The History of the Big Black River Railroad Bridges

By James L. Drake


The Vicksburg to Jackson railroad was begun in 1833. By 1838, the rail service was scheduled between Vicksburg to the Big Black River five miles east. However, construction of the railroad eastward progressed slowly because of the heavy cuts, high trestles and long bridge over the Big Black. A notice published in The Tennessean (Nashville), December 31, 1835,1

Sealed proposals will be received by the subscriber at Vicksburg, for the 1st and 10th of January next, inclusive, for the Grading, Bridging and Masonry on the eastern division of this Railroad extending from Big Black river to the town of Jackson, a distance of thirty-four miles. Three bridges of considerable magnitude to be let; one over Big Black river, 200 feet between the abutments, and two over Baker’s Creek, about 60 feet between the abutments; are Jobs well deserving the attention of experienced contractors.

The Raymond Times (Raymond, Mississippi), May 18, 1839,  announced that the railroad would be complete by October 1839:2

At Big Black the cars will be able to cross the bridge and truss working five or six weeks. On this side of the river several hundred hands are at work the—timber and rails are partly laid—and Judge Taylor assures us that there is every reason to believe that the cars will be running as far as the intersection with our railroad in October. Let them come on. We'll be ready to meet them.

Before the the close of 1840, seven years after ground was broken in Vicksburg, the railroad reached Jackson. The road was built of wooden rails, set five feet apart, capped with strips of iron fastened to the rails by means of iron spikes, which worked their way through the rails to such an extent that it was necessary for trackmen to make daily trips over the line to drive them in. Those protruding spikes were known as snake heads.1 The entire construction of the Southern Railroad, for 140 miles, was not completed until June 1861, and for nine months previous to that date, the trains ran no farther east than Newton Station, 109 miles from Vicksburg.

Iron rail and spikes from the Bolton-Raymond Railroad, the same as used on the Vicksburg-Jackson railroad.



The first notice of the Big Black bridge and specifications was printed in The Mississippian, November 26, 1847,

The following information in regard to the bridge recently built over Big Black, on the line of the Vicksburg and Jackson Railroad, may be interesting to some of our readers:

The entire length of the Bridge, 417 ft.
The west span, 141 feet 3 inches.
Centre span, 160 feet 11 inches.
East span, 97 feet 6 inches.
Lower chord, 24 ½ inches by 11.
Top chord, 24 ½ inches by 7.
Depth between the chords, 17 feet 6 inches
Floor of bridge, 22 feet wide.
Upright posts stem [sic], 7 inches square.
       Do. Head and foot, 12 by 7 inc.
Braces, 7 inches square, set at an angle of 62 degs [degrees].

The bridge was built by Mr. Jeremiah Stinson from a plan which he submitted to, and had approved by C. W. Banks, Esq., of Vicksburg, civil engineer. The framing of the bridge was begun by Mr. Stinson, on the 11th August, 1847, and the cars made their first trip over it on the 30th October. It required of carpenter’s work, 586 days—and of laborer’s work, 74 months: and contains 109,000 (board feet?) of timber, and about 8100 lbs. of iron.


Computer generated drawing of the 1847 Howe Truss bridge using the reported specifications  
superimposed on a picture of the old bridge piers


On February 20, 1851, the central masonry pier, constructed in 1836-37, failed due to the changing river channel during a flood. The Vicksburg Whig, February 28, 1851, reported:

On Thursday evening, [February 20th] about four o'clock, the central pier under the railroad bridge, at Big Black, fell from the pressure of the flood in that stream. On the morning of that day the watchman, whose duty it is to cross the bridge after the passage of every train, reported something wrong; on the arrival of the evening train from Vicksburg at Big Black, it was stopped by order of Mr. Crump, the Superintendent of the Road, while he went forward to examine; he found the central pier had yielded to the pressure of the water, and properly judging the passage to be unsafe, directed the train to return to Vicksburg; in a few moments the pier fell, (no part of it being visible above the high water) and left the bridge suspended by the adjoining piers, where it still remains, sunk in the centre of the truss about fifteen inches below its true level. The pier was of cut limestone, laid in hydraulic cement as high as high water mark, from that to the top of brick well grouted; the foundation was placed on piles driven twenty feet be low the bed of the stream; the cofferdams, composed of heavy timbers, filled with large stone. The pier was built in 1836-7 and has resisted every flood in Big Black up to the present time.

During the Confederate Army retreat from Champion Hill, May 17, 1865, the bridge was burned to prevent Union forces from using it in pursuit. Major Samuel Lockett, Confederate engineer, had already prepared make-shift bridges over the Big Black should there be a need for an escape route. "In addition to the railroad bridge, which I had caused to be floored for the passage, even of artillery and wagons, the steamer Dot, from which the machinery had been taken, was converted into a bridge, by place her fore and aft across the river."

Pen and ink sketch by Theodore Davis of the a pontoon bridge constructed  by the Union from cotton bales and timbers over the Big Black and the 1836-37 masonry piers from the bridge burned in the Confederate retreat.


Union army pontoon bridge  over the Big Black adjacent to mouth of Clear Creek



Morris Emanuel, president of the Southern Railroad noted in his September 1865 report2: "At the close of the war we were left to contemplate its blighting effect on our road and property, as evidenced by our tracks torn up, crossties burned, rails bent, twisted and broken, bridges and culverts destroyed, depots burned, cars destroyed, and locomotives and all other machinery in a damaged condition." The company agreed to pay the Government the cost of the 52nd U.S. Colored Infantry were pressed into helping to rebuild the railroad, that was ravaged by the Union.

