The long, lingering, and forlorn sound of a train wailed in the distance. Perhaps it’s merely a welcoming call, a somber recognition of time passages, or even a gentle nod to yesteryear. The train rumbled and chugged along. The hiss of engine noises accented its arrival City when the train slowed to a stop.
Meridian, Mississippi is a city inseparable from its legacy of railroads and trains. Nestled in the piney woods region of east central Mississippi, Meridian is a city with heritage and charm, as I quickly discovered during my recent visit.
History of the Queen City
As a native Mississippian, I’ve always known Meridian as the “Queen City” and never offered a second thought into why the city boasts such designation. One popular notion is that the city is nicknamed for its buried Queen of the Gypsies, Kelley Mitchell, who was laid to rest in 1915. However, another story soon surfaces of a theater play, “The Queen of the East” written by Mayor E. H. Dial in 1889 and performed at the Grand Opera House (possibly as early as 1891), to celebrate the city’s growth and development.
The play’s closing lines:
Have hither been by thine own virtues drawn,
The tide which looks and, timid, often waits,
Is moving ever towards they tow’ring gates.
And here to-night—while eyes of Friendship feast-
I crown thee, fair one—Queen City of the East!
Stretching even further into history, I soon discover the assertion that the moniker “Queen City” is only a common phrasing that developed when the Queen and Crescent train established its regular route from Meridian (the Queen City) to New Orleans (the Crescent City) in the 1880’s.
The route originated in Cincinnati, Ohio, “Queen City of the West”, and perhaps it is this nickname that Mayor Dial embellished to establish the second Queen City designation. Somehow, it seems the mystery remains, but like any good queen, the city has its share of charm and charisma.
Meridian Railroad Building
When the Railway Express Agency Building opened its doors in 1906, it was Meridian’s gateway to the world, introducing commerce to and from Meridian, which in turn launched a Golden Age of growth and prosperity. For the next 75 years or more, the railroad system was the heart of this southern city.
The original REA building – notable for its Mission Revival style architecture – is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. A section of the building is a museum for a local model railroad club. The highlight of the museum is the massive replica of the city and local terrain with hundreds of model train cars.
However, the museum also houses original train station memorabilia, including engineer signal lights, dining car dinnerware, railroad signage and some original train station seating.
An adjacent, modern Union Station serves as the passenger station for Amtrak and as the cargo station for other rail transportation services.
Meridian’s Rose Hill Cemetery
The story of Meridian as a city begins with Lewis A. Ragsdale and John T. Ball who purchased tracts of land in 1853 and started developing the industrial section near the original railway lines. These founding fathers are at rest in Rose Hill Cemetery, one of the city’s oldest cemeteries. Along with the city founders, this 10-acre cemetery includes graves of several mayors, many city officials, and some prominent citizens.
A burial mound near the back of the grounds is the final resting place for Confederate soldiers. The graves of these one hundred soldiers who died at the Confederate hospital were discovered during city construction. They were moved to this site, which is a mound with a memorial obelisk. A placard nearby identifies the names of the interred.
In 1915, Gypsy Queen Kelly Mitchell’s burial service brought more than 20,000 mourners to the city. More than 5,000 attended the graveside service at the cemetery. She died during a premature childbirth, leaving fifteen children motherless.
Meridian was chosen as the burial site because it was the closest city with ice to preserve her remains while the Romani kinsfolk and friends gathered for the procession and services. The nomadic gathering celebrated her life as they walked from St. Paul’s Episcopal Church to the cemetery on a cold February day.
To this day, people visit the grave and leave small items on the concrete slab grave, intended to be of use or bring the queen joy in the afterlife. Gold and green plastic beads drape the queen’s tombstone. Coins, soft drinks, fruit and small jewelry items accumulate at the base of the headstone. These gifts are offerings, with a hope that the queen’s spirit will solve problems through dreams or messages to the gift giver.
The cemetery is open to the public. Each year, The Rosehill Company of Players hosts an evening of education and entertainment with costumed actors and volunteers sharing the stories of the city and those who influenced the world from this small town in east Mississippi.
Around Town Carousels Abound Project in Queen City
Meridian’s Around Town Carousels Abound project celebrates the one remaining two-row stationary Dentzel menagerie carousel in existence, located in Highland Park. The project is an outdoor art display of colorful, full-size carousel horse sculptures throughout the city, near business entries, restaurants, and government office buildings. Each carousel horse has a unique design and commissioned artist paint them with bright colors and exquisite detail.
The Dentzel Carousel is a national landmark. Manufactured in 1896 by Gustav Dentzel, it served as an exhibit for the 1904 St. Louis Exposition. The City of Meridian purchased the carousel after the expo. While there are Dentzel-designed carousels still in operation, this carousel is in the only remaining original carousel building built from a Dentzel blueprint. The carousel has 28 animals and two chariots. The menagerie animals include a lion, a tiger, two deer and two giraffes.
There is no fee to see the carousel in action inside the building; a spin on the carousel will cost you four bits per ride (50 cents).
Conveniently located near Interstate Highways 20 (I-20) and 59 (I-59), the Queen City of Meridian has much to offer its visitors. A picturesque landscape is a backdrop to rich history and modern appreciation for the arts. The downtown area is experiencing revitalization, with trendy shopping, dining, and entertainment venues housed in historic buildings.
For More Information
http://www.visitmeridian.com/ – Meridian Mississippi tourism site (@visitmeridian or @cityofmeridian)
https://www.facebook.com/The-Rose-Hill-Company-of-Players-125210517551517/ – Rose Hill Company of Players Facebook page
http://www.visitmeridian.com/index.cfm/play/attractions/ – Highland Park, Meridian, Mississippi – Dentzel Carousel