Railroads Come to Southeast Missouri 

Cairo and Fulton Railroad

In February 5, 1853, James Buchanan approved an act of Congress to grant Missouri and Arkansas the right to use federal land for a right of way for a rail line from opposite the Ohio River in Missouri to Little Rock, Arkansas and onward to the Texas border. Besides the right-of-way, through government land, the act also granted every alternate section of land designated my Number being six miles width on each side was also conveyed to the railroad constructing the rail line. This act was to be in effect for ten years.

People of Southeast Missouri were excited at the prospects of a rail road being built into the area. Many of the people lived in isolated areas. This would be a touch with the outside world. A meeting was called at the Charleston Mississippi County Court House on June 9 1853 to discuss how to make the rail road happen. On November 14th and 15th, another series of meeting were called at Benton in Cape Girardeau County. Both meeting were centered on plans to build the Cairo and Fulton Railroad They wanted to build the road though Bloomfield and ask the St. to construct a line there to join the two lines together physically to form the St. Louis Iron Mountain Railroad.

A September 12, 1853 meeting organized the Cairo and Fulton Railroad with John B. Johnson President. Capital stock was fixed at $1,500,000 dived by 60,000 shares with par value at $25.00.

The counties receiving direct benefit and believing they were to be paid back in land, rushed to subscribe to the capital stock. They expected their investment to be back by land valued at $1.00 per acre as per the government bill signed by the President. Stoddard County invested $150,000; Butler County, $100,000; Dunklin County, $100.000. Scott County, $50,000; and Ripley County $19,500; this investment eventually resulted in big losses for all of the counties.

Another meeting was held in Charleston late in1853 to determine the possibly to proceed in a survey for a new railroad. Mississippi County authorized up to $500 for a right of way survey. This survey, slow to get started, was not made in Missouri. Before it got under way, the state of Arkansas incorporated the Cairo and Fulton Railroad. They hired Chief Engineer J. S. Williams to make surveys in Arkansas and Missouri.

In February, 1855, Williams reported favorably to the Missouri Legislature and they passed an act to incorporate the Cairo and Fulton Railroad in Missouri. Then they authorized $250,000 in bonds to be issued to start the road; the governor vetoed the bill which the legislature over ruled. Missouri also loaned the company money on first and second mortgages against the land granted them by the federal government.

In 1874, the Cairo and Fulton was taken to the U. S. Supreme Court for not paying interest on loans they had make with the state of Missouri in the 1850’s. These loans were first and second lien and mortgages on the road and properties of the company. The railroad claimed exemption because to railroad had been sold. The court ruled this was ejectment and the state could collect the debt.

The January 2, 1853 Missouri’s act of incorporation for the Cairo and Fulton Railroad exempted forever all taxes on the roads capital stock and its dividends. On February 9, 1853 the state of Arkansas declared that when the Cairo and Fulton Railroad, twenty years after completing the line from the Missouri state line to cross the Red River into Texas, the company shall pay Arkansas two and one-half percent of their net proceeds annually.

On April 1869 the Missouri General Assembly passed an act requiring all unsold lands under control of railroads subject to taxes. This law was to go into effect in 1875. All laws and parts of laws in conflict Missouri repealed.

By 1875, the Cairo and Fulton Railroad had not been completed, but had become part of the St. Louis and Iron Mountain Railroad and now operated under the name St. Louis, Iron Mountain, and Southern Railway. Land granted to the Cairo and Fulton Railroad was also consolidated into the new company.

The unsold lands, under the law of 1875, were assessed for taxation by Loftin, the collector of Jackson County Missouri. The tax bill was forwarded to the new company. They appealed all the way to the U. S. Supreme Court in Railway Company v. Loftin – 98 U.S. 559 (1878). The court stated the suite was in error, they paid the taxes.

A new survey was started in1856 from Bird’s Point to Charleston for the Cairo and Fulton Railroad. On October1, 1857, work was started by contractor H. J. Deal on a ten mile rail line between these two points. Work was slow; it was not until April 1, 1859 that a train reached Charleston. The engine was named Sol G. Kitchen for a Mississippi County resident leading the drive for the Railroad.

By the time of the Civil War, the railroad had laid only 20 miles of track. With the start of the war, the army took over its operations; they however, did not keep up the payment. In Southeast Missouri this was the only rail road in operation. With the heavy traffic, the road soon fell into disrepair and the loss of most of the rolling stock.

