Leon Godchaux, realizing the importance of the plantation railroad in bringing about the centralization of the grinding and refining on the many plantations he purchased, built an amazing system of tramways. Of all the Louisiana plantation railroads, these were in a class by themselves.
There are no records to show exactly when Godchaux first made use of the tramway, but there are those who believe that in about 1890 he began using strips of iron attached to a wooden two-by-four with heavier pieces of wood serving for cross ties. These sections were moved from field to field as the cane was cut. Using mule teams, the cars were also moved from filed to field.
In 1895, Godchaux bought his first steam locomotives, two 12-ton 0-4-4Ts from Baldwin, and numbered them No. 1 and No. 2. He established a permanent roadbed that extended for twenty miles. Reaching from the St. James Parish line on the north, across the entire parish of St. John the Baptist, through the town of LaPlace and into St. Charles Parish, the system finally ended at his Diamond Plantation which is now the Bonnet Carré Spillway flood control between the Mississippi River and Lake Pontchartrain.
The other planters held Godchaux in great esteem, and he was thus able to reach an unusual agreement for a right-of-way to operate tracks over their property. Godchaux gave to each one, yearly, one barrel of sugar weighing 300 pounds. This agreement was honored not only during his lifetime, but for the many years the right-of-way was used, until the rail system was discontinued in 1958. Sidney Cambre, former Godchaux engineer and later supervisor of transportation, stated that on an appointed day at the end of grinding season, several cars were loaded with barrels of sugar and delivered by railroad to the waiting property owners along the right-of-way.
Godchaux named his 36-inch gauge plantation line the MRSB RR (Mississippi River Sugar Belt Railroad), and all the cane cars, as well as locomotives and other equipment, were so marked.
In 1898, Godchaux purchased another Baldwin locomotive, of the same class and size as No. 1 and No. 2, and numbered it No. 3.
In 1904, what was to become the flagship of the plantation fleet, Godchaux No. 4, was purchased from Baldwin_ a majestic little 2-6-0 with full size tenders, weighing twenty-six tons. this little engine proudly carried a brass eagle just below its headlight.
The Little D&HR RR locomotive of LaPlace Plantation, a 12-ton Dickson, hauled the cane to that grinding mill until the latter was destroyed by the 1909 hurricane. The Godchauxs did not rebuild the mill, but had the cane transported to the Reserve Central, and at that time, numbered the LaPlace locomotive No. 5.
Sidney Cambre was assigned to the 5 Spot, on which he left Reserve for LaPlace each day before daybreak during grinding season with a load of empty cars. There he would switch cars all day for the larger locomotives to take to the mill. At night, he would bring the 5 Spot back to the roundhouse, pulling a number of loaded cars. After the 6 Spot was put in service for the long haul, the No. 5 was used to switch the mill yard.
Both Cambre and W. H. Jones agreed that the No. 5 was the darling of all of their plantation locomotives and would out-perform any engine with which they had ever worked. They said that whenever the 5 Spot had to be taken out of service for a leaky flue or some other minor repair, the train and yard crews would pout like small children until it was back in service.
In 1938, Jones, accompanied by Walter Godchaux, vice-president of the Reserve Factory, went to Alma Plantation at New Roads, Louisiana to purchase Dixie, the Alma No. 1, a 13-ton Davenport locomotive. Jones told of a real hassle between "Mr. Walter" and George Pitcher, the latter president of Alma Plantation. Pitcher was asking $750 for the Dixie and "Mr. Walter" was determined he would not pay more than $500. After a long stand-off, with both parties just staring at each other, Pitcher finally said, "Walter, you might just as well go on back to Reserve because you are not going to get this locomotive for one cent less than $750." Jones said, "Mr. Walter just smiled and returned to Reserve with his newly purchased locomotive."
The Dixie became the Godchaux No. 6. It was completely rebuilt by Jones at the Reserve roundhouse. The boiler was raised fourteen inches and the frame extended ten inches to make room for an additional pair of drivers. Pony wheels and full-size tender were added, both built at Reserve. Jones stated that the only thing "store-bought" was the pair of drivers that came from Baldwin. These additions changed the former 13-ton 0-4-4T to a 16-ton 2-6-0.
In 1951, the Reserve No. 7 was purchased for Godchaux by Sidney Cambre for $1,000 from Elray Kocke, dealer in heavy machinery, Donaldsonville, Louisiana. It was originally Supple's Catherine Plantation No. 1, a Porter 0-6-4T. This locomotive proved to be a real workhorse in shunting cars to and from the mill grinder. It, like Godchaux No. 6, was completely rebuilt at the Reserve shop. A new tender, steel cab, turbo-generator, and electric headlight were added.
Modernization of the Reserve Railroad was made from time to time, particularly during the 1930s. At that time the company, realizing that MRSB RR on its cars and locomotives did not convey the name Godchaux, which was well advertised to the public as the brand name of the planatation's sugar, subsequently painted the Godchaux logo on all of the locomotives. At the same time, white safety panels were painted on the sides of the cane cars, and diagonal white stripes were added to the pilot beam of the locomotives for greater safety.
Originally, all of the MRSB locomotives and cane cars had link-and-pin couplers. In 1935, Godchaux had developed such a fine roadbed it purchased from the Chattanooga Iron and Steel Works 165 thirty foot and 75 twenty-four foot all steel cane cars with automatic couplers. Likewise, all of their locomotives had automatic couplers added. This speeded up movement of cars, as well as eliminating the ever-present hazard of connecting the link-and-pin. The old wooden cars were scrapped, and the lumber from them was used in building quarter houses on the plantation. Also during 1935, all locomotives with friction brakes were converted so as to use steam brakes.
