The Mississippi Delta was a vast mixed hardwood forest in the late 1800's. The railroads opened the Delta to the lumber industry. Sawmills were located at convenient places along the railroads in the Delta by 1900. The railroad line we now call the Mississippi Delta Railroad was constructed in the 1890's by the Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad. This line roughly paralleled the Mississippi River from Memphis to Vicksburg. Numerous branches led to the East and a few to the West from this main line to outlining sawmills.
The Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad was absorbed into the Illinois Central Railroad system. During the Illinois Central's time of operating the railroad the nature of the Delta made a radical change from forestry and saw milling to farming and cotton ginning. Cotton became King in the Delta and was transported in large quantities by the railroad.
It was during this time that Blues Music was born and matured into a popular art form. Musicians traveled by rail and spread the Blues far and wide.
Another change came to the Delta in the 1950's and 1960's. Labor saving devices came to the farm with new mechanized farming techniques. This created a large poole of largely African American workers who sought new opportunities in the North. Again the Illinois Central Railroad played a part as many individuals and entire families traveled to Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, and other places by train in search of work and equal opportunity. For many people the view from the northbound train was their last look at the cotton fields that formerly had been their source of income.
North America's railroads began to change again in the 1970's and 1980's as trucks took away much of the local rail traffic and made branch lines unprofitable. The 1985 Stagger's Act deregulated railroads which allowed them to shed unprofitable branch lines. The Illinois Central Railroad was quick to take advantage of this new law to shed unprofitable branch lines.
The portion of the original Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad between Lula and Clarksdale retained enough traffic to be viable by itself. This line was sold to Gulf & Ohio Railways of Knoxville, Tennessee, and began to operate as the Mississippi Delta Railroad. The rest of the rail line from Memphis to Vicksburg was abandoned and removed by 1990. Gulf & Ohio Railways sold the Mississippi Delta Railroad to Coahoma County in July 2001.
Today the Mississippi Delta Railroad continues to operate the old Yazoo and Mississippi Valley Railroad main line between Lula and Clarksdale as well as two main branch lines: Lula to Jonestown and Clarksdale to Swan Lake in Tallahatchie County. The railroad currently stores railroad cars for owners needing a parking place while the railroad cars wait for freight loads. The Mississippi Delta Railroad operates freight trains carrying Delta agricultural products to market. The most recent venture for the railroad came with upgrading of track between Clarksdale and Hopson. Passengers may again ride the rails in excursion trains from Clarksdale after a near 60 year absence of passenger service. C & J railroad Company has the vision to continue upgrading the rail line and carry the operation of the Mississippi Delta Railroad into the next generation.