While the Cairo and Fulton was in military service, its state bonds went into arrears not making enough to pay the interst.In1866, McKay, Simmons, and Vogel, from St. Louis, purchased the line. This group also owned the St. Louis Iron Mountain system. They paid the state $350,000 and transferred it to Mr. Allen of the Cairo and Fulton to the Iron Mountain System.

Later, this rail road laid tracks into Popular Bluff. At that time the line became known as the Cairo, Arkansas and Texas. CAT (first letters of the name) became its popular name. In 1874, it became part of the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern and given the designation of the Cairo Branch.

Cape Girardeau, Pilot Knob and Belmont Railroad Company

In 1859 the Cape Girardeau, Pilot Knob and Belmont Railroad Company was organized build a road from Pilot Know to Belmont by way of Cape Girardeau. William C. Ranney became president of the company. Cape Girardeau County bought $200,000 dollar of the company stock. While preparations were being made to start the work, the Civil War broke out and nothing was done.

Illinois, Missouri and Texas Railway Company

Governor Fletcher organized the Illinois, Missouri and Texas Railway Company. They were unable to sell the planned $1,500,000 in bonds projected that would be need. As none of the bonds sold, the project was temporarily put to rest. Ten years later, construction was started. A considerable amount of primary roadway work was done in building bridges and laying ties before construction had been started earlier. Before the ten years were up, most of this work had rotted beyond use. Project abandoned.

Cape Girardeau and State Line Railroad Company

Organized on April 27th, 1869, the Cape Girardeau and State Line Railroad Company had vague plans to construct a rail line from Cape Girardeau to somewhere in Arkansas. Again the city of Cape Girardeau voted to buy $150,000 in bonds as did the township of Cape Girardeau. After construction begin money run out without a single mile of track was finished because of bad management.

Iron Mountain

Under the direction of Mr. Allen the St. Louis Iron Mountain constructed another 120 miles of track from Pilot Knob to Belmont going through the counties of St. Francois, Madison Bollinger, Scott and Mississippi. Then in 1872, the St. Louis Iron Mountain system was conveyed to the property of the Cairo, Arkansas, and Texas Railroad which had a line from Cairo to Sikeston. With the transfer, rails were laid 70 miles to Popular Bluff.

Acting under the Cairo and Fulton Railroad charter and part of the Iron Mountain, a main line was construction from Moark through Arkansas to the Texas line at Fulton, Arkansas near the Texas border. In June of 1874, when these two lines consolidated it was under the name St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern Railroad. This then was the main line for St. Louis to Fulton, a distance of 681 miles.

A new company was organized in 1883 known as the Jackson Branch Railroad Company. They planned a build a railroad from Allenville, on the Belmont Branch, to the Mississippi River at Grand Tower by way of the Cape Girardeau county seat of Jackson. The Iron Mountain builds this line into Jackson and later became part of the Iron Mountain system.

In 1874 the Cairo and Fulton Railroad Company was acquired by the Iron Mountain and were consolidated as the St. Louis, Iron Mountain and Southern. This line covered a distance 681 miles from St. Louis to Fulton, Arkansas.

On November 23, 1860, the railroad sold, 11,896 acres to raise construction capital, to Blakeley Wilson of New Jersey. The railroad had failed to pay the state of Missouri the interest due o the loans. The U.S. Supreme Court, Wilson V. Boyce – U.S. 320, (1875 agreed with the Missouri Supreme Court that the case was an ejectment possessory action where title of real property may be tried and possession recovered.

The Iron Mountain Company later constructed a line from Poplar Bluff to Doniphan by way of Naylor. This road became part of the Cairo Branch with through train being run from Doniphan to Bird’s Point. Close relations existed between the Iron Mountain System and the St. Louis Southwestern, or Cotton Belt. Both were owned in a large part and controlled by the Gould family.

Railroad Embankments as Levees

Some proposals were made to combine railroad construction with land development. One proposal was that railroad embankment is used as a levee. This plan was favored in Southeast Missouri and eastern Arkansas.

