheels and running gear made out of the best hickory obtainable; while its body was rather oval in shape, and swung between the wheels on large leather straps that allowed a rocking movement forward and backward, and from side to side, when in motion; six or eight person could ride within, and one or two with the driver high up on the front seat, if any could be found bold enough to partake of his hospitality."

Longino noted the "passage of the stage along the highways was always a matter of interest to the people along the route, and the bugle blast notified the stage's approach to the villages and towns, it brought life and hope to the sleepy citizens, as they crowded around the post office for long delayed letters from friends and loved ones."\par }{\plain Dr. Longino described one bitterly cold stage trip he took from Monroe to Minden after steaming up the Ouachita from New Orleans:

"A heavy snow and sleet had fallen, and the whole country was wrapped in winter's icy mantle, but undaunted by weather conditions, the stage left on time We fared very well until we reach old Vienna, where we had supper and changed horses. As we left that little village the night grew colder and colder, the limbs of the freezing trees began to crack, break and fall, and every now and then, the top of a tree would break off, and go crashing down to the snow-covered ground with a sickening and weird sound." According the Longino, the driver had to dismount at times to move fallen trees out of the road during the "night of suffering and loneliness."

Although the V.S. & P. was chartered in 1879, the line was not completed from the Mississippi River to Shreveport until 1883. The railroad led to the creation of new towns on the line, such as Ruston, and the virtual evaporation of communities like Bonner, Vienna, Vernon, Mt. Lebanon, and Sparta whose citizens loaded their belongings and moved to the developing commercial and transportation centers.

At one point, trains made 24 stops between Shreveport and Vicksburg. It was no wonder locals derisively referred to the V.S. & P. as the "Very Slow & Pokey." By 1967 only twelve depots remained. Most of the depots, which would be considered architectural treasures today, were torn down with little consideration for saving these historic treasures.

The V.S. & P. operated for several decades, changed hands again, becoming part of the Illinois Central system from 1926 to 1986. The line is now owned by the Kansas City Southern Railroad. Bits of the old stagecoach route can be found in places across north Louisiana. The deep ruts gouged into the soil by the stage wheels still exist in spots where the route deviates from today's paved roadways.

Crossing north Louisiana was improved with the construction of the Dixie Overland Highway U.S. 80 the only coast-to-coast highway ever constructed across America. While U.S. Route 66 has gained all the notoriety as the highway many fortune seekers followed to sunny California, Highway 80 also served as a thoroughfare millions traveled to the West Coast.

Construction of Interstate 20 began in Louisiana in the late 1950s. The superhighway stretches nearly from the east coast to west Texas. Reminiscent of the difficulty of building a rail line across Louisiana, the building of I-20 was a decades-long process. The last portions, including sections in Louisiana, also were not finished until the early 1980s.

Wesley Harris is a native of Ruston. Among his books are GREETINGS FROM RUSTON: A Post Card History of Ruston, Louisiana and Neither Fear nor Favor: Deputy United States Marshal John Tom Sisemore, available from amazon.com. He can be contacted at campruston@gmail.com .


Louisiana stagecoach

Vicksburg, Shreveport & acific rail train

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