NEXT MEETING: April 20, 2017
Reception at 6:30 p.m. Meeting at 7:00 p.m.
Emmet O’Neal Library, Mountain Brook
SPEAKER: James Lowery
TOPIC: Birmingham Mineral Railroad
Alice McSpadden Williams President
Thomas N. Carruthers
Harry F. Bradford
BOARD OF DIRECTORS:
Cathy Criss Adams
Craig Allen, Jr.
Thomas E. Badham
Jeanne B. Bradford
Judy S. Haise
Catherine Pittman Smith
Mary Ellen West
Herb F. Griffin
Edward W. Stevenson, MD
he sudden passing of Jim Bennett leaves us stunned, with craters in our hearts, and a huge tear in the fabric of the Association. He was a dear friend, treasured board member, master historian, and, above all, the devoted and highly talented Editor of our beloved Newsletter. As Ed Stevenson said in his tribute, Jim truly transformed the Newsletter into a wonderful publication that we all eagerly awaited, read, and saved. Knowing that Jim wanted its publication to continue, Tom Badham has stepped in to take over as Editor, backed up by Jim LaRussa of Pete’s Print as Layout Editor. We have added four more contributing writers, with more to come. We are all committed to living up to the high bar of excellence that Jim established. He will really be missed.
On a happier note, kudos are due to two special people:
First: To James Lowery and The Historic Birmingham Mineral Railroad Signs Project. The 100th sign has been installed! It is in the former Village Springs community on Old Highway 75 just south of the Blount County line. Sponsored by the Trussville Daybreak Rotary Club, the installation was attended by a large group of citizens, historians, other representatives of the Trussville Daybreak Rotary Club and Jefferson County Commissioner Joe Knight. Now it is on to the next 100!
Second: To Khari Marquette, the young man who is trying to save the Finley Roundhouse, and came to our July meeting. He has just been notified by F. Collier Neeley, the National Register Coordinator, that the Alabama Historical Commission staff has determined that the roundhouse is individually eligible for the National Register of Historical Places at the State Level of Significance for two different Criteria. Your Board has voted to endorse this nomination. Congratulations to both James and Khari.
We are looking forward to the Pizitz family as our next program. They will have their books for sale. I will also have copies of the Historical Markers books. Hope to see you there.
— Alice McSpadden Williams, President
Articles submitted for consideration should be 750‑800 words and must include the writer’s name, address and daytime telephone number or email. Several high resolution photos are also requested. Stories may be edited for grammar, spelling and brevity.
Email: Tom Badham, Editor.
Mail: The Jefferson County Historical Association Editorial Office, 471 Midway Road, Union Grove,
Published quarterly by and for the membership of the Jefferson County Historical Association.
Copyright © 2012. All rights reserved.
Tom Badham, Editor Email:
Jim LaRussa, Design Editor Email:
Judy Haise Email:
Dr. Ed Stevenson Email:
—by: Tom Badham
n 1928, William W. Finley, president of Southern Railway, ordered his locomotive maintenance shops at Birmingham’s Finley Roundhouse to build a working replica of the Best Friend of Charleston. It was to honor the centennial of the first steam locomotive built in the United States and the beginning of what became the Southern Railway System, now known as the Norfolk- Southern.
Great Britain was the leader of steam technology at the dawn of the steam age in the 18th Century. First the very large and inefficient Newcomen engine was used to pump water out of mines. Later, James Watt is credited with improving the design and power of the steam engine. By the end of the 18th century steam engines had been improved enough to be feasible to drive boats through the water. Also at this time ideas about roads where goods and people were carried on metal rails were conceived.
Great Britain’s government, well aware of its value, tried to protect their valuable steam technology secrets by making it against the law for any steam engine or engineer to leave the country. But, as they always do, the secrets leaked out. By the 1820’s the first crude railways began to appear with English steam engines dragging small trains behind them.
In the 1820’s, the Port of Charleston, South Carolina, had become stagnant as it was becoming easier to ship agricultural products such as cotton, tobacco and rice to other ports like Savannah, Georgia, for export. The Charleston merchants, bankers and large land owners came up with a scheme to build a railroad inland from the port to connect with a canal that connected the Savannah River to the Ashley River to move those goods faster and more profitably to their port.
In 1827, they persuaded the state legislature to charter the South Carolina Canal and Rail Road Company to dig a canal to divert the Savannah River to Charleston and build six miles of railroad to connect the canal with the port.
In 1830 the company ordered from New York’s West Point Foundry a steam engine. While a copy of the British pattern, this would be the first steam locomotive built in America. The engine was disassembled and shipped by sea to Charleston.
It arrived in October, 1830 and was re-assembled and ready for its first test run Christmas Day on a six mile stretch of track in Charleston. The "strap rails" were made of wood covered by a strip of iron on top.
The December 29th edition of the Charleston Courier gushed, "The one hundred and forty-one persons flew on the wings of wind at the speed of fifteen to twenty-five miles per hour, annihilating time and space…leaving the world behind."