Perhaps the most widely publicized of these arrangements was proposals involved the Memphis-St. Louis Railway Company, an Arkansas Corporation and the St. Louis and Iron Mountain Railroad Company, a Missouri Corporation. U.S. House Resolution 745, February 1868, described the plan “. . . To construct a railroad from a point at the commencement of the Lowland to the southeast of Cape Girardeau in the State of Missouri along the west bank of the Mississippi River to the mouth of the St. Francis River in the State of Arkansas; the roadbed of which shall be constructed as to serve the purpose of a levee between said points; they further propose to furnish the landless in that region with immediate employment at fair wages in the construction of such levee and road-bed  and to give those thus employed the right to purchase, at fair prices, of lands, of said companies along the route of said levee and railroad.”

The Federal Government, under the provision of the resolution, would guarantee bond up to $20,000 per mile of levee. However, little actual work of projects of this nature was done

Houch: Railroad Builder

After the Civil War, Louis Houck was a leader in opening up Southeast Missouri. His investment in short-line railroad connected its town and forest to Cape Girardeau, St. Louis, Memphis, and the outside world. In the spring of 1869, he traveled south form Dexter to Kennett and marveled at the vast stretch of primeval forests. For the next three decades he acquired property, promoted the development of the area, built roads and railroads, and encouraged lumber companies to harvest timber.

Louis Houck cannot be given a too much credit for opening up the swamp lands of Southeast Missouri. By training, a lawyer, trained in Illinois, coming to Missouri, he served as an Assistance U. S. Attorney in St. Louis. After moving to Cape Girardeau to practice law, his interest shifted to railroads. His first adventure into railroad build came in 1880 when he promoted and built the Cape Girardeau Railway Company.

In building his law practice, he had traveled though out the Lowland of Southeast Missouri. He saw opportunity to open the region to development. St. Louis, he saw as a market for the farmers of the region. Railroads he believed were the answer to that development and as a means to increase the population.

Houck created three railways in his lifetime. He built the lines by purchasing established lines and building short lines to adjacent cities. By this process Houck created an extensive network that reached north to Ste. Genevieve, Missouri; south to Leachville, Arkansas; east to Carbondale, Illinois; and west to Idlewild, Missouri. All this wheeling and dealing sometime cut his money supply short.

A list of his files in the Special Collections and Archives of Southeast Missouri State University there are at least 57 files concerning breach of contract, delinquent taxes, and notes about cancelled promissory notes between 1888 and 1921. For a small town lawyer, buying land for right-a-ways, purchasing rail, ties, rolling stock, paying labor, and other assorted cost, had to be a constant money worry. The numerous lawsuits he was involved in not only cost him money and time, it was time taken away for from other cases that would have produced revenue.

Advance and the Cape Girardeau Railway Company

Advance became a growing trading center for settlers northeast of Mango swamp after Houck and his railroad brought his Cape Girardeau Railway through the lowland into the Stoddard County community in 1881. Overcoming the difficulty presented by the wetland he reached Lakeville settlement. However, this was not his goal.

He desired to extend his railroad into the great Mango Swamp. Jacob Kappler, a stubborn landowner, refused to sell Houck land at what he considered a fair price. Therefore, he shopped around for a new route finding one about a mile west. W. H. Whitewell agreed to sell him land, thus when the railroad went through his land, most of the residents of Lakeville moved to the new railroad town and in 1883, New Lakeville was incorporated becoming Advance in 1897. About this time, the Cape Girardeau Railway became Cape Girardeau Southwestern.

Houck’s Short Line Railroads in the Southern Bootheel

In 1891, Houck became interested in a railway being constructed from Campbell, sitting on the Cotton Belt to Kennett; Dunklin County’s set of government. This line was under construction by E. S. McCarty and Associates. After gaining controlling interest, Houck reconstructed it and continued its operation.

Houck in 1893-1895 built a Railroad from Kennett to Caruthersville in Pemiscot County. This 25 mile rail line gave the people in the southern part of Dunklin County a more direct connection to the Mississippi River

St. Louis, Kennett and Southern Railroad

In 1896 and 1897, Houck starting at Kennett and going through Senath, build a railroad into Leachville, Arkansas. This provided the first rail service into some of the riches farm land in southern Missouri.

Houck continued to build railroads through the swamps. In 1898 he built a road in Stoddard County from Brownwood to Bloomfield. This was the first railroad to open Bloomfield she was not longer an inland town without a rail connection to the outside world. The community was now connected with the Cape Girardeau and Southwestern, which with its ties through southern Missouri, formed a trunk line. This was the year the Cotton Belt rebuilt their line from Bloomfield to Zeta in Stoddard County.

