The following account describes the story of Colonel Benjamin Sherrod’s monumental achievement toward establishing a modern commercial transportation system within the Tennessee Valley, and it was a success that has extended its reaches to this very day.
The family of Joseph and Daniella Wheeler (formerly Daniella Jones Sherrod, daughter of nearby plantation owner, Richard Jones) preserved and propagated the legacy that is today embodied in Pond Spring. Thankfully, due to the additional preservation efforts of family descendents, we have physical evidence relating to the earlier works by the founders of the property.
Prior to the arrival of the Wheeler name, two other families established the solid foundation for future work. The John Hickman family first resided on the property, and Colonel Benjamin Sherrod was partner in ownership (from territory newly opened to settlers). The John Hickman family, unfortunately of whom we know little, established the first dwellings on the property around 1818. The Hickmans lived on and worked the first approximately 2000 acres until a time when they sold their portion of the venture to Colonel Sherrod. Through astounding contemporary innovations, the Sherrods would endeavor to improve not only the Plantation, but would transform commercial transportation and stimulate development along virtually the entire Tennessee Valley, as well.
This newsletter account is an excerpt from the work, "The Sherrod Family, 350 Years of History" by Phillip Sherrod of Nashville, Tennessee. Thank you Mr. Sherrod for permitting us to share a portion of your family’s history with our readers.-- Laddin Montgomery, Friends of the Wheeler Plantation
Colonel Benjamin Sherrod was born in Halifax Co., NC on Jan. 16, 1777. Raised by his uncle, Isaac Ricks, he was educated at the University of North Carolina. He served in the War of 1812 as an Army contractor with the commissary department, and brought to this service the administrative ability which distinguished him in later life, and from this service he acquired the title of Colonel. In politics, he was an ardent Whig. He had dark blue eyes, a Roman nose, and a very expressive face.
Along with John Hickman, Colonel Benjamin Sherrod (left) was one of two partners who founded the property that is now known as Pond Spring.
After little more than a dozen years in the valley, Sherrod was one of its ablest and most prosperous planters – respected for his skill in planting and harvesting cotton and his attention to preserving the soil, liked for his honesty and personal warmth. He owned four plantations, each of them several thousand acres, lying between Tuscumbia and Decatur.
Alabama’s first railroad (also the first west of the Applachians) came into being because Col. Sherrod and other planters along the Tennessee River in northern Alabama believed that they needed an "iron river."
Mired with mud during wet weather, crossing treacherous bridges in every season, poor roads left the valley planters largely dependent on the Tennessee River as a route for moving cotton to market and bringing in needed supplies and manufactured goods.
From Chattanooga, TN to Decatur, AL, the river was navigable. Beyond Tuscumbia landing the winding Tennessee curved like a broad highway to the Ohio and Mississippi River channels. But between Decatur and Tuscumbia, shoal water barred the river to all but the most lightly burdened craft.
In the Tuscumbia Railway Co. -- chartered in 1830 to establish a horse-powered rail line from the town to the riverbank – Benjamin Sherrod found and nourished the seeds of a bolder plan. He foresaw a railroad link between the two navigable sections of the Tennessee – an "iron river" – and beyond that a rail network that would in time rival the river itself as a highway for commerce.
David Hubbard, another valley planter who went all the way to Pennsylvania to see at first hand one of the early railroad experiments, rightly gets credit for the idea of the Tuscumbia Railway Co. But, the man most responsible for putting cedar ties and iron-capped wooden rails across the valley was Benjamin Sherrod, first president of the Tuscumbia, Courtland and Decatur.
Colonel Sherrod’s skill and good management in time expanded his holdings to four plantations [including Pond Spring (now the Wheeler Plantation)]. His plows moved abreast like a company of cavalry in a charge. His foreman with a mule of average speed set the pace. The fast mules were kept back and the slow ones speeded up. He was one of the few planters in the valley who used clover as a cover crop and, in fact, did all he could to maintain soil fertility.
Felix Sherrod (son of Col. Benjamin Sherrod) resided in this two-story home built at Pond Spring. An 1830’s era log structure serves as the framework for the building, which remains in active service to this day.
Sherrod approached railroad building with the same singleness of purpose. Within a month after the charter was granted he brought the directors together at Courtland on February 11, 1832, to accept it. At the same meeting the directors selected one of their number, David Deshler, as chief engineer. They asked him to complete within 30 days a survey of the first ten miles and a cost estimate for the entire project.
In early March 1832, the stockholders (there were fewer than 100) met in Courtland. They approved the survey and cost estimates and endorsed with few changes the officers and directors the charter named. Before the end of the year contracts had been let for grading and construction of the line from Tuscumbia to Courtland, 23 miles. Progress in 1833 proved disappointing. Though a shipment of railroad iron arrived from Liverpool, little more than ten miles of track were completed and worked with horse power. Money from early stock payments ran out, forcing the company to issue $108,000 worth of "stock bonds" backed by the company’s assets.
