Information Overload: Before Google, we had to rely on the World Book and my uncanny knack of remembering random facts and figures


Days long ago, before the Internet, "Googling" a subject meant looking it up in my family's World Book Encyclopedia. (Oh, how I loved those white-clad volumes.)

My siblings used them most often when researching a school book report. I did, too. 

But even during the summer, when school was out, my greatest pleasure was exploring the world as I thumbed through page after page of World Book. 

I loaded my brain with facts and figures that might be useful if I were ever to have become a contestant on Jeopardy! (I only made it as far as The Price Is Right.)

Having inherited my late Aunt Ella's memory for details, to this day, tidbits of information I picked up from World Book are still locked away in my brain.

For instance, I can remember Hattiesburg's 1960 population: 34,989. And no, I didn't have to Google that number; it's just in my head. (Don't ask me why.)

Of all the things I looked up in World Book, U.S. cities were one of my favorite subjects. I was fascinated by big cities, with New Orleans being the only real metropolis I'd ever visited. 

In World Book, the biggest U.S. cities had their own sections. The bigger the city, naturally, the longer its section would be, including photos of city skylines. 

I've pointed out, here in The PineBelt NEWS, that I've always been a serious fan of skyscrapers.

One of the cities I often looked up was our state capital, Jackson, big enough for World Book to include a black-and-white photo of its skyline, complete with my favorite skyscraper in the state. 

That would be the iconic Standard Life Building - not the tallest in Mississippi, but I always loved its Manhattan-like art-deco design. 

Happily, the Standard Life office building recently underwent restoration and has been converted into luxury apartments. 

But wait, there was another Mississippi city that had its own entry in World Book.

That would be my hometown, Hattiesburg. 

We weren't big enough for the encyclopedia to include a photograph; our section was small, but hey, we were in there. (I was so proud.) I can still remember the first lines of the entry on Hattiesburg. 

We were introduced as a "railway and manufacturing center" in south Mississippi. Yep, that would be us.

Railroads and timber built Hattiesburg, thanks to the vision of our city's founder, William Harris Hardy. (Now you know where Hardy Street got its name.) 

Hardy served as a captain for the Mississippi regiment in the Civil War. 

He envisioned a town at the confluence of the Leaf and Bouie rivers to serve as a railway station between Meridian and New Orleans. U.S. Highways 11 and later, Interstate 59, basically travel that same route. Captain Hardy named Hattiesburg in honor of his wife, Hattie Lott Hardy, and we were incorporated as a city in 1884.

Along with timber, trains are an important part of our history. 

Oh, I know, we complain about the trains that constantly hold us up downtown, where the city's two busiest rail lines intersect. I know, it sure is a nuisance; I've been held up by them, too. 

But if it weren't for the railroads that built our town, Hattiesburg wouldn't be here. 

In the early days of the 20th century, Hattiesburg was a railroad magnet. There was even a train that let passengers off directly in front of downtown's long-lost Hotel Hattiesburg. 

The beautiful twin five-story hotel was located on Mobile/Market Street, between Front and Pine streets.

Demolished years ago, the block is now occupied by a parking lot. Such a tragedy. 

Long before I was born, Hattiesburg even had a street-car system, like New Orleans. It was called the Hattiesburg Traction Company, with five lines extending from downtown. One trolley line ran down Bay Street, all the way out to Mississippi Woman's College, now William Carey University.  Our city's rail history is a romantic one; imagine if we still had the trolley line running down Hardy Street out to midtown and the Southern Miss campus.

The Mississippi Central Railroad was a local workhorse, necessary for hauling lumber products harvested from south Mississippi's great stands of pine forest. 

The line even ferried passengers between Hattiesburg and Natchez, on the tracks that once ran along 4th Street, better known today as the Longleaf Trace recreational trail. Passenger service was discontinued in the 1940s, and in 1967, Mississippi Central was purchased by the Illinois Central line. 

Although I can remember seeing their rail cars when I was younger, much of Mississippi Central's history took place long before I was born. But ghosts of the old rail line remained.     

Growing up in east Hattiesburg, I remember the old Mississippi Central Railroad Shop, just off Bouie Street, where the line's rail cars were serviced. It sat between and to the rear of the former Rice's Potato Chips plant and Shemper's (now SA Recycling.) By the time I was in my early teens, the facility had been completely abandoned. But relics of how active Mississippi Central Shop used to be were still there. 

Running adjacent to the New Hope Baptist Church on Bouie Street, you'll spot an old rail line that remains. 

It appears to have been a dedicated rail spur, connecting with the busy tracks that run to Jackson. (The line responsible for so many driver's headaches on 7th and Mobile streets and on to the historic district.)

The spur is very short and terminated directly into Mississippi Central Shop, which was walking distance from my house. 

The buildings that made up the facility were torn down many years ago. You'd have to be as old as me to remember them. 

Before it was demolished, the site was a collection of giant, faded-yellow barns. 

Though empty and ghostly in the late 1960s, it was obvious that, at one time, the buildings would have been filled with blue-collar workers.

I should know. Back in the day, we boys on the east side of town turned them into our own little summertime playground. 

Here, I have to add, it's amazing how the angels watched over the innocence of us children. We were oblivious to the building’s history and, most alarming, to the dangers that lurked within.

We called what was left of the facility, simply, Central Shop. 

Its cavernous buildings smelled of ancient oil and grease; I can still imagine that smell and the mischief we got into.  We'd climb onto giant locomotive wheels that had been left behind, and of course, must have weighed a ton or two. 

There were little offices where it looked like more white-collar paperwork would have been done. There were even old pieces of office equipment and yellowed paperwork.

The floors inside the buildings were mostly concrete, while some parts revealed the ground below, both oily-black from the heavy-duty mechanical work that took place inside. Then there were these deep, rectangular pits in the ground that also smelled of old oil. 

We had no idea what they were used for, and miraculously, we never fell into one of them.  (There go those angels I was telling you about, hard at work.)    

Near the top of the buildings were huge windows, many of them shattered. 

And, okay, we were guilty of throwing rocks and shattering a few of our own.  (Hey, we were only kids!) Sometimes when we threw rocks, breaking more windows, flocks of chimney sweeps would scatter. I imagined they were bats, and who knows; they may have been.

But, fearless little boys that we were, Central Shop was our playground. 

And, bats or no bats, they weren't about to scare us away, only adding to our daily adventure. During the summer months, we'd return there to play almost every day.

Hattiesburg, the little railway and manufacturing center, as World Book once described us, has blossomed since the days Captain Hardy envisioned that rail stop between Meridian and New Orleans. 

Our city's railroad-based economy has now been joined by education, medicine, the arts, retail and an involved service community. 

Today, Mississippi Central Shop is gone, and sadly so is the old Hotel Hattiesburg. Thankfully though, paying homage to our city's rail history, we still have one of the grandest train depots for a city our size in the South. 

The Hattiesburg Train Depot, gloriously restored to its original splendor, now serves as a premier venue for many civic events. 

I'm glad to say, the reborn train depot is one of the things Hattiesburg got right when it comes to preserving our city's rich architectural history. 

It's been a fun journey, watching my hometown grow up from a small lumber town into the mini-metropolis we are today. 

And we can thank the railroad for helping us get here. 

Hey, it's something to think about the next time you're stuck downtown, counting train cars at Main and Front streets.

Elijah Jones is a writer and a proud graduate of the Hattiesburg Public School System and the University of Southern Mississippi. Drop him an email at