The Ancestors Of George & Hazel Mullins

by Philip Mullins

Chapter 10 - Osyka


Osyka, Mississippi, 1900
10-1 (Click to enlarge)

Osyka Business District, 1900
10-2 (Click to enlarge)

Summary: In 1854 a railroad was constructed through Pike County and the town of Osyka was created a few miles from the Simmon's farms. The town attracted large numbers of settlers, including many German Jews. The Simmons did not move to live in the new town but they were strongly influenced by it and the railroad.

During the years when Solomon was raising his family three events occurred that dramatically changed life in Pike County. Firstly, a railroad was laid through the county. This created the town of Osyka just four miles away from Emerald. This ended the isolation that had characterized the pioneer days. Secondly, the State of Mississippi and the Confederate States of America seceded from the Union. Thirdly, slavery was abolished.

The coming of the railroad

The City of New Orleans had been in existence since 1718 and by the 1840s was a large city. For 50 years flatboats and keelboats from as far away as the Ohio Valley had been floating down the Mississippi River to the port of New Orleans. Flatboats were really large rafts, from 20 to 100 feet long, which were stacked high with barrels of farm products. The trip from St. Louis to New Orleans on a flatboat took four months. Keelboats were real boats and were much smaller that the flatboats. Unlike flatboats keelboats could be poled up the river. Keelboats made the trip from Pittsburgh in two months and could make the return trip in four. In 1846 2,792 keelboats and flatboats arrived in New Orleans. Hundreds of them were lashed together on the waterfront waiting to be unloaded and either broken up and sold or, if they were keelboats, poled upriver. Dozens of square-rigged vessels of the ocean trade lined the deep-water wharves waiting to be loaded with cotton for England or grain and salted-meat for Europe.

After 1811 the first steamboats began to make the trip from New Orleans to Natchez. In 1816 a more powerful vessel, the Mississippi riverboat, was built by Captain Shreve. It was a stern-wheeler with steam boilers installed on the deck and it was powerful enough to go beyond Natchez, unlike the earlier steamboats. In 1829 Captain Shreve built a boat that could pull sunken trees or snags from the river. In the 1830s he used his snag boats to remove a tremendous logjam that had always blocked the Red River north of where Shreveport is today. He opened up regular service with a pair of double-decked riverboats and could make the trip from New Orleans to St. Louis in only three days. By the 1850s there were hundreds of riverboats plying the Mississippi and the journey from Natchez to New Orleans on a packet was fast and easy. Some riverboats stopped at every landing on the river, of which there were some 400 between Vicksburg and New Orleans.

All of this activity was taking place a mere 65 miles west of Pike County on the Mississippi River. New Orleans itself was only 88 overland but the road led through swamps and was frequently impassable. Despite the short distances involved many inhabitants of Pike County never made the trip to either Natchez or New Orleans. They remained as isolated as had been their grandparents 40 years before.

About 1850 Congress passed a bill to provide federal grants to aid in railroad construction. Railroads were already spreading rapidly but this law gave railroad building a tremendous boost. In 1851 financiers and business men from New Orleans organized a railroad convention to explore the possibility of building a railroad to compete with steamer traffic on the Mississippi River. Prominent men from southwest Mississippi and Pike County attended the convention. There were three routes proposed from New Orleans north. All of them paralleled the Mississippi River. The convention selected a route through Pike County.

The building of the Town of Osyka

Survey work on the road started almost immediately. When the right-of-way was planned towns such as Amite and Kentwood were laid out about every 10 miles along the tracks. One such town was located just north of the Louisiana-Mississippi state line. It was named Osyka, which is supposed to be a Choctaw word meaning "soaring eagle". The site of the new town was on land originally settled by Jessie Redmond and Samuel Carter. A half mile north of Osyka the tracks would run through the old Samuel Varnadoe home place and then through land deeded to Isaac Carter in 1811. The town site of Osyka was laid out into streets and building lots. When the survey was completed the 588 lots in the town were sold at auction. On November 14 and 15, 1854, beginning at 10 AM each day, an auction was held at the site. The lots found ready buyers and merchants began pouring into Osyka, not only from southwest Mississippi but from New Orleans and overseas as well. The new arrivals built hotels, businesses and homes, mostly on the east side of the tracks. In six week's time some 20 buildings were constructed. A local farmer, Louis Varnado, built a hotel and several warehouses and was one of the town's first inhabitants.

Once the railroad reached the site of Osyka construction slowed and for two years Osyka was the northern terminus of the New Orleans, Jackson and Great Northern Railroad. In 1877 the Illinois Central bought out the N. J. and G. N. that by this time was a through route from New Orleans to Chicago. As the terminus of the railroad Osyka was briefly the center of a large trade area. The railroad made the long overnight trips by ox wagon to Madisonville or Covington unnecessary. Hundreds of wealthy people from New Orleans made the 88-mile trip to Osyka as tourists simply to see the country, ride the railroad and enjoy a picnic lunch in Osyka. Many people came to Osyka to live. Included were about 50 families of German Jews from Prussia and Bavaria in Germany and Alsace in France. They came to America to escape the troubles following the revolutions of 1848 or as refugees from European anti-Semitism. They were industrious people. They built the first school in Osyka, the first bakery, the first butcher shop and the first barber shop. They set up dozens of places of business and their own synagogue. The synagogue was the first religious organization in Osyka. The first churches, one Episcopal and the other Presbyterian, were not constituted until 1859, some two years later.

