Meridian, Mississippi, is a city steeped in history, culture, and architectural treasures. Known as the "Queen City of the East," it is the eighth-largest city in the state, boasting a unique blend of Southern charm and a dynamic present. From its humble beginnings as a railway hub to its flourishing arts scene, Meridian has a lot to offer both residents and visitors.
Meridian's history dates back to its establishment in 1860, at the junction of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad and the Southern Railway of Mississippi. This strategic location allowed the city to thrive as a trading center and transportation hub, especially during the 19th century. However, it was also a witness to the harsh realities of the American Civil War when General William Tecumseh Sherman razed much of the city to the ground in the Battle of Meridian in February 1864.
The city's resilience shone through as it rose from the ashes, entering what would be known as its "Golden Age." During this period, Meridian became the largest city in Mississippi between 1890 and 1930, and a thriving center for manufacturing, with an astonishing 44 trains arriving and departing daily. Union Station, a historic architectural gem, was constructed in 1906 and now serves as a multi-modal transportation center, connecting the city with Amtrak and Greyhound buses.
As the railroad industry gradually declined, Meridian diversified its economy, with healthcare, the military, and manufacturing emerging as key employment sectors. The city's economy isn't confined to its immediate population; it's fueled by a broader regional workforce. In a 45-mile radius, approximately 232,900 people, and in a 65-mile radius, approximately 526,500 people contribute to the economic vitality of the city.
Meridian is home to two military facilities that play a significant role in the region's economy. Naval Air Station Meridian and Key Field collectively employ over 4,000 people. The Naval Air Station is renowned for hosting the Regional Counter-Drug Training Academy (RCTA) and the first local Department of Homeland Security in Mississippi. Key Field, named after the Key brothers, who set a world endurance flight record in 1935, now houses the 186th Air Refueling Wing of the Air National Guard and a support facility for the 185th Aviation Brigade of the Army National Guard.
Meridian's cultural landscape is vibrant and rich. The city boasts numerous arts organizations and historic buildings. The Riley Center, beautifully renovated in 2006, is a cornerstone of the arts scene, with a 950-seat auditorium for live performances, a 200-seat studio theater, and ample meeting space. This center attracts over 60,000 visitors annually for conferences, meetings, and performances.
Notably, Meridian was the birthplace of Jimmie Rodgers, the "Father of Country Music." Highland Park, home to a museum showcasing his life and career, also houses the Highland Park Dentzel Carousel, the world's only two-row stationary Dentzel menagerie.
The Meridian Art Association, now the Meridian Museum of Art, has been a vital part of the city's cultural heritage. This museum offers rotating exhibitions, educational programs for both students and adults, and a diverse collection of art, ranging from traditional decorative arts to ethnographic and tribal materials, photography, crafts, and sculptures.
The Meridian Council for the Arts (MCA) is the official arts agency for the city and county, fostering various cultural programs and events throughout the year. The Meridian Little Theatre, one of the South's oldest subscription-based community theaters, entertains over 22,000 guests each season, making it Mississippi's most-attended community theater. The Meridian Symphony Orchestra (MSO) has been a cultural pillar since its founding in 1961.
Meridian stands as an architectural treasure trove, with structures designed by noted architects. Notable examples include the Louis S. Curtiss-designed home on Highland Park, the Frank Fort-designed Threefoot Building, and the Meridian Post Office, which features a stunning interior entirely made of bronze and Verde marble.
In conclusion, Meridian, Mississippi, is more than just a stop on the map. It's a city with a deep and diverse history, a vibrant cultural scene, and stunning architectural beauty. Whether you're a history enthusiast, an art lover, or an architecture buff, Meridian has something to offer. This Southern gem deserves a prominent place on your travel itinerary, and it's a city that continually surprises and inspires those who explore its rich heritage.