Track Meridian’s Heritage

To truly feel Meridian’s heritage, arrive by train. Or at least visit the 1906-vintage Union Station and pretend you did. Amtrak’s Crescent stops here twice each afternoon – one train headed north from New Orleans, the other south from New York.

Decades ago, during the city’s 1880s-1940s golden age, up to 100 passenger and freight trains rumbled through town every day. Waves of people flowed in and out of the Mission Revival-style station, which was then much larger than it is now.

Across Front Street from the station is one of the buildings that served those travelers. The four-story brick Union Hotel, opened in 1910, is now an apartment house (and the home to the Visit Meridian tourism office).

A couple of blocks away is another example of a business that depended on the railroad: a factory that shipped its goods across the country. The Soulé Steam Feed Works built steam engines for the lumber industry. It operated from 1892 until, amazingly enough, 2002.

Today, the complex is the Soulé Steam Museum, a largely intact throwback to an era when cutting-edge technology was mechanical, not electronic. Kids seem especially fascinated by the machine shop, full of brawny apparatuses powered by belts looping down from a shaft that spans the ceiling.

Five other downtown museums illustrate Meridian’s golden age from varying perspectives:

  • The Meridian Railroad Museum occupies a former freight house next to Union Station. It includes a model train layout and three retired railcars.

  • The Mississippi Arts + Entertainment Experience (The MAX for short), just down Front Street from the station, introduces you to the state’s creative stars and immerses you in the times and places that shaped them.

  • The Meridian Museum of Art displays works by regional artists in a building constructed in 1883 and modified into a Carnegie Library in 1912-13.

  • The Jimmie Rodgers Museum celebrates a Meridian native who became a superstar singer of the 1920s and ’30s. He came by his nickname “The Singing Brakeman” honestly; he actually worked on the railroad. His image, wearing a railroad cap, smiles from one of several downtown murals. (Another mural features singer David Ruffin, a native of nearby Whynot, who starred with The Temptations in the 1960s.)

  • At the Mississippi Children’s Museum-Meridian, “STEAM” has a new meaning as an abbreviation for the fields of science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics,
    which the museum encourages children to explore. Many of the exhibits incorporate elements of the city’s history and culture.

Two historic mansions on the edge of downtown, Merrehope and the F.W. Williams Home, trace life in Meridian all the way back to 1859, before the town’s near destruction during the Civil War.

As Meridian recovered from that disaster and the city’s confidence soared, so did its buildings. In the heart of downtown stands a red brick Romanesque Revival complex with rows of arched windows. That’s the MSU Riley Center, built in 1890, in the first flush of the city’s boom. It began as a department store and grand opera house. Today, it houses the MSU Riley Center, a performing arts and conference facility featuring a beautifully restored Victorian theater.

By the 1920s, Meridian was on a roll. The Lamar Hotel, a 10-story Italianate structure that now houses county offices, opened in 1927. A year later, the Temple Theatre, an ornate Moorish Revival movie palace in the Hamasa Shrine Temple, began screening films.

In 1929 came the Threefoot Building, a 16-story Art Deco skyscraper that’s still the city’s tallest. It’s now The Threefoot Hotel, a boutique lodging with a spectacular rooftop bar.

More intimately, cemeteries preserve the memories of Meridian’s founders and builders (McLemore, Rose Hill), Civil War soldiers (Lauderdale Springs, Marion, Rose Hill), celebrities (Oak Grove for Rodgers’ grave, Rose Hill for the graves of gypsy king and queen Emil and Kelly Mitchell), and Jewish (Beth Israel) and African American (Oddfellows) communities.

Throughout the city, you’ll see markers for four historic trails. The statewide Mississippi Blues Trail and Mississippi Country Music Trail have, respectively, three and four markers in Meridian.

The city itself created the other two trails to thoughtfully address two difficult periods in its history.

The Civil War Trail (10 markers) begins alongside the railroad tracks just east of the Railroad Museum with a marker titled Railroads and the War. The Civil Rights Trail (18 markers) begins with an African-American Business District marker at 25th Avenue and Fifth Street downtown.

You’ll need a car for both, although the downtown half of the Civil Rights Trail is easily walkable.

And every history buff should make a pilgrimage to Mississippi’s oldest restaurant. Weidmann’s opened in 1870 as a 24-hour short-order counter catering to railroad passengers. Today it serves Southern cuisine in a casually upscale atmosphere with lots of historic photos on the walls. A word of advice: Definitely save room for dessert.

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