Depot, railway shaped James McDowell’s life

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When James McDowell was a boy his family lived right beside the railroad track. The presence of the tracks helped him decide what he wanted to do for a living.

“Railwork was always fascinating to me,” said the 91-year-old.

McDowell’s family farmed in this area when he was a boy at Hodges. He began doing section work on the railroad in 1917.

“After we got our crop in, I started work here,” he said, adding that “grassing” the tracks was his first job, a task which refers to pulling up the weeds and grasses around the railroad ties.

“I worked at that off and on for a total of about two months between 1916 and 1917,” McDowell said.

During that time, he remembers an innovation being created that changed railroad work.

“We had the old labor cars or hand cars that the crews used to get to the jobsite along the track,” he said. “While I was there, we took the pump handles off one and put a motor in there.”

The men on the crew even paid for the engine out of their salaries, costing them each 10 cents a day.

The company then became interested in the device, and soon, McDowell said, the motor driven labor cars were being built for all of the stations. “They went to making motor cars for all the section men,” he said.

During the time he worked at the depot, McDowell says that he made $1.18 per day for 10 hours work. He eventually became telegrapher at the Red Bay Depot at the beginning of the Great Depression.

“I started working at the depot in 1929,” he said, “and I got cut off in 1931, when they were closing a lot of railroad agents’ jobs.”

McDowell hadn’t been on the job long enough to be one of the lucky few who were retained by the Illinois Central Railroad, and he said he was out of regular work for seven years.

“They called me in occasionally when one of the men had to attend court or go to a funeral or something,” he said, “so I didn’t lose my seniority.”

During those years McDowell returned to farming to make a living.

“From 1938 to 1940 I worked at the railroad a whole lot on extra time,” he said. “Then in 1941 I got a regular job as the railroad agent in Vaughn, Miss.”

After 47 years of service to the company, McDowell retired on November 21, 1966, but he hasn’t lost track of all of those he knew when he worked the rails.

“Every once in a while we have a reunion of the railroad workers,” he said. “We had the last one about six years ago in Dennis, Miss.”

McDowell still even has some of his old telegraph instruments he used at the depot in Red Bay.

“There have been lots of changes in my lifetime,” said the ex-railroad agent, a man who was born before the turn of the century. Some of those changes came with the railroad he served.