Electric headlights replaced the old kerosene lights on all the locomotives. Great ingenuity was used in fitting the second-hand generators, bought from the Garyville Northern Railroad, over the boilers. In some instances, the bells were removed and placed on brackets over the headlights, while in others, the generator and bell were slanted opposite each other behind the smokestack. Where necessary, sand domes were purchased, or made and installed for added traction. And, finally, all wooden cars were converted to steel.
At intervals along the main line, tracks led into the cane fields. Smaller locomotives were used to assemble the loaded cars to be picked up by the larger engines for delivery to the mill. The larger locomotives, with full-size tenders, were used for the long trip to the end of the line in the LaPlace and Belle Pointe areas.
At the factory, the cars would be dropped off on one of the five storage tracks behind the refinery. From here, they would be shunted to the weighing scales where each car was weighed and then pushed onto one of the seventeen tracks to the mill crusher.
The plantation tracks crossed both the main lines of the Yazoo & Mississippi Valley (now the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad) and the Louisiana Railway & Navigation Railroad (now the Kansas City Southern Railroad).
The Y&MV tracks were immediately behind the refinery. The right-of-way for Godchaux trains crossing the common carrier line was determined by a gate which was closed to sugar mill traffic when a Y&MV train was approaching. The Godchaux brakeman was responsible for opening the gate, first receiving clearance from the station master in Reserve.
As so often happens, human error entered the picture. Twice the gate was left open, and both the Y&MV and the plantation trains attempted to use the crossover at the same time.
According to Jones, two collisions occurred_ one in 1939, when a freight train plowed into a train load of cane cars_ and again in 1945, when a passenger train headed south spread cane and cars for a half-mile down the track. In neither incident was anyone hurt, and both of the common carrier engines were able to continue on their way after a short delay to disentangle the debris. However, after the second collision, the Y&MV put a block system in effect.
The Godchaux Railroad crossed the KCS line twice. The first crossing was about three miles to the rear of the refinery, the second was at Norco, Louisiana, five miles away. During the grinding season, the KCS to prevent any wrecks, kept a watchman at each of these crossings.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the State of Louisiana started an ambitious highway building program. Two main highways, 51 from Chicago to New Orleans and 61 from Memphis to New Orleans, were constructed. When completed they had crossed the Godchaux lines at four different locations.
When automobiles became more prevalent, Godchaux became plagued with wrecks caused by cars and trucks running into their trains. although every precaution was taken by the Godchaux Railroad personnel to prevent such accidents, vehicles would occasionally plow into the side of one of their trains.
In November of 1955, as No. 4 was crossing Highway 61, North of LaPlace, pulling a train loaded with cane to the mill, it was hit by a truck traveling at a high rate of speed and carrying a heavy load of piling. The driver failed to heed the warning by the flagman, and the vehicle plowed into the train, striking the first car behind the tender. The impact was so great it tore the car to shreds, derailed others, and dragged the locomotive and tender into a ditch some thirty feet away. The brakeman riding the pilot beam was killed, and another railroad employee, also riding the pilot beam, lost one of his legs. During the sixty-three years the platation road operated, this was only the second fatality that occurred. The other happened at LaPlace, where a man was killed as he walked into the path of No. 4.
The engine and tender were lifted back on the track and pulled to the roundhouse. After a thorough inspection by Jones and Cambre, it was determined that the locomotive had a bent axle and a number of other things to be repaired. It was late in the grinding season when the wreck occurred, and there was not enough time to put it back into service for that crop.
With the No. 4 Spot out of commission, No. 6 always working in the shadow of the big, shiny engine with the gold eagle, was called upon to do double duty on the long haul. It came through like a trooper portraying "The Little Engine that Could." said Cambre, "We worked that locomotive around the clock, taking time out only to change crews, load up with coal and water and give her a quick lubrication."
Unfortunately, this wreck would eventually sound the death knell of the finest sugar plantation railroad ever to operate in Louisiana. In the spring of 1956, Godchaux decided not to repair the 4 Spot and offered it for sale for $800. There were no takers, and it was later scrapped.
It was replaced with an order for a 36-inch Whitcomb diesel locomotive which had been used by the Ford Motor Co., of Dearborn, Michigan. To the engineer's dismay, it turned out to be 39-inch gauge. Jones said that it was one of the meanest jobs he ever had to tackle, reducing its running gear three inches to fit the tracks. The diesel was designated the No. 4B.
All the Godchauxs were extremely proud of their railroad and always insisted on their engines being kept in mint condition. Engineer Cambre said that Edward Godchaux, son of the original Godchaux, while manager of the holdings, many times took his handkerchief and wiped over the headlight, bell, or locomotive jacket to see that they were spotless. Cambre said that Mr. Godchaux loved the railroad so much he would usually ride with him in the cab out into the cane fields about once a week. "Mr. Eddie" always rode on the fireman's seat, and on one occasion, his knee accidentally turned the valve under the water glass, allowing boiling water to pour into his own shoe. He said it was a good thing that they had a steel cab_ otherwise, it would have come apart with all the commotion. "Mr. Eddie" also had his own motor car on which he enjoyed riding the plantation line.
The Reserve roundhouse was an excellent one with all facilities for operating this fine railroad. It was under the supervision of superintendent Jones and Sidney Cambre. The former worked for the company thirty-five years and the latter forty-eight. With a combined eighty-three years of service, both were gentlemen of the old school. Always efficient but friendly, no matter how busy they might be, they were always ready to answer questions or allow photographers to shoot pictures of the railroad to their heart's content.
In 1958, the Godchauxs sold the mill and refinery to the National Sugar Refining Company. The new owners decided not to only discontinue the railroad, but also to close the grinding mill and operate only the refinery. After ninety-eight years, one of Louisiana's most interesting sugar operations came to a close.