The residents of Osyka

The opportunities in this new town drew people from the surrounding area as well. Isaac Cutrer owned a plantation, a brick yard and a mercantile house in Covington, Louisiana, some 45 miles south. He helped lay out the town site of Osyka and moved his family and his businesses there. He helped found the Osyka Presbyterian Church in 1859. Another such family was that of Jacob Ott. Jacob Ott's father, like that of Isaac Cutrer, had moved from South Carolina to Louisiana prior to 1820. In the 1850s he moved his family to Osyka and set up a sawmill west of the Tangipahoa River. Both the Cutrer and the Ott families continue to be prominent in Osyka today.

With the exception of Louis H. Varnado, who owned the hotel, I know of no Varnados or Simmons who moved to Osyka before the Civil War. Isham Varnado , who married Nancy Simmon's sister Margaret Hope, lived one and a half miles east of Osyka on a farm. He furnished nearly all of the shingles used to roof the town. Henry Carter lived at Chatawa on Carter's Hill. He furnished huge quantities of gravel for the railroad bed. Other local men sold wood to the railroad and supplied food to the labor camps. Slaves and Irish immigrants built the railroad itself.

The influence of Osyka on the country folk

None of the children of William and Nancy Simmons moved into the town of Osyka, or for that matter into any town, to work. They were however inevitably drawn to the new towns and to the news ways of earning a living that these towns made possible. The older children remained all their lives in the immediate area of their birthplace on the Bala Chitto Creek. Two of the younger daughters, who came of age after the Civil War, farmed most of their lives and then moved a few miles west to spend their retirement years in McComb or Osyka. The youngest boy, Cyrus Simmons, moved to Tylertown in his old age after working for the Fernwood Lumber Company for many years as a woods foreman.

Even those who never left their farms on the Bala Chitto found that the long trips to Natchez, Covington, Baton Rouge or Madisonville were no longer necessary. Occasionally it was advantageous to make the trip to pick up something very heavy or unwieldy but, for most items, the railroad freight office was sufficient. Prior to 1855 cotton had to be taken overland to Liberty or be poled down the Tangipahoa River to Lee's Landing in Louisiana. Now there was several cotton gins in Osyka and a spur line and a cotton platform behind the station depot where the bales could be shipped by rail. The farmers found that it was possible to ship products other than cotton. The train ran daily, making the New Orleans to Osyka run on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and going back to New Orleans on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. Lumber, butter and produce from the garden could be shipped to New Orleans. In the new towns jobs that paid by the month were now available. It was now practicable to go into business. In the next generation members of the family became medical doctors, lawyers, dentists, school teachers, sawmill workers, mechanics and store clerks. The pioneer days were suddenly over. Pike County had joined the 19th Century.

In 1858 two balloonists, a man and a woman, where attempting to fly in a hot air balloon from New Orleans to Nashville. Instead they crashed into the treetops in Pike County near the state line. Their arrival created a sensation. They were asked to give demonstrations in Tylertown and Holmesville. The talks were well attended and a hat was passed around to raise money so they could continue their expedition. During the demonstrations, the balloonists released paper hot-air balloons with lighted candles inside. The balloons traveled for miles before descending to the earth. Those ignorant of the nature of the little balloons might have been reminded of the great meteor shower of 1833 that had set the heavens ablaze and convinced many people that the end of the world was at hand. Indeed, the meteor shower had so impressed the folks of Pike County that many blacks reckoned their ages by reference to it. Likewise many were startled to see the lighted globes floating through the night sky. However, to those in the know the balloons were but one example of the technological marvels of the 19th Century.

There is a bell in Osyka called the Cutrer Bell. It was first used as a plantation bell on the farm of Isaac Cutrer near Covington. There it was used to signal dinner time to the field hands. After Isaac Cutrer moved to Osyka in the 1850s the bell was used to announce the arrival of fresh meat at the market. Later it was mounted in the cupola on the roof of the railroad depot. Everyday for 75 years the depot agent rang the bell at 11 AM, because, with the railroad, standardized time had come to Pike County. The Cutrer Bell is witness to the durability of the pioneer families who treked to Mississippi from the Carolinas seeking a better life, who created farms, schools and churches where there were none, who suffered through the war years and who stayed even after farming became a forgotten way of life. Many of the early pioneer family names have disappeared from Pike County but others, like the Cutrer Bell, have remained although conditions of life in Pike County have changed immensely in the two hundred years since the Great Migration.

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Copyright © 1994-2005 by Philip Mullins. Permission is granted to reproduce and transmit contents for not-for-profit purposes.