John Howell Column

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 16, 2009

John Howell Sr.

Short line NM Railroad not for sale, says owner

The owner of the Nelson Mills Railroad has announced that the recent decision by CN Railroad to sell its Canton-to-Jackson Grenada line to a company that specializes in operating short line railroads IN NO WAY involves the ownership or operation of his rail line.

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Confusion may have arisen, John Nelson said, because his line — the Nelson Mills line — may be the shortest line anywhere: 125 or so yards along Asa Road in the Chapeltown community.

And growing. The rail line that included just enough track to hold the small, antique steam locomotive when it arrived in 2004 has been extended downhill, almost to the mill facilities which include various antique steam engines and the machinations they power — saw mill, grist mill, shingle mill.

Nelson’s got a thing for steam engines. Hobby labels it a bit lightly. So in 2004 when he acquired the Marie, an early 19th Century German-made, two-foot-gauge steam locomotive, it became the crown jewel in his collection. The Marie also fit well with his interest in the many logging railroads that snaked through Panola County’s Delta lands in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries.

His track building has mostly been a one-man operation. He uses 30-pound rail. That means that a three-foot section weighs 30 pounds. By comparison, CN’s trains through Batesville travel on rails that weigh 130 pounds or more for the same length.

Finding 30-pound rail is either expensive or difficult. Nelson has chosen the latter, tracking down near-forgotten caches only to often find them pitted and rusted. He has ground away pit and rust to restore a reasonably smooth surface for contact with the locomotive’s wheels.

Jimmy Herron was the most recent donor of track. Jimmy Tubbs provided the link to Herron who knew where he had stored old rail taken up from a line once operated by the Lamb-Fish Lumber Company in Tallahatchie County. That was of special interest to Nelson, since he can cite both the identity of the donor and the historic significance of the rail carrying Marie. Maybe he could put up a small sign: “This section of rail sponsored by …”

Nelson recently used all of the rail Herron donated and is looking for more. Perhaps you know where there’s a store of light rail that’s slowly rusting away. Nelson could use it to further extend his line. Call him at 662-563-9274.

Rail from the main line of the logging railroads like the Batesville and Southwestern are too big, he said. However, spurs from the main lines — usually rail from 2 3/4 inches to 3 1/2 inches tall — work well. However, if the larger size rail is forthcoming, he might try to use it “just for the historic preservation,” he said.

“I know there are a few pieces around,”

The current rate of construction — 125 yards in five years — has frustrated occasional Asa Road passersby, but Nelson has also held down a paying job at a shipyard, commuting to Boston for months at a time.

Now that he has slackened his shipbuilding, he’d like to do more rail building. If he can just find the rail. He might extend it over a small rise past the sawmill, then across a deep cut and eventually to the edge of his land near Spring Hill Asa Church. Preliminary discussions have taken place between Nelson and a cousin, Leslie “Brother” Busby, giving rise to speculation about a possible Tocowa connection.

W. A. Allgood has even volunteered himself and his machinery for future rail construction. Nelson is yet undecided if he can handle rail-building pace that travels faster than man, shovel and wheel barrow.

Marie makes regularly scheduled runs on Thanksgiving mornings with intermittent trips likely at any time.

And again, the recent announcement by CN Railroad of a pending sale to a short-line railroad company of its Canton-to-Memphis rail line that runs through Batesville IN NO WAY affects the shortest of the short lines at Chapeltown.