Reform to Axis

The Alabama, Tennessee and Northern Railroad

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The AT&N grew from two railroading ventures of railroad entrepreneur John T. Cochrane in southwestern Alabama. Cochrane had already built the Tuscaloosa Belt Line railway when, in a foreclosure sale in May of 1897, he acquired the Seaboard Railroad, a 6 year old 33-mile narrow-gauge logging line ending at a deepwater port on the Tombigbee River. (This Seaboard Railroad is unrelated to the Seaboard Air Line). The port at the rail line's terminus, called Nannahubba or (later) Seaboard Wharf, was located just upstream of the confluence of the Tombigbee and the Alabama that formed the Mobile and Tensaw rivers. Three miles to the west, the Seaboard Railroad crossed the Southern Railways line between Mobile and Selma at Calvert.

Meanwhile, the Mobile and Ohio Railroad announced plans to build a line from Artesia, MS, to Tuscaloosa and Montgomery, bypassing Carrollton, Alabama, the seat of Pickens County. The new route passed through Reform instead, to comply with US Post Office mail delivery requirements. Wishing to get connected to the railroad network, leading citizens formed the Carrollton Short Line, and beginning in 1900 got J.T. Cochrane to build the original 11-mile road from Reform to Carrollton.

Over the years Cochrane improved and reorganized the Seaboard, converting it to standard gauge and extending the line northward. By 1904, it was named the Tombigbee Valley Railroad and ran 50 miles to Penny Hill.

Cochrane continued extending the Carrollton Short Line southward beyond Carrollton. It made extensive timberlands accessible along its route, creating a thriving wood industry in its region. By 1902, it reached a point in a swampy area north of the Tombigbee that the track gang dubbed "Aliceville," after J.T. Cochrane's wife, by pushing an old boxcar off the track and painting a sign on it. Sources do not say whether she was flattered by this tribute.

As of September of 1906, the Carrolton railway extended across the Tombigbee, a total of 75 miles to York, and was renamed the Alabama, Tennessee, and Northern Railroad. By now, it was apparent Cochrane's grand plan was to establish a railroad from the junction at Reform accessing the port of Mobile. It was probably about this time that trackage rights were obtained on the Southern line from Calvert 34 miles into Mobile. In 1908 the TVR listed a full timetable in the Railway Guide with 22 stations over 62 miles, plus service to Mobile via the Southern. It touted Nannahubba as a deepwater river port, and nearest rail access to the southwest Alabama health resort of Bladon Springs.

It recalled that a roundhouse and shops were located at Calvert an one time, but it is uncertain exactly when, or for that matter whether they belonged to the AT&N or its predecessors, or possibly even to Southern. The 1908 Railway Guide did list the Tombigbee Valley RR's general superintendant and master mechanic as being based in Calvert, while the business offices were located in Mobile and Millry.

Cochrane incorporated the Mobile Terminal and Railway Company in 1910, and continued extending the TVR northward until it joined the AT&N tracks at Riderwood in 1912. On May 1, 1913, the Tombigbee Valley Railroad and the Mobile Terminal & Railway were merged into the AT&N. It had a northern and southern division that met at York, where that railroad's shops were located.

1928 was an important year for the AT&N. It built its own extension to Mobile from Calvert, running the first train over its own new tracks on January 31. That same year the St. Louis and San Francisco, a.k.a. "the Frisco", built a line between Columbus, MS, and Pensacola, FL that crossed and interconnected with the AT&N at Aliceville. A close friendly relationship between the AT&N and the Frisco began, as the two railroads negotiated reciprocal traffic agreements giving the AT&N access to Midwestern markets, and the Frisco entry to the port of Mobile.

By 1931 Nannahubba/Seaboard Wharf on the Tombigbee had been removed from the schedule. Presumably that 3-mile railway section east of Calvert had become a spur no longer on the schedule, if not abandoned by that time. (Calvert locals believe any railroad line to the river to have been long gone by World War II). Sometime during the 1920s, a local entrepreneur had acquired the lumber port and dock, and later used Seaboard Wharf to import whiskey. Some locals believed that particular commerce had gone on clandestinely during Prohibition as well. The whole complex burned to the ground before America entered WWII.

The AT&N by the late 1930s focused on serving Blakely Island at Mobile, operating car float ferries and facilities to bring rail service to the industrial island. When WWII broke out, these were extended and augmented as new shipbuilding yards sprang up to fill government contracts. Maintaining railroad facilities on the low island barely above the brackish water table and operating a carfloat was so expensive that peacetime development of Blakely Island did not fulfill business expectations.

J.T. Cochrane passed in 1938, leaving control of the AT&N to his son. John Jr. sold to a syndicate of investors in 1946. By the end of 1948 the Frisco had purchased controlling interest in the AT&N. Jack Gilliland, the president of AT&N after 1946, would later become president of the Frisco. The Frisco set about improving the line and integrating it with the Frisco system, consolidating support and management resources such as shops and offices with those of the Frisco.

By 1950 the AT&N ceased passenger service and became freight-only. As time and technology advanced, the railroad line became increasingly poorly suited for the Frisco's purpose of import-export via the port of Mobile. The grades and curves on parts of the right-of-way, due to its origins as a 19th century logging line, made operation of modern unit trains difficult.

In 1971, the AT&N was absorbed into the Frisco in name as well as fact. The old AT&N became Frisco's "Mobile Division."

In the summer of 1973 disaster struck. The high swing bridge spanning the navigable Tombigbee River at Cochrane south of Aliceville suddenly collapsed just after passage of a train, cutting the line and temporarily blocking the waterway. The center swing pier toppled out from under the swinging section, which of course was in the closed position. Sources do not say whether the train crew got religion shortly afterwards.

The bridge was never rebuilt. The section between Cochrane and Aliceville was sold to the Army Corps of Engineers and abandoned in 1975. The line was therefore cut into 2 sections that ended at Aliceville and Cochrane, with through traffic rerouted over the Southern line where it crossed the Frisco mainline. Because the main business justification of the "Mobile Division" of the Frisco was to directly connect the Frisco mainline at Aliceville with the port of Mobile, and little local business was served along the line north of Axis by then, the former AT&N was effectively doomed. With ICC approval the Frisco abandoned the Reform-Aliceville section in 1978, and the section from Cochrane to York in 1979.

The Frisco was acquired by the Burlington Northern in 1980. The BN abandoned the remaining former AT&N from Axis to York shortly afterwards. BNSF continues to operate the remaining truncated branch line from Mobile to Axis, where it serves a plastics plant.

Thanks to Mitch Bailey for contributing information about this route.

Unfortunately there's not much left to see around Calvert, the place I have the most interest in. There's a big curving fill where the new extension to Mobile began, but it proved impossible to access and successfully photograph from public roads at least during foliage season. (It's pretty visible on areial/satellite views such as Google Maps.)

Mitch Bailey
Lexington County, SC
8/2/2012

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