The Tri-State District is dotted with old mining camps that never quite became permanent settlements. Three on the northern edge of the mining fields that made the transition are Alba, Purcell and Neck City. Of the three, Purcell is the youngest. Neck City, which obtained its post office in 1899, had the most extensive mine operations, while Alba had been founded originally as a Quaker farming settlement in the late 1860s.
After the discovery of lead and zinc deposits in 1897 around Neck City and Alba, the two became boomtowns. However, ore had to be hauled by wagon to Oronogo or Carthage in order to reach railroads to take the ore to smelters. This was just the kind of entrepreneurial opportunity local investors were looking for.
On June 19, 1902, the Missouri secretary of state issued a charter to the Carthage and Western Railroad as an 18-mile extension of the Missouri Pacific Railroad from Carthage to Asbury. The short-line extension issued its construction contract to Patrick Joseph "PJ" McNerney, of Carthage. McNerney and his brother, Martin, were railroad contractors. They had built part of the Missouri Pacific's White River Division from Carthage to Aurora.
Constructing the C&W
By Aug. 5, construction was going full speed. The Carthage Morning Democrat reported, "At half a dozen places along the big survey, great gangs of laborers are teaming and blasting and filling and grading, pushing toward each terminus with all the speed that 150 men and teams can move."
Getting men to work on the construction gangs was a challenge. McNerney had issued a call for workers through St. Louis employment agencies. For $1, a man could get a free ticket from St. Louis to Carthage on the Missouri Pacific Railroad in exchange for an agreement to work construction. The problem was that many men took advantage of the free ride and then went after jobs elsewhere in the district. The Morning Democrat reported, "A batch of 30 men has just arrived from St. Louis ostensibly to work on the grade of the new Carthage and Western Railway, but probably not more than five or six of them will report for work." Workers were paid $1.50 a day. A later estimate said "out of 100 imported men, 15 or 20 generally stay."
One Carthage minister gained notoriety in a front-page story in the New York Times on Aug. 2, 1902, for spending six weeks of his vacation working as a laborer on a McNerney construction crew. "Rev. Dr. J. B. Toomay, pastor of the Congregationalist Church of this city, is spending six weeks' vacation working on the construction gang which is building the new roadbed between Carthage and Asbury for the Carthage and Western Railroad.
"Dr. Toomay was raised on a farm and is well developed. He is hardening his muscle, whetting his appetite and toning up his nerve tissue by good, honest work. One day, he was put at work mowing weeds from the right of way. Today, he was driving a mule team hauling stone. Dr. Toomay says his object in thus spending his vacation is to struggle with the men and get thoroughly in touch with the laboring class with a view to an ethical attitude therein. He thinks a year's practical reading would not compare with the benefit to be secured in six weeks (of) actual close touch with the men."
In Carthage, Col. William H. Phelps was a prominent railroad attorney. As a lobbyist, he had worked for the Missouri Pacific Railroad in Jefferson City. He was said to "rule the state through a little black bag filled with (Missouri Pacific Railroad) passes." He had a lucrative legal practice and was active in Democratic Party politics.
He along with J.F. Purcell, Cornelius Roach and P.E. Hannum formed a town company on July 23 for a town to be named Purcell. J.F. Purcell said it was named for his father, a Jasper County judge who lived in the county from 1843 to 1884. The company bought about 180 acres of land at $100 an acre between Neck City and Alba with plans for a Missouri Pacific depot in the town. Phelps was the lead shareholder in the company at $17,800, while Hannum invested $6,000 and Roach and Purcell each invested the minimum at $100.
Purcell told a reporter with the Morning Democrat there would be 670 lots to be sold at prices from $50 to $500. The town plat showed a public square and cemetery. Situated halfway between Neck City and Alba, Purcell said he hoped the new town would help the other two with a possible merger of the three in the future.
At least six named mines were established around Purcell: the Buzzard, Cornucopi, Gore, Hoo Hoo, Virginia and Weaver. A Globe article from 1913 said miners asked the Carthage and Western Railroad to change the time of the morning train from 4:45 a.m. to 6:10 a.m. to help their commute. Miners also used the Carthage and Western to commute to Waco mines.
In 1905, the Southwest Missouri Railroad constructed its Webb City Northern Electric Railway branch from Webb City through Oronogo through Purcell to end in Alba. The streetcar provided two cars an hour from 5:50 a.m to 11:20 p.m. Fares were 15 cents one way.
With railroad and interurban connections by 1906, Purcell, Alba and Neck City were tied into the economy of the Tri-State District.
Bill Caldwell is the retired librarian at The Joplin Globe. If you have a question you’d like him to research, send an email to email@example.com or leave a message at 417-627-7261.