By Linda Emley
Henrietta was known by many different names before it finally became Henrietta in 1925. At different times it was called Farmville, Henry, Lexington Junction and even the R & L Junction by some.
Ray County’s first distiller, Col. William Moore, is rarely mentioned in the early history of this area, but his main competitor, James Richardson Allen, is always mentioned. Allen and Moore both had mills here but Allen’s mill was active longer. I will always remember Moore as the man who tried to undercut Allen by giving all his customers a free jug of whiskey if they used his mill.
James Allen and his brother, Dr. Thomas Allen, moved to Ray County from Farmville, Va. in the 1830s and settled northeast of present-day Henrietta. In 1849, James built his three-story brick, stream-operated flour mill in the community they called Farmville.
Now this is where the story of James Allen starts to get interesting because he decided to build a railroad from Farmville to the Missouri River, which was five miles away. Sometime between 1849 and 1851, Allen’s railroad was completed and became the first railroad in Missouri.
The 1973 Ray County history book says that James Allen hired a German engineer named Lewis Von Werway to help build his railroad. The work was done by Allen’s slaves and a few other hired workers. This railroad bed would not have been an easy task because they had to build over some swamp areas to get to the banks of the Missouri River. The rails were made from sawed oak and the cross ties were made of hewed oak. The track ran from the base of the foothills to the Missouri River. It’s estimated that he spent $1,500 per mile on his wooden railroad.
Two mule-powered railcars were used, one for passengers and one for freight. The railroad ended on the banks of the Missouri River across from Lexington and the depot was called South Farmville by some and North Lexington by others. This same location was used by the ferry that ran between Ray County and Lexington for many years.
Allen’s train made two round trips daily to haul grain and other products between the Allen warehouse and the Missouri River. At this time in history, there would have been over 100 riverboats daily passing by this landing so there were many available boats to ship Ray County goods up and down the Missouri river.
Since Col. Moore and James Allen were big competitors, I wonder if Moore used Allen’s railroad to transport his whiskey to the riverboat dock. If he did, my next question would be if he charged Moore a higher fee than the other merchants.
James Allen did not have any children so he left his property to his much loved nephew, Charles Allen Watkins, who married Henrietta Rives. The town of Henrietta would later get its name from this fine lady.
Charles Allen Watkins died on April 4, 1864 from pneumonia while serving the Confederacy during the Civil War. He left 40-year-old Henrietta with 11 children ranging in age from 6 months to 19. She also took care of two of her brother’s children and Mother Rice, who was a semi-invalid. Times were tough for the Watkinses, but Henrietta managed to keep the family together. The sixth child of Charles and Henrietta was Marie Elizabeth Watkins Oliver, who later designed the Missouri state flag.
James Richard Allen died Jan 12, 1864 at the age of 77. He is buried with Charles Allen Watkins, Henrietta Watkins, Marie Watkins Oliver and over 60 members of this family in the Watkins Family Cemetery. It is located south east of Richmond on Fairway Drive near the Richmond golf course.
The Allen railroad was later partially destroyed and the Mill was sold to Sitterman and Voss. They operated it as the Sharondale Mill until the 1880s.
The Allen mill building was torn down in 1912 and some of the bricks were used to expand the Stewart Hotel and build a motion picture house in the town we now know as Henrietta. The oak timbers from the mill were sold off and used to make tongues for wagons.
Soon after the Ray County wooden railroad was built, a similar project was started from Independence to the Missouri River. The rail bed was graded, but the rail road tracks were never added. It would have been a three-mile-long railroad.
The first metal railroad in Missouri had its groundbreaking ceremony on July 4, 1851 in St Louis. The ceremony was attended by over 25,000 people. They had a 100-gun salute, military bands and 50 gallons of brandy and rum. The progress was very slow and it took them 18 months to build the first five miles of track to the town of Cheltenham.
The stream-powered “Iron Horses” railroad would not come to Ray County until after the Civil War, but that’s a story that we will save for another day.
You can contact Linda Emley at email@example.com or see her at Ray County Historical Museum during business hours.