Southern Railroads and Freight Traffic: Cotton Only or More?

Virginia and Tennessee Railroad Freight Traffic, 1855-6, East

Southern railroad mileage outpaced Northern mileage in the 1850s. Virginia and Tennessee built more miles of railroad in the decade than the six state region of New England. Florida went from 21 miles of rail to 402, a 1,814 % increase. Historians have downplayed the effects of southern railroad development in these years. Richard Brown in The Transformation of American Life, 1600-1865 (Hill and Wang, 1976) argued that southern rails were built cheaply "to bring cotton to market" and nothing more. Other historians have followed this line of argument. Scott Reynolds Nelson in Iron Confederacies: Southern Railways, Klan Violence, and Reconstruction (University of North Carolina Press, 1999) also considered Southern railroads limited, one-dimensional, and ineffectual before the Civil War.

A comparative approach to the problem indicates that southern railroad development was not so different from the uneven and unexpected process of railroad building and operation in other regions. In his classic account of American railroad development, Albert Fishlow found that New England railroads were not the driving force in accelerating New England manufacturing and industry. Railroads were constructed to carry passengers not industrial products. Similarly, Pennsylvania railroads were built not to carry coal but to haul grain and passengers. The timing of New England's development, it turns out, had more to do with capital supply (availability of funds, that is) than the needs of industrial development. Railroads were built, in other words, for a particular purpose and at a particular time that often did not anticipate the demands of industry or manufacturing. 

Moreover, recent research shows that Southern railroads established a brisk freight business. They created and maintained freight schedules for every manner of good and expected to carry these items. Aaron Marrs in "The Iron Horse Turns South: A History of Antebellum Southern Railroads" (forthcoming, Johns Hopkins University Press) examined the South Carolina Railroad freight schedules in the 1850s and his analysis finds that freight up the road into the South Carolina back country was just as healthy, diverse, and financially significant as the cotton freight down the road to the sea. This business increased every year and often made up half of the roads total revenues.

Southern railroads carried a remarkable array of products and goods. On the Virginia and Tennessee freight traffic "down" the road was often a gricultural products out of the rural regions into the markets. Traffic "up" the road was surprisingly robust and diverse, as southern planters and farmers bought merchandise and developed manufacturing centers. The Virginia and Tennessee carried large quantities of merchandise "west" into middle Tennessee.

Source: Annual Reports of Internal Improvement Companies, 1856, Virginia Board of Public Works, Charles Kennedy Collection, University of Nebraska-Lincoln, Special Collections, Box 113.