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Willis J. Milner and the Water Works Tunnel

—By Tom Badham


hile John T. Milner is well known for his dedication and perseverance in helping to found Birmingham, the work and accomplishments of his youngest brother, Willis Julian Milner, may not have been properly noted.

He was born on May 3, 1842, at Barnesville, Georgia. Due to his father’s engineering work for the railroads, the family had to move quite often. He first attended local schools in Milner, Georgia, then attended the Belleville Academy in Conecuh County, Alabama. While growing up he received a practical education in civil engineering and surveying by assisting both his father, Willis Joshua Milner, and brother, John T., in their work.

Due to his excellent preparatory education, he entered as a sophomore at Mercer University in Penfield, Georgia. He attended the university until he enlisted as a private in the 5th Georgia Regiment of the Confederate Army in August, 1861, at age nineteen.

Early in the war he was wounded at Murfreesboro, Tennessee, then when again fit for duty, he was transferred to the 33rd Alabama Regiment and commissioned as a 1st Lieutenant. He was placed in nominal command of a company and was again wounded at the Battle of Chickamauga.

Again returning to duty, he was promoted to Adjutant of the 33rd Alabama. The regiment participated in the Battles of Missionary Ridge, Ringgold Gap and all the skirmishes around Dalton, Georgia and the Chattahoochee River between the armies of Generals Joseph E. Johnston and William T. Sherman from May, 1864 to July, 1864. During one of those fights he was again wounded. He ended the war as a twenty-four year old major in command of the 33rd Alabama.

He walked back home after the surrender of Johnston to Sherman in North Carolina. For the rest of his life, his health was impaired due to the wounds and privations suffered during his military service. Not that he ever let those stop him. Reaching Alabama that summer, he married Gustrine Caroline Key of Sandy Ridge, Alabama in October, 1865.

Milner’s brother-in-law, Dr. Henry M. Caldwell, quickly realized the young veteran’s value. First employing him in his medical practice as a secretary, Dr. Caldwell made sure that the clever young engineer was involved with the Elyton Land Company from its very beginning. By January, 1872, Milner was employed by the company as its secretary. Shortly afterward, he was planning Birmingham’s first real water works system. In addition to his water works engineering duties, Milner also surveyed the grades for Highland Avenue and the Highland Avenue Railway as well as the belt railway for the Elyton Company. He also had his own engineering company, Milner and Kettig.

Cahaba Pump House No. 2, ca 1912

Cahaba Pump House No. 2, ca 1912.

By 1888, Birmingham was growing so fast that the water supplied by Village and Five Mile Creeks and the North Birmingham Norwood reservoirs were not meeting the needs of the city. A daring engineering project was proposed. Water would be pumped from the Cahaba River twenty miles away to the city supplying a minimum of five million gallons a day. Among the difficulties to be overcome were that both Shades Mountain and Red Mountain stood in the way. A dam on Cahaba River for a reservoir (Lake Purdy) and another twenty-five million gallon reservoir on Shades Mountain would have to be constructed with steam powered pumping stations at both. A 2,200-foot tunnel would be constructed through Red Mountain for the water main to reach the city. For the South at that time, this would be a never-before-done accomplishment.

Work started that winter. Two contracting companies would give up on the huge project, but Dunn and Deland Contractors took up the challenge. Supervised by Milner and Chief Engineer W. A. Merkel the project continued. With no railroads to the river and the existing road no more than a cow path, the heavy pumping equipment was hauled on a three-day journey by nine oxen over both Red and Shades Mountains. The heaviest equipment had to be dragged with a block and tackle. At the same time, the head of the high brick arched tunnel was being dug through Red Mountain starting at a site which is just below and south of Vulcan Park and ending just south of Ramsay High School where another pumping station was constructed.

South End of the Red Mountain Water Tunnel

South End of the Red Mountain Water Tunnel.

A small coal mine was opened near the Cahaba site to eventually supply fuel to the boilers of the steam powered pumps, but was immediately used to fire the handmade bricks used for all of the original buildings. Two buildings were built over the pump pits with twenty-eight inch deep walls. Pit #2 was completed in 1891. In front of the boiler room a 172-foot tall brick smoke stack was constructed. The station cost over a half-million dollars and it alone took two years to complete.