It didn’t mention the smoke, soot and burning cinders the engine belched out covering the awed passengers. But here was a mode of transportation that could transcend bad weather that made the roads of the day impassable quagmires and that moved freight and passengers much faster than a walking mule or ox.
New technology can hold dangerous surprises. On June 17, 1831, the now-named Best Friend of Charleston became the first locomotive in the US to have its boiler blow up. One newspaper account stated the fireman tied down the steam pressure release valve because he was tired of listening to it whistle. Another account alleged the fireman placed a stout piece of lumber on the safety valve and sat on it! The blast hurled metal fragments over a wide area and killed the fireman.
The engine was rebuilt and christened Phoenix. To calm would-be passengers, each train had a flat car behind the engine stacked high with cotton bales as their protection if another boiler explosion occurred. Happily, the Phoenix may still have been in service up to the Civil War. That little railroad proved to southerners that railroads could be profitable both to the country and to its investors. By the end of 1833 the railroad stretched 136 miles from Charleston to Hamburg, South Carolina, a small town across the Savannah River from Augusta.
In the 1850’s another railroad was built to Charleston. The Memphis and Charleston Railroad played a large role in the history of the South, Alabama and Birmingham. Completed in 1857, the railroad opened up what was thought of as the Western Territories by connecting the Mississippi and Tennessee River Valleys’ as well as northern Georgia’s fertile cotton lands to the port of Charleston. Samuel Tate, who constructed and became president of the Memphis and Charleston, was one of the first mineral investors in Birmingham. He finished the construction of the South and North Alabama Railroad which connected Alabama’s mineral district to Decatur to join with James Sloss’s railroad to Nashville as well as connecting to the Memphis and Charleston.
ow that Birmingham is celebrating its 100th birthday these memoirs are of particular interest, written by one who not only lived through those times, but was an important part of them.
Infant Birmingham weathered the 1873 cholera epidemic and the 1873 financial panic. The city slowly recovered and gained strength. By 1884, the road ahead seemed clear at last and promising. My grandfather, Major Willis Julian Milner, who was secretary and civil engineer for the Elyton Land Company, suggested to its president, Dr. Henry Caldwell, that it was a good time to develop the large tract of land owned by the company which adjoined the city’s corporate limits to the southeast, and south to the top of Red Mountain which was still an unbroken stretch of primeval forest. That tract of land forms part of what we now call the South Highlands and all of Highland Avenue travels through it.
Grandfather was then given the responsibility for planning the entire street plan including a trolley line and a large park (Lakeview) for the large tract. He later wrote, "The entire project was placed in my hands, to be worked out as my judgment dictated."
At that time only mules were available to pull the little street cars of the trolley systems that were just beginning to span Birmingham. They could only pull up a very gentle 3% grade (a 3 foot rise in a 100 ft. stretch of roadway). As Highland Avenue was expected to be the chief residential street in the tract, its width was established at 100 feet, the same as Birmingham’s downtown streets with the trolley lines running down the middle of it.
Many people have thought the early car line went up the 20th Street hill, but that, of course, was not possible for mule drawn conveyances. Service was begun on July 1, 1885. From First Avenue North downtown it turned south onto 22nd Street went over the wooden viaduct, which was constructed just for this purpose, over the railroad tracks. Then it went down to Avenue E (5th Avenue South) then east and west making a big circle, always following a 3% grade.
It swung west on Avenue E to 15th Street, going south to 10th Avenue South where it turned east to jog its way to Five Points through the diagonal cut behind the Parke Library and thus, at last reaching the beginning of Highland Avenue.
When this Avenue with its many lovely curves and small parks reached what is now the Municipal Golf Course, it made a wider, sweeping curve, then on to 29th Street where it made another wide curve. From there to downtown it was not difficult. Both of these curves were to accommodate the street car line, but as generous as they were then; they are wider now having been carved out still more in recent years.
In less than a year little steam engines replaced the mules. There were four of them and it took one hour to make the trip around the circle. I know because as a little girl I attended the Pollock-Stephens Institute. At that time it was located in a large, old, converted residence painted red that stood on the corner of 19th Street and Avenue E (5th Ave. South), cater-cornered from the site that later was occupied by the Post Office.
On school days I rode to and from on the little dummy. It seemed almost toy like and the trip was fun. Sometimes there were two coaches, because on infrequent occasions the little dummy hauled freight. At the times of day I rode, most of the passengers were school children. The passenger coach was arranged with two rows of seats with an isle between. Up and down that aisle I used to skip rope. The leisurely speed of travel and the scarcity of passengers, also the tolerant attitude of Bob Baker, the conductor, all were conducive to an uninhibited atmosphere.
When the mothers put their children on the dummy in the morning and in the care of Bob Baker, they had a feeling of complete confidence in both the conductor and the dummy. Bob Baker was a well known character in the town at that time. He was a small, black haired man, clean shaven and with a noticeably aquiline nose. He always wore a spruce dark blue uniform. Even when I saw him afterward in later years on the streets downtown he wore his bright and pleasant smile and carried himself with an erect and military bearing.
