From the Foothills to the Delta: Spending a Day On the Rock Island

(c) 2021 Clint Lacy / Foothills Media LLC

I had the opportunity to take part in a “speeder” run on the newly reborn Rock Island railroad from Swan Lake to Clarksdale, Mississippi recently. “Speeders” are track inspection vehicles from the days of old and running these pieces of history has become a niche hobby over the years. Before I get into the events of the day I need to share a bit of history.

From Wikipedia:

“The Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad (CRI&P RW, sometimes called Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railway)[1] (reporting marks CRIPRIROCK) was an American Class I railroad. It was also known as the Rock Island Line, or, in its final years, The Rock.

At the end of 1970, it operated 7,183 miles of road on 10,669 miles of track; that year it reported 20,557 million ton-miles of revenue freight and 118 million passenger-miles.

Eventually bad management and a bad economy took it’s toll on the once great railroad and by the early 1980’s it ceased to exist but thanks to the vision of Mississippi businessman Robert Riley (who bought the rights and licensing to the railroad’s name) the Rock Island name and legacy has been reborn and is undergoing a renaissance of sorts, this time however, it is deep in the heart of Mississippi on a stretch of road once owned and operated by the Illinois Central.

In 2017 Riley took over operations of the Mississippi Delta Railroad. Information found on the Rock Island Rail website states:

“The Mississippi Delta Railroad (reporting mark: MSDR) is based in Sumner, Mississippi and operates a total of 85 miles of track in the northwest corner of the state. MSDR interchanges with Canadian National Railway, a Class I Railroad company, at Swan Lake, MS. The MSDR has two expansive yards located in Clarksdale, MS as well as numerous sidings and auxiliary tracks for car storage. The Mississippi Delta’s principle commodities include: scrap, paper, polystyrene, PVC, fertilizer, cotton, grains, and other agricultural products. “

My friend Shawn and I left the Southeast Missouri Ozarks on Friday October 8th, 2021 at 5:00 pm and arrived at Clarksdale, Mississippi 4 1/2 hours later. After spending the night in Clarksdale, we drove to Sumner the next morning and hitched a ride with some “speeder” owners.

(C)2021 Clint Lacy / Foothills Media LLC
A caravan of “speeder” cars prepares to depart Sumner, Mississippi on the morning of October 9, 2021 (c)2021 Clint Lacy/ Foothills Media LLC
Map of the Rock Island Railroad from Clarksdale to Swan Lake, Mississippi. (Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.org)

Leaving Sumner, we traveled to Swan Lake where “The Rock” interchanges with the Canadian National railroad. At Swan Lake the caravan of “speeders” turned their cars around and headed back to Sumner, passing through Webb where an old railroad depot still stands.

Train depot, Webb, Mississippi. (c) 2021 Clint Lacy / Foothills Media LLC

Doubling back through Sumner, the group headed to Tutwiler where it stopped for lunch and then continued north towards Clarksdale.

A cotton field waiting to be picked at Tutwiler, Mississippi. (c)2021 Clint Lacy / Foothills Media LLC

After taking a break at Tutwiler we fired up the “speeders” and were once again heading north passing through Dublin, Mattson and Claremont before stopping at a rather unique location outside of Clarksdale called The Shack Up Inn for another break.

The Shack Up Inn is located on the once thriving Hopson Plantation three miles from the historic “crossroads” of highways 49 and 61 in the heart of blues country. Sharecropper’s shacks and grain bins have been converted into comfortable cottages and the site boasts its own blues bar and lounge.

The Shack Up Inn, Clarksdale, Mississippi. (c)2021 Clint Lacy/ Foothills Media LLC
The Shack Up Inn, Clarksdale, Mississippi (c)2021 Clint Lacy / Foothills Media LLC
The Shack Up Inn, Clarksdale, Mississippi. (c)2021 Clint Lacy / Foothills Media LLC
The Shack Up Inn, Clarksdale, Mississippi. (c) 2021 Clint Lacy / Foothills Media LLC
The Shack Up Inn, Clarksdale, Mississippi. (c)2021 Clint Lacy / Foothills Media LLC
The caravan stopped in front of The Shack Up Inn for a brief break before proceeding to Clarksdale. (c)2021 Clint Lacy / Foothills Media LLC

After taking a break (and some pictures) at The Shack Up Inn our caravan left for Rock Island Rail’s expansive rail yard at Clarksdale, where we would once again, turn the “speeders” around for our 20- mile return trip to Sumner.

Speeding through the rail yards at Clarksdale, Mississippi
A haze settles over the railroad on our return trip to Sumner, a result of the ongoing cotton harvest that was taking place at the time of our trip. (c)2021 Clint Lacy / Foothills Media LLC

We arrived at Sumner at around 5:00 pm after spending a full day on the rails. I had the fortune of hitching a ride on an open air “speeder” and it can only be described as riding a Harley Davidson on rails. As much fun as it was, I was tired.

The rest of the afternoon was spent loading up the “speeders” and visiting with my new found friends. After the visit, we all said our goodbyes and left with smiling faces. Thank you to to Robert and Gwen Riley for allowing this event to take place and accompanying us. Also thanks to Louis and Caleb for allowing me to hitch a ride with them.

Soon Shawn and I pointed my car north. As much as I enjoyed the road trip, there really is no place like home. I was glad to get back to the foothills.

More pictures from the “speeder” run and Sumner, Mississippi…

Me posing next to the open air “speeder” I hitched a ride on. (c)2021 Clint Lacy / Foothills Media LLC
My friend ( and railroad historian ) Shawn Friedrich. (c)2021 Clint Lacy / Foothills Media LLC
Courthouse, Sumner, Mississippi. (c)2021 Clint Lacy / Foothills Media LLC
Town square, Sumner, Mississippi. (c)2021 Clint Lacy / Foothills Media LLC

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