Like most stories, there is a lot more behind Hilgard Cut and the University Avenue bridge over it than is evident by this marker. I discovered quite by accident that the bridge was a New Deal Administration construction, and in researching it, discovered the origins of the Cut. The construction of the New Orleans, Jackson and Great Northern Railroad from the Louisiana state line to Canton, Mississippi was part of the plan to connect New Orleans to Chicago by rail in 1854. Originally, the line was planned to extend from Canton to Grenada, through College Hill just north of Oxford, and on up to Holly Springs. The line from Memphis to Holly Springs was running in 1856 and plans for Holly Springs to Canton was expected to be ready by July of 1856.
Enter Col. James B. Brown, one of the trustees of the University of Mississippi, recently established in 1848. Brown desired for the railroad to connect to Holly Springs through Oxford at the University so folks could look out the window and see the fine new institution. The problem with this plan is the steep grade that the train would have been required to make to accomplish Brown’s goal. Oxford and the University are part of the northern hills area in the state, and the terrain is often full of slopes, steep grades, etc., all of which can be problematic in construction of transit. Peer over the edge of the 1940 bridge toward the depot, just visible on the right edge of the road, with trees and hills behind. Yes, Col. Brown got his way. That highway below is Gertrude Ford Boulevard now, but was originally the rail bed for the Mississippi Central coming through to connect in Memphis.
From the vantage point below the bridge, it is far easier to get an idea of the work that was required to develop the “cut” that would be known as the deepest cut on the line. Keep in mind, it is 1856, and work like this required human manual labor. Brown secured the help of local slaveholders Thomas Isom, L. Q. C. Lamar, and Jacob Thompson who provided the enslaved workers who dug this cut by hand. Brown’s vision of visitors looking out at the new Barnard Observatory did not come to pass, however, as the rail bed was below the level where the campus was visible from the train. A walkway was constructed from the depot over to the campus, along with a wooden two-lane bridge to connect Oxford to University.
T. M. Strider and Company was in charge of construction for the four-lane steel-reinforced concrete bridge replacement over Hilgard Cut. Eugene Hilgard was the University Professor who supervised the digging of the cut, due to his expertise in geology and desire to study the soil. The access via University was closed for six months in order to construct the bridge, funded by the United States Bureau of Roads. The bridge was completed in summer 1940, and opened for traffic October 19th for the University’s homecoming game. The final total cost shared by Federal Government and Mississippi Highway Department was $65,000.