Willis Milner, like his brother John T., expected Birmingham to grow far beyond expectations. While the contract called for a twenty-four inch diameter main, Milner changed the specifications to put in a thirty-six inch diameter main which would have more than a fifty percent greater capacity. He also had the Shades Mountain reservoir specification changed from twenty-five million gallons to one which had more than five times that capacity. That amount of water would take care of an industrial city with a 500,000 population.

The water was turned into Birmingham on December 24, 1890, two and a half years after work began.

Pizitz ad February, 1957, Birmingham News.

February, 1957, Birmingham News.


BRRR, Cold Weather In Birmingham

—by: Art Black.


irmingham, Isolated, Center of Sleet Storm” cried the bold, front-page headline in The Birmingham News of Monday afternoon, February 5, 1923.

The most disastrous sleet storm in 50 years had visited north Alabama the day before, and Birmingham awoke Monday morning under a solid sheet of ice. Sunday afternoon and night, wintry winds had blown and gentle rain had frozen as it fell. The city was without electricity. Homes and businesses returned to the kerosene lamp and the old-fashioned candle. The city was paralyzed.

Beech Street, looking south from Highland Avenue – Birmingham Age Herald, February 6, 1923

Beech Street, looking south from Highland Avenue – Birmingham Age Herald, February 6, 1923.

Many of the Magic City’s wonderful trees, which had withstood the ravages of the weather ever since there had been a Birmingham, were beyond repair. Along the graceful curves of Highland Avenue, trees groaned under the weight of the ice and were either uprooted or bent to the ground. Altamont Road and the roads over Red Mountain also paid dearly. "Magnificent oaks and tall pines went down as if hit by a cyclone," said The Birmingham News.

Tenth Avenue, South, heavily wooded on each side, was littered with a network of fallen trees. On Seventeenth Street, South, a majestic crepe myrtle, its pink blooms the pride of the neighborhood, was prostrate. Nearby, a stately oak lay across the road.

Birmingham was in the center of a disturbance that gripped north Alabama and adjoining states. The temperature hovered at 28 degrees throughout the day Sunday and Monday. Streetcar and train service were interrupted. Western Union, The Postal Telegraph Company, and The Southern Bell Telephone and Telegraph Company all had the same message: no service into or out of Birmingham.

Newspaper press wires were not working. For the first time in the history of the Birmingham bureau of the Associated Press, every wire in that office was silent as a result of sleet and ice. Birmingham was completely cut off from the rest of the world.

Early Monday morning The Birmingham News attempted to reach the outside world through the new medium of radiophone – radio, as it was being called. On behalf of The News, the following message was broadcast by The Alabama Power Company, which operated radio station WSY: "To All Radiophone Stations Everywhere: Birmingham, Ala., is isolated. Owing to the storm of the past 48 hours, all press wire communication with the outside world is paralyzed. Radiophone transmitting stations are requested to send to WSY any news of importance in their territory."

Footing it to Work

With streetcars not operating and many automobiles failing to respond, people across the social spectrum—doctors, lawyers, judges, bankers, clerks, stenographers—walked to work Monday morning. Every teacher in the public school system was at his or her post, but due to crippled heating systems, only three high schools and five elementary schools were in session for the entire day.

The hordes of people walking the limb-strewn sidewalks of downtown made South Twentieth Street look like the midway on a big day at the state fair, said The News. "Above the ice and slippery sidewalks, however, there was one thing especially noticeable. In the way of real Birminghammers, there was a general prevalence of smiles Monday morning despite many cold toes and red noses. Everybody was taking the inconveniences with the best of good humor."

Even the weatherman performed under hardship. Marooned in his observatory on Fountain Heights, E.C. Horton of the U.S. Weather Bureau was without telephone communication with the outside world and made his readings by candle light.

The business of Birmingham slowly returned to normal on Tuesday. The temperature rose into the mid–30’s. Streetcars were running after an interruption of 38 hours. Telegraph wires were ticking, spasmodically—enough to let through important matters. By Wednesday, communication between Birmingham and the rest of the world was back to normal after 20 hours of complete isolation.

Storm of 1899

The old townspeople of Birmingham could well remember another winter storm of a quarter-century before. It occurred in February 1899, when 10 inches of snow fell and the temperature dropped to 10 degrees below zero.

During the early evening of Saturday, February 11, 1899, it was 21 degrees as snow began falling. The night grew steadily colder, and the snowfall continued until daylight Sunday, when the temperature was 10 degrees above zero.

