In 1865, Pike County cotton planter Ansel H. Prewett spotted the railroad coming long before it reached this area, and with it he saw the future. Legend has it he sold the rights to the rail company (the New Orleans, Jackson and Great Northern- now Illinois Central Railroad, part of Canadian National) for only $1. Tracks were laid, a train station and a town arose out of what were once cotton fields, and investors flocked. As the town of Magnolia grew, so did area’s reputation as a spectacularly beautiful and serene setting, and by the turn of the century wealthy New Orleans residents had transformed Magnolia into an elegant resort town, complete with luxury hotels, an opera house and skating rink.
Meanwhile, even as the wealthy came to Pike County as a healthful alternative, railroad executive Henry Simpson McComb recognized the county’s healthy work ethic and decided to relocate his maintenance operations here from New Orleans with its Bourbon Street distractions. The newly incorporated city of McComb vowed to remain sober and hard-working- the original charter even forbade the sale of intoxicating liquor!
With McComb’s new rail operations, shops opened to supplement the commissary, and hard-charging Civil War veteran Captain J.J. White set up a cotton mill and a saw mill, and an ice plant was constructed, at one time the largest ice plant in the world, producing 200 tons of ice per day, much of it used to facilitate rail shipments of fruits and vegetables to northern markets.
It was a hustle bustle city, working to the tune of the train whistle as it called out the beginning and end of the work day as well as the arrival of the City of New Orleans, the sleek passenger train that ran daily from the Crescent City to Chicago. Planted with care, McComb now bloomed: it became America’s Camellia City, pretty enough for picture post cards.
Thus it went, year after year, generation after generation, as steady growth and diversification continued. In 1936 Mississippi Governor Hugh White, the son of Captain White, introduced his innovative “Balance Agriculture with Industry” program, and in 1958, the largest U.S. oil discovery of the year was made in the Little Creek area.
Not all events have been positive. The County survived a devastating fire in 1904, and a near devastating national rail strike in 1911. Yet through it all, we lived and learned and learned more. Schools, neighborhoods and churches were built and built better; we grew and grew healthier, cared for by one of the finest medical centers in the state. Yet even as we grew and built, we preserved the natural beauty around us.
And now, as the county stands poised for new industrial opportunities and for what promises to be a new and exciting era of energy exploration, we know our tracks are already laid, straight and true. The old-fashioned train whistle may be gone, but the trains are still here. As for the call you hear today in Pike County? It’s the future, and we’re ready to get on board!
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