The Southern Railway, forever remembered by its famous slogan, “The Southern Serves the South – Look Ahead, Look South” (it was also known for the slogan "The Southern Gives a Green Light To Innovations"), was created from a number of smaller railroads, which merged over the years to form the system. At its height the railroad lived up to its name quite well as the road served virtually every state south of the Mason-Dixon Line and east of the Mississippi River. Perhaps its famous green paint scheme was fitting for the railroad as it became the most respected and arguably the best managed railroad of its day before it disappeared into a merger with the Norfolk & Western Railway (N&W) in 1982 to form today’s Norfolk Southern (NS). Today, much of the Southern remains an important component of NS.
The modern Southern was formed in 1894 when the Richmond & Danville and East Tennessee, Virginia & Georgia railroads merged. After this initial merger the new Southern Railway began to grow through consolidations with other smaller railroads. During its final form the railroad stretched from Richmond to Florida and west to Memphis and New Orleans and would be made up of some 125 smaller railroads. The company's most important main line stretched from Atlanta to Washington, D.C. and was entirely double-tracked.
A significant reason why the Southern became so successful was because its innovative nature and sound business practices (and the company very much lived up to another slogan it used, “The Southern Gives A Green Light To Innovations”), especially in the railroad's later years. The railroad was quick to adopt new technologies that improved efficiencies such as Centralized Traffic Control (CTC) and began double-tracking lines to improve operations (it would eventually finish double-tracking its entire main line between Atlanta and Washington, D.C.). Because of its innovative nature it probably comes as no surprise that the company was quick to make the switch from steam to diesel locomotives as well, completely dieselizing its locomotive fleet by 1953.
Regarding the railroad’s steam locomotive fleet it rostered a wide range of wheel arrangements, from large to small. While the company rostered impressive power such as 2-8-8-2s to haul coal out of the mountains in western North Carolina and eastern Tennessee (known as the Appalachia Division), the railroad is perhaps best known for its fleet of Ps4-class Pacifics, which were built by the American Locomotive Company (Alco) in 1926 and used to carry the very best passenger trains the company had to offer. The Ps4s are best remembered for their days hauling the Southern’s finest passenger train, the Crescent. They were adorned to match their trains in the company’s beautiful green, white, and gold-trimmed livery and are argued to be the most beautiful (from an aesthetic standpoint) steam locomotives ever built. Fortunately one has been saved, #1401, which today resides at the Smithsonian and is proudly on display in her original green, white, and gold-trim.
Much of what made company such a highly
profitable railroad was its many fine business leaders. It began with
Samuel Spencer in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, which expanded
the company to much of how it looked when it merged with the Norfolk
& Western in 1982. Later Ernest Norris began dieselizing the
company’s fleet of motive power and Harry deButts was able to understand
the future economic growth of the South, and prepared the railroad
accordingly. By the time D.W. Brosnan rose to the helm of the company it was
well on its way to becoming a powerhouse in its industry.
Notable Passenger Trains
Aiken-Augusta Special: (Washington - Salisbury - Augusta)
Asheville Special: (Washington - Greensboro - Asheville)
Birmingham Special: (Washington - Birmingham)
Carolina Special: (Cincinnati - Greensboro/Charleston)
Crescent: (New York-Washington-Atlanta-Montgomery-New Orleans)
Florida Sunbeam: (Cincinnati - Florida)
Kansas City-Florida Special: (Kansas City - Brunswick, Georgia/Florida)
Peach Queen: (Washington - Atlanta)
Pelican: (New York-Lynchburg-Bristol-Knoxville-Chattanooga-Birmingham-New Orleans)
Piedmont Limited: (Washington - New Orleans)
Ponce de Leon: (Cincinnati - Jacksonville)
Queen & Crescent: (Cincinnati - New Orleans)
Royal Palm: (Cincinnati-Chattanooga-Jacksonville)
Skyland Special: (Asheville - Jacksonville)
Southerner: (Washington-Atlanta-Birmingham-New Orleans)
Sunnyland: (Memphis - Atlanta)
Washington-Atlanta-New Orleans Express: (Washington - Atlanta - New Orleans)
Brosnan would go on to expand the railroad in terms of new technologies and efficiencies, such as updating bottlenecks across its system and using computers for even better operations. Graham Claytor would be the railroad's last president and continued operations much as his previous predecessors. In the Southern’s final days the railroad was a well-oiled machine. Even as the railroad industry hit an all-time low in the 1970s with many bankruptcies and outright liquidations (this was most prominent in the Northeast), the railroad continued to roll in profits, topping out at almost $1.8 billion in revenues in 1981, its last year as an independent company.