Cotton and corn fields occupied its present site, surrounded by oak and pine forests over clay hills and bottom lands of the head waters of the Chickasawhay. Richard McLemore possessed most of the lands and his plantation home was the only notable residence in the vicinity. So little did the M.& O. regard the point for a while, that it was with difficulty persuaded to put in even a switch for a flag station; and when it did, called the place "Sowashee Station," from a creek near by.
L.A. Ragsdale, meanwhile, had brought out R.McLemore, and John T. Ball had purchased a tract of 80 acres, and both parties immediately began to lay off town lots. They were the pioneers. Mr. Ragsdale's plat was for "Ragsdale City;" Mr. Ball's for "Meridian," he having first secured a postoffice by that name.
The post office name was adopted for the charter, secured by L.S. O.G. Greer from the legislature, January 10, 1860, when the city of Meridian became a legal corporation. It was several years before the Vicksburg road, then known as the "Southern," made its junction, being delayed by having to tunnel the Tallahata ridge. Meanwhile, part of what is now the A.G.S. was finished to York, Ala,, 27 miles. This road made connection with the Selma branch soon after the declaration of the war, as a military necessity.
A weekly paper was published by W.L. Spinks. When the war broke out between the States, 1861, Meridian was a mere village with three or four stores, two or three hotels and a shingle machine. There were two churches, Baptist and Methodist, with union Sunday school. Near where the Insane Asylum now stands, a good sized academy had been built, and the school was in full operations.
But things changed. The city became a military camp and in due time was division headquarters of the Confederate army. Early in the year 1864, Gen. W.T. Sherman, of the Federal army, made his raid to Meridian. Gen. Leonidas Polk, who had been the Episcopal bishop of Louisiana, was in command. Having too small a force to meet the invaders, he fell back to Demopolis, leaving the territory around the city to the mercy of the enemy.
Railroads were torn up for miles in every direction and many houses were burned. All the grist mills were destroyed, and after the Federal troops departed, women and children were without food for some days; but no direct personal injury was inflicted. The collapse of the Confederacy came in April, 1865, and Meridian became a main point for issuing paroles. Everything was done quietly, but in sadness. No complaints were made until the days of reconstruction.
Notwithstanding the troubles of the Reconstruction period, however, the city began to grow. Mercantile establishments were multiplied, a bank was started, and factories began to be built. But friction came, resulting in the riot of 1871, and the reorganization of the municipal government. Soon after the riot a census was taken of the city proper by the board. The population proved to be only 3,881, which was not made public. Meanwhile, the first cotton mill was established; but just as it began to pay, it was accidentally destroyed by fire, which was a real calamity.
Failure of the A.& C. railroad and the burning of its shops had already cast a gloom on business, but the sash and blind factory and other industries soon filled up the gaps. In 1875, the burning of the Phoenix hotel, the most imposing building in the city at the time, was a most unfortunate affair. A period of depression was followed by the fever epidemic of 1878, which almost depopulated the town, but the following year was noted for a general advance in prosperity.
The most encouraging feature was the proposed road to New Orleans, in course of construction, and completed in 1883, the shops being located in the city. Great credit is due Capt. W.H. Hardy, then of this city, for the building of the N.O. & N.E. railroad, and for the introduction of the a second National Bank. He and Mr. C.W. Robinson were prominent in the work of establishing industries and improving the city.
A little to the northwest the East Mississippi Insane Asylum was built, now surrounded by beautiful grounds. In educational matters Meridians has always taken a lively interest, which has steadily increased. Immediately after the surrender, a Baptist college for girls was established, and later a Methodist college, the former closing out some years ago and the latter changing its control and location. The successful institution of the present public school system was the prime cause of changes. There are now in the city seven excellent public schools buildings -- one of them for the colored people -- and some costly structures, with two to be added this year, all brick except two. The high school at its last commencement gave out 41 diplomas to tenth grade graduates. Besides these, there are two denomination colleges for girlsMethodist Episcopal and Roman Catholic, and one Independent; also a boy's school under Roman Catholic control and a commercial college.
In the matter of churches, Meridian is particularly blessed, having seven white, and seven colored, Baptist; five Methodist, white, and four colored; three Presbyterian, including the Cumberland, white, and one Congregational, colored; two Episcopal, both white; one Disciples, and a very artistic Jewish synagogue in course of construction. These various denominations all have houses of worship, many elegant, expensive and convenient, and ornaments to the city.
Meridian is a city without saloons and has been for thirteen years, and though Lauderdale is legally a "wet county," it has been impossible to secure enough petitioners to get a saloon in the county.
A very destructive fire occurred in 1882, which swept away quite a number of blocks and residences, and the Presbyterian house of worship. Two corner buildings escaped, the old "Jones hotel," and the Masonic hall. A Masonic lodge was organized in the town in 1865, and another later. Other secret and benevolent societies follows: the Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias, Knights and Lades of Honor, Elks, and some private clubs. A very successful Railroad Young Men's Christian Association has been in operation several years; its hall was demolished by the cyclone of March 3, 1906. The cyclone also destroyed the fertilizer factory, two or three blocks of stores, many residences, to white and three colored churches, and killed and injured about 50 persons.
One of the first advances of Meridian to city life was the introduction of mule street cards, and then gas lights. In due time these were merged into electric lines and electric lights and power. But the most notable improvements were made during the administration of Mayor E.H. Dial. These were the adoption and installation of a fine system of sewerage, the paving of streets and the laying of sidewalks. He also prepared and secured the adoption of a number of excellent ordinances. Meridian now has ten miles of electric street railway, and many miles of gas pipes, water pipes, sewerage, paved streets and paved sidewalks.
It is the metropolis, and the most important railroad and industrial center of eastern Mississippi. Its rapid growth and development have taken place since the war, and chiefly during the past two decades. It is today a modern city in every sense of the work, with its modern improvements, excellent schools, fine church edifices, varied commercial and industrial enterprises and its splendid transportation facilities. The city transacts an enormous wholesale business, and possesses the largest wholesale grocery house in the state, while the Meridian Fertilizer Factory claims the largest output of any similar plant in the State.
Among its other important industries are the Southern Oil and Fertilizer Co., cotton, furniture, sash and blind factories, railroad repair shops, foundry, machines shops, two daily, and four weekly newspapers; the Press is a morning daily and the Star is an evening daily. Five strong banking institutions supply the city's commercial needs. The Meridian National bank was established in 1884; the First National Bank, in 1883; the Citizens Bank, in 188; the Southern Bank, in 1898, and the Peoples Savings Bank, in 1902; the combined banking capital of the city being in the neighborhoods of $1,000,000. In addition to the many beautiful and ornate residences of the city, its streets are embellished by many fine church buildings and modern business blocks. Still other noteworthy buildings are the new Union Depot, and the stately courthouse.
The U.S. census for 1900 yields the following statistics for Meridian: Number of industries, 119; capital, $1,923,590; average number of wage-earners, 1,416; total wages, $555,409; cost of materials used, $1,700,655; value of products, $2,980,217; population 14,050. The census ranked it first among the manufacturing cities of the State, and next to Vicksburg in point of population. Since 1900 its growth in populations has been very rapid, and it now claims the largest number of people of any city in Mississippi.
Source: Rowland, Dunbar, LL.D. MISSISSIPPI; COMPRISING SKETCHES OF COUNTIES, TOWNS, EVENTS, INSTITUTIONS, AND PERSONS, ARRANGED IN CYCLOPEDIC FORM, V. 2. Atlanta, Southern Historical Publishing Association, c1907.