In 1868, Captain William Harris Hardy, lumber-man and engineer, conceived the idea of building a railroad from Meridian to New Orleans. While on a survey trip in August of 1880, Captain Hardy stopped to rest on the north side of Gordon Creek and spread a map of Mississippi on the ground. Believing a railroad from the Gulf Coast to Jackson would be beneficial, he drew a line through the virgin pine forest intersecting the New Orleans and North Eastern Railroad and decided to locate a train station here. The City of Hattiesburg, first known as Twin Forks, then Gordonville, received its final name in honor of Captain Hardy’s wife, Hattie.
In 1884 the City of Hattiesburg was incorporated, and the railroad was completed from Meridian through Hattiesburg to New Orleans. Northern investors saw the commercial value of the virgin pine and quickly bought up cheap timberlands. The completion of the Gulf and Ship Island RR in 1894 from the coast to Jackson ushered in the real timber boom. The line made Hattiesburg a railroad center—the Hub City.
After a period of rapid growth (1890-1930), Historic Downtown had several movie theaters, an opera house, an opened air theatre and a public library. Of these, the Saenger Theater and the Historic Library have survived. The Hub City Historic District reflects Hattiesburg's evolution from depot stop to the regional center of Southeast Mississippi.
By 1920, Hattiesburg was Mississippi's fourth largest city. The area's prosperity led to the creation of Forrest County with Hattiesburg as the county seat in 1908. The city also gained the location of the Mississippi Normal College, now the University of Southern Mississippi, in 1912. Mississippi Woman's College was also established in 1911 (now William Carey College).
The Hub City Historic District retains a number of architecturally significant buildings. Architectural styles range from turn-of-the-century row buildings to Classical Revival banking institutions, Commercial Prairie office buildings, and an Art Deco post office. The city's center is defined by its combination of cohesive setting, local institutions, and range of architectural styles, conveying a distinctly urban sense of time and place within a mostly rural state.
The source of the region's wealth was finite. By 1915, large areas of timber were cut out, and companies began dismantling their sawmills. The demands of World War I provided an artificial stimulus, but lumbering reached a low ebb in the 1930s. Hattiesburg survived due to its role as regional center and shipping point. Experiments with reforestation and the oil industries supplied the city's economy with new incentives. The reactivation of Camp Shelby in World War II and the expansion of the University of Southern Mississippi also made significant contributions to the city’s economy.