Missouri and Arkansas Railroad

Houck began one of his most important railroads in 1894.This was the Missouri and Arkansas Railroad from Cape Girardeau to connect with the St. Louis, Kennett and Southern at Gibson in Dunklin County a distance of 100 miles. In 1902 all the rail lines owned by Houck were now connected into a single system he called St. Louis and Gulf. This rail system was soon connected to the lead producing region to the west and north, joining the Mississippi River at several points.

St. Louis, San Francisco (Frisco)

One of the main, or trunk, lines through Southeast Missouri at this time was the St. Louis, San Francisco commonly called the Frisco. The Frisco system in the Missouri Lowland purchased many of Houck’s lines. Frisco’s main line extended from Cape Girardeau southward through the counties of Scott New Madrid, Dunklin, and Pemiscot to Caruthersville. The main towns involved were Commerce, Benton New Madrid, Morley, Morehouse Parma, Clarkton Holcomb Kennett, Hayti, and Caruthersville. In addition to the trunk line were several branches. One ran from Clarkton too Malden. Another extended from Gideon westward to Campbell northward to the Dunklin County town of Caligoa. A third branch line started at Kennett to reach Leachville Arkansas passing though Senath and near Cardwell. A fourth branch line ran from Deering northward to Pascola turning southeast here to join the main line at Hayti.

When each of these short line railroads became Frisco property, they had to be rebuilt. Houch built each as cheaply as possible. The ties were too far apart, and he used rails that were too light to handle the heavy loads, over a long period of time, that would be pulled out of the woodlands of “Swamp East” Missouri.

The Frisco system jointed with the Chicago and Eastern Illinois. This line crossed the Mississippi at Thebe to run train into Cape Girardeau from Chicago.

St. Louis, Memphis and Southern

The St. Louis, Memphis and Southern was a new rail line running from St. Louis to Memphis. North of Crystal City it ran west of the Iron Mountain. From Crystal City it headed into Cape Girardeau. From there, crossing “Nigger Wool Swamp it follows Sikeston Ridge through Sikeston, Portageville, Lilbourn, Hayti, and Caruthersville, with several lines branching into smaller communities.

Opening the Lowland Railroads Comes to the Lowlands

Cairo and Fulton Railroad

Cape Girardeau Pilot Knob and Belmont Railroad

Illinois Missouri and Texas Railroad

Cape Girardeau and State Line Railroad

Iron Mountain

Railroad Embankments as Levees

Houch: Railroad Builder

Advance and the Cape Girardeau Railway Company

Hock’s short Line Railroads in the Southern Bootheel

St. Louis Kennett and Southern Railroad

Missouri and Arkansas Railroad

St. Louis San Francisco (Frisco)

St. Louis Memphis Railroad



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06/03/2017 2:07am

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    Having grown up on Little River, I have been fascinated with it. Over the past several years, as a local historian, this area has been a special interest. 

     These areas have been treated much like step-children by Jefferson City and Little Rock. They seem to believe nothing has ever happened here.  Our history has been long and varied. Hope you enjoy my trip.  

    Near Puxico is the swampy Mingo Wildlife Refuge. One hundred and fifty year ago, most of the Little River Valley appeared that way. This valley covering two million acres was part of the largest wetland in America.

    Floods frequently intimated the Valley. Between 1815 and 2011, 15 major floods covered or threatened the area.

    Timber companies came in at the end of the 19th Century to clean cut the forest. Louis Houck, a Cape Girardeau lawyer and railroad builder, envisioned a rail network that covered the wetlands.

    Little River Drainage District (LRDD) Corporation was established in 1907 by an act of the Butler County (MO) Circuit Court. 

    Between 1909 and 1928 the LRDD dug nearly 1000 miles of ditches and constructed 30 miles of levees to drain 1.2 million acres of swamp and overflow land in Southeast Missouri. More dirt was moved than in building the Panama Canal.

    One surprise I had was the number of settlements in the area before 1811-1812. Another was the water connection between the Mississippi River and the St. Francis and I had no idea that Little River had enough current to run a grist mill.

    Norman Vickers


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    Little River's Geographic Past