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Story Archives: The 'Little J' railroad & Jeff Dickson Jr.'s birth in Natchez
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|The 'Little J' railroad & Jeff Dickson Jr.'s birth in Natchez|
(Seventh in a series)
Following the war, the Dickson family suffered terrible losses through death and financial reverses.
Without the benefit of his family's legacy, Jeff Dickson, Sr. (1859-1954) had to start his own career as an engineer with the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley Railroad. In the 1890s Jeff and his young wife Alda would move to Natchez where Jeff would drive engines for the Y&MV on the "Little J" line.
The "Little J" railroad had been constructed from Natchez northward to Jackson between 1872 and 1882. The line was sponsored primarily by Natchez interests that intended to connect their town -- which had no railroad at the time -- with the growing railroad network. The company that constructed it was originally called the Natchez and Jackson, which was soon changed to the Natchez, Jackson, and Columbus. In 1890 the N, J& C was purchased by and absorbed into a larger railroad system the Louisville, New Orleans, & Texas, which two years later in 1892 was purchased by the Y&MV. It was probably sometime after the "Little J" became part of the Y&MV system that Jeff was stationed at Natchez. From there he daily drove the 100 mile stretch between the river city and Jackson.
Jeff and Alda's second child, Annie was born 11 May 1893, where we aren't sure, possibly in Natchez. The third and fourth children were born in Natchez. The third, Jeff, Jr., the focus of this series, was born on March 30, 1896 at 306 North Pearl Street, a lovely cottage that still stands. The fourth was Floyd Augustus, born 8 September 1897, probably in the same house. Living on Pearl Street, Jeff had to walk about three blocks to the Y&MV rail yard which was located between Broadway and the bluff. Here were located passenger and freight depots, numerous sidings, and a roundhouse. Every day three trains departed from Natchez and three arrived from Jackson.
The building on the bluff used today for the "Cock of the Walk" restaurant is a former Y&MV passenger depot. It was apparently constructed however after the Dicksons left Natchez.
Tragedy would soon fall on the Dickson house. On December 28, with little Floyd barely three months old, Jeff, Sr. was away from home, probably on his train, when Alda—only 27 years old—was stricken by an unknown ailment. Neighbors came to help and brought a doctor, but nothing could be done. According to the sexton's report she died of "natural causes." When Jeff arrived home he found his young wife dead and himself the sole parent of four small children. Her body was taken to Jackson for burial; her grave is apparently unmarked.
Unable to look after the children himself and probably unable to pay hired help to do so, he sent the children to live with his aunt, Angeline "Annie" Haley (b 1841), married to W.A. Patton. The Pattons lived in rural Leake County, Mississippi, a few miles east of the old Haley plantation at Council Springs. It's quite possible that Annie told the Dickson children stories of their great-grandfather Major David W. Haley's adventures on the frontier and of the Natchez Trace and old Chief Puckshunnubbee. Their father also most likely told them these stories.
Meanwhile, Jeff, Sr. found an eligible young woman and married her on September 13, 1900 in Hinds County (probably Jackson), Mississippi. Her name was Hannah Gunn (1867-1944), the 33 year old daughter of a farmer from Carroll and Montgomery Counties, Mississippi. She would never bear a single child, but to the four Dickson children she would become mother. Years later the word "Mother" was inscribed on her headstone.
After the marriage the family was reassembled, probably in Natchez where they lived a few years. Stories recall that Jeff, Jr. had friends from his early years in Natchez which suggests that they returned there. These years were few, however. Sometime before 1910 Jeff, Sr. moved his family to Jackson, the city of his birth, and took up residence at 510 Carnes Street. The Dicksons would remain in Jackson. Jeff, Sr resided on Carnes Street for at least four decades.
Although he was probably 13 or younger when they left Natchez, Jeff, Jr. lived there long enough to have memories of the place and its romantic beauty. These childhood memories eventually drew him back to the river city.
By the time the Dicksons arrived in Jackson, it had become a hub for several railroads including the Y&MV for which he worked. Although he apparently hadn't lived in Jackson since his childhood, it was his birthplace and ancestral home. His children must have heard much about the glory days of the Dicksons before the War. Jeff, Sr. would have certainly pointed out his childhood home and the site where the old Dickson House had stood.
There are a few stories about the younger Jeff's early years in Natchez and Jackson. One recalls that young Jeff avoided school work as much as possible, enjoying instead swimming in the Pearl River on the eastern boundary of Jackson. Jeff later told the story that he was so poor that he didn't have a pair of shoes until he was seven and had to work to purchase those. This story was told to highlight the distance that Jeff had come when he was at the height of fame and fortune in Paris of the late 1930s. However, it wasn't true. Although the family had suffered financial setbacks at the end of the Civil War, they were not poor. . . and certainly not destitute. Jeff, Sr. had a good job and a steady income. While the Dickson homes in Natchez and Jackson were not pretentious, they weren't hovels either. The clincher comes from two photographs of Jeff as a small child (certainly younger than seven): These were studio photos -- which weren't free. In both photos his feet can clearly be seen, and they were in nice looking shoes!
|Frank Morris Murder Series|