Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis Railway aka NC&StL, NC&Stl.L, ncstl,  




Southern Outlet -
The Railroad to Hobbs Island

by Bob Baudendistel

At eight o’clock one evening in April, 1892, Milton Humes, Chairman of the Board of Trade, called a town meeting with Huntsville area citizens to discuss the transportation problems that plagued many of the communities south of the city towards the Tennessee River. The proposition before the panel at this public hearing was centered on convincing the Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis (NC&StL) Railroad Company to extend its Elora-Huntsville rail line. This extension of the railroad would be built running south of Huntsville to reach the Tennessee River at or near the head of Hobbs Island, a distance of approximately 14 miles. Many prospectors believed that this “Southern Outlet” was needed in order for the Huntsville economy to continue to thrive. The committee voted unanimously to submit the proposition, and as a result, subscriptions totaling more than $6950 were immediately declared.

It was on Monday, May 21, 1892 when the first survey for the rail line to Hobbs Island took place. Mr. Hunter McDonald, who was the active superintendent of the Western and Atlantic Division of the NC&StL Railroad, began laying out the preliminary lines for the new road. Mr. McDonald employed Thompson Jones, Leslie Donegan, Norman Figures, and several other locals to assist him with the effort. Following the preliminary survey efforts, a later meeting was held on Friday, June 25 when additional subscriptions were noted. One subscription was for the sum of $500 from The City of Huntsville. Soon after, on July 1, 1892, two carloads of scrapers and other grading tools were brought to Huntsville by train along the existing NC&StL Elora-Huntsville Railroad. Meanwhile, more grading tools were said to have arrived by boat at Whitesburg.

Once all of the required fee-simple deeds to the property were secured and entered into the probate records at the county courthouse, the construction of the rail line was permitted. Some of the names of the individuals or families who bargained, sold, and conveyed the property required for this extension of the railroad to Hobbs Island include Humes, Teal, Ewing, Garth, Harris, Moore, Beirne, Matthews, Brown, White, Proctor, Farley, Burrow, Campbell, Logan, Taylor, and Hobbs. By November 1892, most of the line was graded and the tracklayers had reached a point nearly six miles south of the city. Once completed, this would put yet another extension on the map for the Huntsville Branch operation of the NC&StL Railroad. Prior to this event, The Tennessee and Coosa (T&C) Railroad Company was attempting to build a railroad through Marshall and Etowah Counties. It was back in 1845 when Gen. Andrew Jackson first initiated the construction of this railroad to provide a vital artery across Sand Mountain between the two namesake rivers. The construction of this railroad was very slow, and never actually completed until 1893 when the NC&StL bought the property and assets. This left a remaining 20 mile watery gap between Hobbs Island and Gunters Landing. To overcome the rugged mountains and river valley, NC&StL built an incline at each landing, and transferred the railroad cars up and down the river atop wooden barges. The barges were pushed using two flat-bottomed paddle-wheel steamers Huntsville and Guntersville. Passengers would get to board these steamers during the journey along the river. This obscure marine operation was maintained by the railroad before, during, and after the construction of Guntersville Dam that was completed in 1939.

The Huntsville Branch line of the NC&StL now operated more than 100 miles of track from a point-of-beginning in Decherd, Tennessee. The line terminated at a switchyard in Gadsden. This allowed Huntsville business and industry to reach markets spreading across southern parts of the state. The railroad timetable included daily passenger and freight runs. Early steam locomotives included the classic American 4-4-0’s. Later, 2-8-0 Husky Consolidations, 2-10-0 Russian Decapods, and 4-6-0 Baldwin Ten-Wheelers were the norm. The earliest freight cars, passenger cars, and cabooses were of the wooden variety. These were gradually replaced with the more modern equipment featuring all-steel construction. By the mid 1950’s, diesel locomotives replaced the aging steam fleet. The steamboats and wooden river barges used for the river ferry transfer operation were replaced with the diesel tugboat Guntersville, and two new all-steel river barges.

While in route to Hobbs Island from downtown Huntsville, several stations and flag stops were located along the line. These included Lily Flagg, Matthew’s Place, Farley, Burrows, Taylorsville, and finally Hobbs Island. The Huntsville & Madison County Railroad Authority currently operates a train along 90% of this very same rail line that is visible while driving over much of South Memorial Parkway.

Perhaps the busiest time ever for the Huntsville Branch operation of the NC&StL came as a result of the Huntsville Arsenal. Safe and reliable transportation with the U.S. Army warfare and munitions center at the arsenal was vital to the successful U.S. involvement in World War II. Two of the three rail spurs leading on to the Huntsville Arsenal were built directly from this southern extension of the NC&StL. One spur was built close to where Vermont Road is found running today west of Memorial Parkway near the Martin Road interchange. A second spur was built leading onto the arsenal from a siding down at Farley near the current location of Green Cove Road. This switch point at Farley would later become known as the Rocket Siding. As the space and missile programs landed their operations on the newly formed Redstone Arsenal, the need for rail service declined somewhat over the years. It was during the late 1950’s when L&N had taken over the full ownership, management, and operation of the entire NC&StL rail system, including the Huntsville Branch. In 1957, L&N ceased the river ferry transfer operation between Hobbs Island and Guntersville since the company already had access into Gadsden through its other rail lines that came from Birmingham and Anniston. Today, there is still some visible evidence of where the river ferry incline was operated along the banks of the Tennessee River near Hobbs Island. This point is upstream approximately ½ mile from the head of the island past The Baker Sand and Gravel Company. The launch point at Gunters Landing is still evident today as well. It is hidden in a tree line that is behind the Harbor House Restaurant and Marina off of Highway 431 just south of the river bridge.

Declining business and mounting expenses with many of the original NC&StL branch lines such as the Huntsville Branch forced CSX Transportation to discontinue the service from many of them back in the 1980’s. This prompted the newly formed Huntsville & Madison County Railroad Authority to purchase the rail line leading from downtown Huntsville to Norton as many of the industries along the route required rail service. The next time you are driving through parts of south Huntsville, chances are, you may witness the passing of an EMD SW locomotive pulling a string of freight cars. Only now, you’ll know more about how the rail service was first brought to the area, how important it was, and continues to be.

Other Huntsville Information: Elora | Hobbs Island | Old RR Bed

Further information on today's Huntsville Depot can be found here.


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