Excerpt from The Birmingham News, 1901:
The Tuscumbia and Courtland was the first railway in the South and was in itself and its equipment a very rude affair. Cross ties were laid about every four feet and upon these were placed wooden stringers with flat strips of iron nailed on top. The passenger cars were short, flat concerns about the size of the old mule car used in cities before the advent of the electric car. The motor power was furnished by a pair of horses or mules, which made the trip from Tuscumbia to Courtland, twenty-three miles, in a day. The trains were all mixed and when the irons on top of the stringers would fly up at the end, making what was called a "snake head," a car would be derailed and all passengers would be called out by the conductor to put it back on track, which work would sometimes occupy half a day’s time.
The Tuscumbia, Courtland and Decatur's most exciting year came in 1834. Early in the year the company awarded the last of the construction contracts for the line. On June 1 the railroad's first locomotive (built by E. Bury of Liverpool) arrived from England to delight trackside spectators with its speed and encourage the directors to abandon horse power as soon as enough locomotives could be bought.
The exact configurations of the first TC&D locomotives are currently under speculation; however, the illustration at right shows an example of an early 1830’s "Grasshopper" design built at the Liverpool works.
By July the completed track reached Courtland, and in later December cheering crowds welcomed the "Fulton" as it puffed triumphantly into Decatur with most of the road's rolling stock trailing behind it.
Even before the last track was put down, freight began to accumulate at Courtland, waiting for transport as soon as the line reached the river at Decatur. Unfortunately for the TC&D's current income and future prospects, much of the traffic had to be refused for lack of equipment (one locomotive, 15 freight cars, three passenger cars).
Additional equipment on order in the East did not arrive until 1835 -- and did not help much when it did. The "Pennsylvania," bought second hand from a railroad in that state, arrived in February without tender or tank. Over-heavy and under-powered, it became a stationary engine at the machine shops. A second locomotive, the "Comet," received from West Point Foundry at New York in June, was on the road only a few weeks before a burst cylinder sidelined it for six months. Not until June, 1836, when the Baldwin-built locomotive "Triumph" took to the rails was the TC&D able to abandon horse power entirely.
At left, An example of one of the "Baldwin" steam locomotive designs (circa 1834).
The source of the drawing is not known; thus the validity of the illustrated locomotive and car configurations is uncertain. The "Fulton" design, however, is consistent with the early 1834 "Baldwin" illustration shown previously.
Undaunted by the fluctuating fortunes of his railroad venture -- and the substantial sums it was costing him -- Benjamin Sherrod in his 1836 report to stockholders pointed out some solid accomplishments.
Completed and equipped at a cost of approximately $429,000, the railroad owned land, warehouses, offices, shops and a foundry at Tuscumbia, as well as other properties at Decatur and along the 43-mile line.
The railroad's fortunate position as the first improvement of its kind in the area, he reminded them, could not help but affect further railroad development. Lines then beginning in Georgia and Alabama, and the expected extension of the South Carolina rail system, could channel rail traffic through the valley.
Said Sherrod of the venture:
…Instead of becoming discouraged, rather let it be our chief concern to perfect and mature our work, and be prepared in the resources… for the construction of a second track…
He was right about the rail network to come, but mistaken in his timing and wrong about the need for a second track. There were even difficulties with the first one. Track construction was too light, for even small locomotives and cars, and the cedar cross-ties should have been placed at closer intervals than four feet. Fastenings on the iron caps of the rails tended to give way and the iron strips curled into "snake heads" that stopped or derailed cars.
In addition, the TC&D ran into money difficulties. The financial "snake head" that actually derailed the company was a suit by one of the stock bondholders after the company defaulted on interest payments. But the underlying weakness lay in its traffic pattern.
As a bypass to one section of the river, the railroad faced a worse "peak load and empty" cycle than one of today's commuter railroads. Heaviest traffic descended on the railroad during the brief cotton-harvesting season. Otherwise it came in sporadic bursts. Loading or unloading a steamer brought a period of feverish activity -- then there was nothing to do but wait for the arrival of the next one.
As president of the railroad until 1841, and again briefly in 1842-43, Sherrod did his best to keep the railroad project alive for the future. On several occasions he personally paid off its most pressing obligations (once he handed over almost $200,000 to the Bank of Decatur) or loaned the company money ($50,000 in 1836).
A few months after his death in 1847 the company was sold and reorganized as the Tennessee Valley Railroad Company. Later it became the nucleus of the Memphis and Charleston. It is difficult to estimate how much this railroad venture cost Sherrod in stock investment and unpaid loans. His losses must have run into hundreds of thousands of dollars.
His plantations fared better than his railroad, for Benjamin Sherrod was able to leave his seven living children [of which Pond Spring owner Felix was one] well fixed financially. He also left north Alabama a legacy of growth not to be fully realized for decades.
As the later success of the Memphis and Charleston proved, Benjamin Sherrod saw clearly the potential of a rail network to rival the river."
Today, Colonel Ben Sherrod’s railroad continues to serve as a conduit that feeds the economy of the Tennessee Valley, and thus, the Nation as a whole.
Fiercely contested during the War Between the States, the aftermath found the former TC&D Railway essentially wrecked. Following the War, however, the railroad was rebuilt, which helped to revitalize the war-ravaged Tennessee Valley. Newer rails still run the original course at Pond Spring.
Contributed by: Mr. Phillip Sherrod, Nashville, Tennessee