The Louisiana Eastern Railroad

In a recent post, A Mini-Reunion at Covington, I had mentioned visiting Matt Hardey’s Louisiana Eastern Railroad layout.  Well, I didn’t get that exactly right.  Matt started his dream with the New Orleans Great Northern Railroad.  The prototype eventually was acquired by the Gulf, Mobile and Northern, which itself later became the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio Railroad.  Matt has come up with several operating schemes for his layout.  By using equipment and such for different eras, he can operate the road as the NOGN, or a later era of the GM&O.  Another variant is a “what if” scenario, running steam powered Louisiana Eastern trains over the GM&O via trackage rights in the Covington, Louisiana area during the early 1950s.  Matt has a collection of LE rolling stock, which is what I was fixated on during my visit.

Most of the readers of my ramblings are from this area and are likely to be familiar with the Louisiana Eastern Railroad.  However a few of you may be scratching your head and thinking “never heard of it”.  The Louisiana Eastern was the vision of Paulsen Spence.  An excellent piece about Mr. Spence and the Louisiana Eastern has been written by noted author and local historian Louis Saillard, and can be found here on Chris Palmieri’s website.  I’ll touch on a few of the highlights of the LE gleaned from Louis’ treatise here.

Born in Baton Rouge, Mr. Spence had made his fortune with his Spence Engineering Company and his considerable number of patents for various steam regulating valves.  Eventually he turned his interest to the sand and gravel business, starting a gravel operation in the late 1940s.  He utilized steam locomotives (that he had recently acquired) to move the cars of gravel from the pit to the interchange with the nearby Illinois Central.  The Comite Southern Railroad was born.  In 1950 Mr. Spence acquired a larger gravel pit operation a short distance away.  Included with that sale was the one mile Gulf & Eastern Railroad.  In late 1950 the Louisiana Eastern Railroad was chartered and that’s where the dream began.

Now, the gravel business was good for Mr. Spence, with well over 200 cars of commodity eventually emerging from the pits each week.  But he had a larger vision.  Mr. Spence had been purchasing recently retired steamers from various roads beginning in the mid 1940s and throughout the 1950s, and he eventually had about three dozen of the breed on the property.  The reason for these purchases?  Mr. Spence had conceived the idea of creating a railroad that would run from Baton Rouge, Louisiana to Pearl River, Louisiana near the Mississippi border, a distance of nearly 100 miles.  In Baton Rouge, he would have access to the Illinois Central, the Kansas City Southern and the Missouri Pacific.  Near Pearl River he would interchange with the Gulf, Mobile and Ohio and the Southern Railway.  With these connections he could effectively create a bypass around the rail traffic congestion in New Orleans.  The steamers were the power for that railroad.  Buying these locomotives at bargain basement prices just made good business sense to Mr. Spence.

Grand plans to be sure, but things came to an abrupt halt in late 1961 when Mr. Spence died suddenly from a heart attack while on a business trip to New York.  The dream was dead.  Everything was sold off and most of the steamers were soon scrapped.  I believe four of the locomotives survived and can be found in various parts of the country.  One of the most interesting locomotives was one of several 4-4-0 types that Mr. Spence had acquired.  Locomotive No. 98 was purchased new by the Mississippi Central Railroad in 1909 and eventually sold to Mr. Spence in 1946.  She still survives and is in operation on the Wilmington & Western Railroad, where she still carries her number of 98.  There are a number of YouTube videos showing her in service; see her during the Wilmington & Western’s Springtime Steam Spectacular in 2014.

A few other links for information about the Louisiana Eastern can be found at the HawkinsRails website, and on Wikipedia.  But if you want the very interesting and detailed story, be sure to read Louis’ piece linked to above.

-Jack

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