A new bridge over the Big Black was opened in August 1866. William Morris, Civil Eng'r, in his November 1865 report on the condition of the Southern Railroad of Mississippi3:

The bridge over Big Black is a new structure—three spans, 102, 165, and 140 feet respectively, and was built by Mr. A. Fink, of Louisville, upon the plan known as "Fink's Patent." It is a combined wood and iron bridge, the top cords and bearers being of wood and the remainder of iron. Mr. Fink has built a large number of these bridges upon different roads, where they have successfully born the test of heavy traffic. It is built in a climate favorable to the use of iron, on account of the absence of sever cold weather. It is well built, and if the iron used is of good quality, the bridge will be a durable one. The trestle approach on the east is some 3,100 feet long, and is built of heart Carolina pine, in a very substantial manner. The bridge was opened in August 1866.

Drawing from Fink patent. The bridge used unique method of “linking” wooden top cords and bearers with pinned wrought-iron shoe connections. Wrought-iron bars were used in the bottom cord and vertical tension members.

The Daily Clarion, August 17, 1866, announced the bridge opening:

Office of the Southern R.R. Co., Vicksburg, August 4th 1866— ….Now that the bridge is restored and the trains running through as before the war, it is deemed a suitable occasion for the Company to afford an opportunity on reasonable terms for the specified period, for the people on the line of the road to again mingle in social intercourse, and for the promotion of business transactions so long interrupted and deranged by our misfortunes.



The “Fink Bridge” was used until 1875, when the west channel pier slid on its foundation and along the axis of the bridge, and yet, retained its perpendicularity. The movement of this pier wrecked the structure and traffic over the road was suspended for several weeks. A temporary “Pony” [a bridge without overhead members] bridge was built on a new location, north of the old structure, the grade being made very heavy to lessen the work and cheapen construction.



The 1875 temporary “Pony” bridge can be seen in these remarkable pictures taken circa 1895. The masonry piers built in 1836-37, supported the bridge burned in  May 17, 1863 by the Confederates the Civil War and later the "Fink Bridge.". They failed under the "Fink Bridge" when the channel was eroded by high water.



Throughout the South, track gauges varied between railroad systems and within systems. The Vicksburg & Meridian route employed a gauge of 5' 0" whereas the standard width was 4' 8". In order to facilitate the transfer of equipment from one railroad to another it became necessary to change the gauge of the Vicksburg & Meridian to standard gauge. This was accomplished on October 23, 1885, when the gauge of the entire line from Meridian to Vicksburg, 152 miles including sidings, was changed in about 16 hours.



A new steel structure was opened in October 1885 to replace the 1875 temporary "Pony" bridge. The Daily Commercial Herald, October 1, 1895, wrote:

The new structure [Big Black River Bridge], which will be put into use today, is of steel and rests on steel cylinders filled with concrete. The piers have been sunk to a depth and rest well into a hard black material of about the consistency of soapstone. The superstructure consists of a through span (over the channel) 180 feet long, two plate girders 95 feet each with a 30-foot girder on the west. East of the bridge proper, there is a trestle approach 3,090 feet-long which varies in height from six feet on the east end to 35 feet where it connects with the iron bridge. The total length of the bridge and approaches is 3,490 feet. There was used in the construction of the piers 100,000 pound of steel, two carloads of Portland cement and 25 carloads of broken stone, and in the spans 600,000 pounds of steel. It required over three-fourths of a million feet of lumber to build the trestle approach. The cost of the entire structure has been about $76,000. The original grade of the road has been restored and the operation of the steep grade of the temporary bridge is thing of the past.



Construction of the 1895 Steel Bridge. Portions of the masonry piers can be seen under the new bridge.

The 1875 temporary “Pony” bridge is on the right.


A computer rendering of the masonry piers, the steel bridge and piers and the temporary "Pony" bridge


The reinforced concrete steel caissons with the east masonry pier in the background


In 1889 the Vicksburg & Meridian became a part of the Queen & Crescent System was subsequently known as the Alabama & Vicksburg Division became a part of the Illinois Central System on June 2, 19261. [The Vicksburg & Meridian went into receivership, October 20, 1885—Frank Bond, president of Queen and Crescent system was appointed receiver].



The present concrete bridge was built in 1917-19 by the Blodgett Construction Company under the direction of Mr. T. J. Newell. The structure contains more than 4,250 cubic yards of concrete, was designed and built at a cost of $122,645 for the Alabama and Vicksburg Railway. In April 1919, the old steel bridge was removed using two wreckers and flat cars to receive the steel pieces weighing as much as 75 tons. The old steel cased concrete piers were cut to the water level.



 The modern concrete bridge over the Big Black River


Masonry and reinforced concrete pier remnants below the present concrete structure



  1. George M Crowson, History of Alabama and Vicksburg R.R.,, Originally published in the April 30, 1936 Edition of the Newton Record.

  2. Circular to the Bondholders And Creditors of The Southern Railroad Company, of The State of Mississippi, Reports On The Condition And Financial Status Of The Southern Railroad Company After The Civil War, September 11, 1865

  3. William E. Morris, Civil Eng'r, Report On The Condition And Prospects Of The Southern Rail Road Of Mississippi, November 1866.



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