When he died he left as a legacy to the Birmingham Library, a large and valuable collection of photographs of Birmingham people, places and events during the years that spanned his lifetime. They may be seen now in the Southern Collection at the library — an outstanding and fitting memorial to Bob Baker himself.
—by: Steve Brannan
he Birmingham Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Field Office is one of 56 FBI Field Offices that investigate violations of federal laws in the United States and Puerto Rico. Its investigative territory is the 31 counties of northern Alabama which mirrors the Federal Judicial District of Northern Alabama. Investigations in the Middle and Southern Districts of Alabama are the responsibility of the Mobile FBI Field Office. Each FBI Field Office has a Special Agent in Charge who is called the SAC in Bureau parlance. Back in 1932, the SAC of the Birmingham FBI Field Office was none other than Melvin Purvis.
Melvin Purvis was the most famous FBI Agent or G Man as they were called in the 1930’s. Purvis was born in South Carolina and graduated from the University of South Carolina Law School. In 1927, at the age of 24, he joined a then little known federal organization named the Department of Justice Bureau of Investigation. Special Agents in those days were investigators but were not authorized to carry firearms. To get around this situation, Agents who worked dangerous cases were sworn in as Deputy United State Marshalls or Deputy Sheriffs. It would be 1935 before federal legislation authorized Agents to carry firearms; the same year the name was changed to Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The Bureau was established in 1908 and was largely unknown before 1924, when young J. Edgar Hoover was appointed as its Director. Prior to 1908, United States Attorneys often borrowed Secret Service Agents from the Treasury Department to do their investigations. Hoover stayed on the job for 48 years and died in office in May 1972. Purvis advanced rapidly in the FBI and was an early protégé of Hoover. In 1932, Hoover appointed Purvis SAC Birmingham.
The history of the FBI in Birmingham is interesting and is note worthy as an example of the competition after World War I between Birmingham and Atlanta. By 1930, the “Magic City” had grown so rapidly that it appeared to be ready to supplant Atlanta as the major city of the Deep South. At that time, the population of Atlanta was 270,000 while Birmingham was close behind with 259,000. In 1930 Hoover decided to close the Atlanta Field Office and move the office and its Agents to Birmingham because of its central location and excellent railroad connections. Its investigative territory at that time included all of the State of Alabama and parts of Tennessee, Mississippi and Georgia. The office was located in the Liberty National Building on 20th Street South.
During the Great Depression a crime wave swept the Nation. Gangsters robbed banks and fled from state to state. Local police and sheriffs lacked the jurisdiction to pursue them. In response to this threat to law and order, federal laws were passed giving the FBI jurisdiction over Bank Robbery and Interstate Transportation of Stolen Property. From Birmingham, in late 1932 Purvis was re-assigned to head the much larger Chicago FBI Field Office. Purvis grew to fame as he led the team of Agents that captured or killed Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd and John Dillinger. Melvin Purvis became a household name after newspapers reported that he was the man who killed John Dillinger, a claim that Purvis never confirmed or denied. He eventually became more popular than J. Edgar Hoover himself which caused some problems with his boss and resulted in his resignation from the Bureau in 1935.
While in Birmingham, Purvis with other Agents were flown to different hot spots by a local contract pilot, Glenn Messer. Messer was born in Iowa and was an early aviation pioneer. He learned to fly when only 16 years old. In 1916, before America entered World War I, Messer joined the British Royal Flying Corps. When the US did enter the War, Messer transferred to the US Army Aviation Section of the Signal Corps and was a flight instructor in Texas.
After the War in 1920, Messer made Birmingham his home and opened Birmingham’s first commercial airfield. As the contract pilot for the Birmingham FBI, Messer was on call 24/7 to fly FBI Agents to follow up on hot leads for the whereabouts of Most Wanted Fugitives such as the Ma Barker gang and Alvin Karpis. Messer recalled in a 1984 interview that the Agents always overloaded his airplane with their Thompson machine guns and extra ammunition. Flights were frequently made with only minutes notice, in the middle of the night, and in bad weather conditions. Messer was one of the original inductees into the Alabama Aviation Hall of Fame. Messer died in Birmingham in 1995.
Another successful former Birmingham SAC, was Clarence M. Kelley who became Director of the FBI after Hoover died and served as Director from 1973-1978. Kelley was SAC Birmingham from 1957-1960.
The FBI office has only had four office locations in Birmingham. The Liberty National Building was first in 1930. In 1947 the Bureau moved to The American Life Insurance Building and was at that location until 1961 when the new 2121 Building was built on 8th Avenue North. After the 9/11 terrorist attack on New York’s Twin Towers, it was decided that FBI Field Offices needed to be located in more secure offices. The current Birmingham FBI Office, located at 1000 18th Street N., was dedicated by FBI Director Robert Mueller in 2005.