By Steve Gillespie / Managing Editor
The Meridian Star
Charles "Skeeter" Lang turned 92 years old last week.
He got the name "Skeeter" from Dr. Charles Ray, which is who Ray Stadium is named for at Meridian High School. The dentist, Dr. Ray, told Lang, a 109 pound tailback at the time — "You run like a mosquito!"
Lang remembers playing in the first game at that field when Meridian beat Jackson 19-12.
"You hit where I'd been," Lang said. "I depended on speed."
Lang finished high school in 1941 and went to work for the GM&O (Gulf, Mobile & Ohio) Railroad the next year. Then a little thing called World War II took him away from the tracks for a while. After his service in the U.S. Navy on a mine sweeper based in Cuba, he went back to the railroad.
Lang started out as a switchman, and became yard master later.
"I didn't really like that 'cause I didn't like to tell people what to do. If you had a job, you should know what to do," he said.
Other than that, Lang says he enjoyed working for the railroad. He has been retired since 1977, but he still talks about those days and keeps up with other retired railroad men with regular gatherings at The Checkerboard Restaurant
located in the Best Western Motel in Meridian.
Tommy Rayner is another retired railroad man who can be found at those meetings. He worked on the Illinois Central Railroad from 1949-1996. His first job was that of a fireman, shoveling coal on a steam engine.
Like Lang, a war interrupted his work for a while. Rayner was part of the U.S. Marine Reserve Unit that served in Korea from 1950-1952.
Back at work after the war Rayner became a locomotive engineer in 1961.
At 67 he retired.
"I still enjoyed it, but I was getting tired of it," he said with a smile.
Without railroads Meridian wouldn't have a history, and these two men, and many more like them over the years, might have found themselves in completely different lines of work.
A new book, "Railroads of Meridian," was published this year by Indiana University Press. Written by J. Parker Lamb with contributions by David H. Bridges and David S. Price, the book chronicles Meridian's intriguing 155-year history as a center of railroad activity.
The book, which also is filled with old photos of Meridian's railroad history, will be available this weekend during the Soulé Live Steam Festival, Meridian RailFest and Carousel Organ Association of America Rally.
This family-friendly two-day event being held Friday and Saturday, is billed as a "Whistlestop Weekend" in Meridian, which is open to the public free of admission.
The book can be purchased at the Meridian Railroad Museum, 1805 Front St., adjacent to Union Station.
"I find the entire book interesting," said Mick Nussbaum, director of the railroad museum. "There are not many towns of this size that have a book about their rail history."
His father was a railroad man from Vicksburg.
One part of "Railroads of Meridian" includes a photo from around 1920 credited to the Matthew Nussbaum collection.
The photo is of the brick-lined circular tunnel built by Southern Railroad in the Lost Gap community, five miles south of Meridian.
Lost Gap got its name because of a compass failure that occurred during construction of the Southern Railroad line around 1859.
For three days two surveying crews each waited on the other to join up with them to lay out the route. Finally their search parties met up.
Underground iron deposits was blamed for the mixup, skewing the magnetic compasses, which caused the eastbound crew to veer south, and the westbound crew to veer north. Consequently the route has an unplanned section of track running north and south — a "lost gap" in the original route survey.
The Meridian Railroad Museum is regularly open on the first and third Saturdays of the month, 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Admission is free.
"People wander in from all over the country," Nussbaum said. "There's nothing that's in that museum that is not railroad — including the building."
Coming this weekend
The 10th Annual Soulé Live Steam Festival, Meridian RailFest and Carousel Organ Association of America Fall Rally is scheduled for 9 a.m.-4 p.m., Friday-Saturday, Nov. 2-3, centered around the Mississippi Industrial Heritage Museum located inside the Soulé Steam Feed Works building, and at the Meridian Railroad Museum adjacent to Union Station. Admission is free.
Students from area schools are welcomed as groups on Friday, which is designated "youth day." Student groups should contact the museum to set up arrival and departure times.
The Mississippi Industrial Heritage Museum features operating steam engines from the museum's steam engine collection along with visiting collectors' engines.
With the Carousel Organ Association of America's Fall Rally participants will be able to enjoy the sounds of the carousel organ and remember the old-time festival music during their performances of the "happiest music on earth."
This year's Meridian Railroad Museum's RailFest will feature visiting railroad rolling stock. Many railroadiana and model railroad vendors will be selling their products during the event. The model railroad set is one of the largest in the region and a favorite of the children. For more information visit the website www.queenandcrescent.org.
Alabama Art Casting's "Sparks in the Dark" presentation, sponsored by the Meridian-Lauderdale County Tourism Commission and the Mississippi Industrial Heritage Museum, will be held on Saturday night. Watch molten iron pour and sparks fly as the crew works to fill molds prepared by local students and individuals. Light-off is at 6:30 p.m. with molten iron pouring within the hour. Mold-making classes are held during the day Saturday and molds cost $20 per person. There are a limited number of molds available for the event so those interested in participating are encouraged to come early.
Food vendors will be on site. For more information about Meridian's Whistlestop Weekend visit the website www.soulelivesteam.com or contact the Lauderdale County Tourism Commission at (601) 482-8001.
Also on Friday Philadanco will perform at the MSU Riley Center at 7:30 p.m. For more information and tickets visit the website www.msurileycenter.com, or call (601) 696-2200.
On Saturday Meridian Main Street will host "Earth's Bounty," the extended farmer's market event held the first Saturday of the month. This Saturday's event will be the last for this season. It begins at 8 a.m., and will feature in-season local fresh produce, baked goods, jams, jellies, and more. Earth's Bounty is held at Singing Brakeman Park, next to the Meridian Railroad Museum on Front Street.
Scheduled entertainment Saturday night will feature The Mississippi Jamboree at the Tempe Theater, 2320 Eighth St., a variety of tribute music artists beginning at 7 p.m. This event is sponsored by Pearl River Productions. Tickets are $10. For more information call (601) 693-5353.
On Saturday and Sunday the Homemaker Craft Show and Sale will be held, 9 a.m-5 p.m. Saturday, and noon-5 p.m. Sunday at the Frank Cochran Center in Highland Park, which will be filled with booths offering a variety of crafts. Admission is $1.