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Known as the "First Railroad War," the Civil War left the South's railroads and economy devastated. Most of the railroads, however, were repaired, reorganized and operated again. In the area along the Ohio River and Mississippi River, construction of new railroads continued throughout Reconstruction. The Richmond and Danville System expanded throughout the South during this period, but was overextended, and came upon financial troubles in 1893, when control was lost to financier J.P. Morgan, who reorganized it into the Southern Railway System.
Southern Railway came into existence in 1894 through the combination of the Memphis and Charleston Railroad, the Richmond and Danville system and the East Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia Railroad. The company owned two-thirds of the 4,400 miles of line it operated, and the rest was held through leases, operating agreements and stock ownership. Southern also controlled the Alabama Great Southern and the Georgia Southern and Florida, which operated separately, and it had an interest in the Central of Georgia.
Southern's first president, Samuel Spencer, drew more lines into Southern's core system. During his 12-year term, the railway built new shops at Knoxville, Tennessee, and Atlanta, Georgia and purchased more equipment. He moved the company's service away from an agricultural dependence on tobacco and cotton and centered its efforts on diversifying traffic and industrial development. Spencer was killed in a train wreck in 1906.
By the time the line from Meridian, Mississippi, to New Orleans, Louisiana was acquired in 1916 under Southern's president Fairfax Harrison, the railroad had attained the 8,000-mile, 13-state system that marked its territorial limits for almost half a century.

The Central of Georgia became part of the system in 1963, and the former Norfolk Southern Railway was acquired in 1974.

The Southern Railway was notably the first Class I railroad in the United States to completely convert to diesel motive power. On June 17, 1953, the railroad's last steam-powered freight train arrived in Chattanooga, Tennessee behind 2-8-2 locomotive No. 6330.

From dieselization and shop and yard modernization, to computers and the development of special cars and the unit coal train, Southern often was on the cutting edge of change, earning the company its catch phrase, "Southern Gives a Green Light to Innovation."

While the Southern's most famous passenger trains included the Crescent and Southerner it also rostered an entire fleet of named trains. These include:
  • Aiken-Augusta Special
  • Birmingham Special
  • Crescent Limited
  • Peach Queen
  • Piedmont Limited
  • Queen & Crescent
  • Skyland Special
  • Sunnyland
  • Washington-Atlanta-New Orleans Express
    • Asheville Special
    • Carolina Special
    • Kansas City-Florida Special
    • Pelican
    • Ponce de Leon
    • Royal Palm
    • Southerner
    • Tennessean
    In response to the creation of CSX in 1980, the Southern Railway merged with Norfolk and Western Railway to form the Norfolk Southern Railway in 1982, further consolidating railroads in the eastern half of the United States.


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