LUCEDALE, Miss. (WKRG) – Community leaders gathered in Lucedale Thursday evening to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the Mississippi Export Railroad (MER) right where the business began.

The railroad was founded in 1922 by Gregory Luce to use for his mill and lumber operations, 21 years after the city of Lucedale was named in his honor.

By 1935, it served cotton gins, bag and canning factories, naval stores, lumber mills and ship-building plants from Lucedale to Pascagoula.

The 42-mile shortline railroad now runs through 10 industrial sites in George and Jackson counties shipping product to the ports of Mobile and Pascagoula. 

“It’s a great place to do business. People want to work,” said Kate Luce, the company’s fifth-generation CEO. “We have terrific, smart, hard working people here. The government is very business friendly and there are those real public-private partnerships.”

The start of the George County Industrial Park development came in the 1970s through a collaboration with the state and county governments and private partnerships like the railroad. American Tank and Vessel, TriState Pole and Piling and Vulcan Materials now operate in the park with the Evanston interchange able to send loads in any direction.

The Mississippi Export Railroad appeared on national television in 1973, a year after the 50th anniversary. CBS “On the Road” with Charles Kurault profiled the last remaining “gandy dancers,” repair crews who chant as they straighten railroad tracks using long steel bars, before the job was replaced with machines.

Seven connecting railroads open possibilities from the Gulf Coast to Canada in 24 hours or west to Kansas City, south to Mexico and to the northeast coastline.

“Their plans were decades ahead of the curve for where they were at the time and they really laid the foundation for what the industrial park is now,” said Ken Flanagan, George County’s community development director.

One of the latest rail expansions came late last year in the industrial park where 3,000 feet of county-owned rail line was laid to reach Enviva. The new wood pellet plant brings MER’s lumber roots full-circle.

“It’s a whole new way of looking at the equation where shippers are really focused on the carbon intensity of transportation and the advantage of using freight rail for the long haul over truck,” said Luce. “It’s changing the nature of the conversation and it’s a different way of saying ‘hey, let’s solve another problem for you.”

Enviva is set to use the $1.7 million rail expansion to transport about 24 railcars full of pellets each day to Pascagoula that will continue by sea to Europe and Japan. The track also serves as an economic development draw, leaving room for other future businesses in the industrial park to take advantage.

“So our focus with that success story in mind, and so many others here in George County, is what’s the next customer that comes into the industrial park? That’s a jobs creator, hopefully uses rail, but that grows and diversifies the economic engine of George County,” said Luce.

Future developments have been discussed by the board of supervisors over the last few months. An announcement of the newest major industry planting roots in the county is expected later this fall.

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