All day Sunday it was bitter cold, The Birmingham News calling it "fearfully cold all day." Many people ran out of coal for their furnaces. Coal dealers worked their wagons and teams of horses on the Sabbath, normally a day of rest. In outlying areas, such as Woodlawn, the coal supply gave out entirely.

On Sunday night it grew much colder, and the mercury fell to 10 degrees below zero. By 8 o’clock Monday morning, the temperature had risen slightly—to minus 5. Anniston reported 15 below zero.

Monday’s Birmingham News carried the following headline over its front page:

Birmingham in the Blizzard’s Grasp

Ground Wrapped in Mantle of Snow; Sleighing and Skating Possible; While Plumbers and Coal Dealers Reap a Harvest; Street Cars Ran All Night to Keep Tracks Clear; East Lake Frozen Over.

"Numerous carriages and buggies were put on runners and made to glide over the snow with fast teams," The News said, "and quite a number of persons were seen going toward different bodies of water with skates strapped over their shoulders."

Associated Press dispatches told of "the entire country shivering and great suffering in many places." Trains entered Birmingham from one to four hours late. The post office would not receive mail from the East for an entire week.

Birmingham’s Mardi Gras celebration was postponed indefinitely, despite hotels and boarding houses being filled with guests and great expense having been incurred in planning the celebration.

The News said that "water pipes froze and burst with the regularity and sound of July 4 firecrackers, and it is not improbable that the telephones of plumbers will need new bells when the freeze is over."

The denouement began Tuesday morning. It was 16 degrees at 7:00 a.m., but the sun shone warmly all day, melting much of the snow. Still, there was a large crowd of skaters at East Lake. Wednesday morning’s temperature was 34. Thursday was even warmer, and everyone regretfully put away their skates.

Ad for Lyric Theatre, January, 1960

Ad for Lyric Theatre, January, 1960.


Recent History Center Acquisitions

Unknown World War II Fighter Ace

Unknown World War II Fighter Ace

Anne Green recently donated a packet of photographs, mostly group pictures of Barrett Elementary School students from 1944 to 1953. However, stuck in the middle of the pile was this 3x5 photograph of a fighter pilot from World War II. With five swastikas on the side of the plane, this man qualified as an "air ace." Unfortunately there is nothing on the front or the back of the photo to identify this hero.

Do You Recognize This Man?.

new office at 1807 3rd Avenue N0. from the collection

Bring any items of historical interest to our new office at 1807 3rd Avenue N0.

1965 Pizitz Christmas catalogue

James Clark donated a 52 page 1965 Pizitz Christmas catalogue in October. It is fun to thumb through and look at the prices from 48 holiday seasons ago. $6.00 gingham dresses and men’s dress shirts seem like good bargains!


Birmingham’s Confederate Reunion of 1916 Drew Thousands

—By Jim Bennett

Confederate Veterans reunion 1916

The reunion parade rounds the newly-completed Louis Saks Clothiers department store at 19th Street and 2nd Avenue North (Bhamwiki).


lmost immediately after the Civil War, veterans sought out occasions to gather together, relive shared experiences and take note of heroic deeds and sacrifices of fallen comrades.

Reunions of Southern and Northern regiments, corps, armies, and fraternal organizations came eventually to serve as a symbol of a wider national reunification, despite the fact that a majority of these reunions remained purely separate affairs.

These events attracted thousands including the 1916 Reunion of the United Confederate Veterans in Birmingham. The city-wide event was the 26th annual meeting of the United Confederate Veterans organization. It attracted some 60,000 veterans.

The United Confederate Veterans, also known as the UCV, was a veteran’s organization for former Confederate soldiers and was equivalent to the Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) which was the organization for Union veterans. Both groups held elaborate parades and conventions.

The Birmingham event was one of the largest national reunions of its kind held in the United States. Thousands of veterans camped out from Tuesday May 16 to Thursday May 18, 1916 to reminisce and to enjoy planned entertainment and concerts. Churches served hot and inexpensive meals and the Red Cross provided nurse stations throughout the city.

Four thousand veterans slept in cots loaned to the city by the federal government and placed indoors at the Alabama State Fairgrounds. The fairgrounds also hosted a mock battle as the grand finale of the week’s events. It was played out by a company of the Alabama National Guard in Union blue against a company of Confederate Grays from Fort Worth, Texas. As expected, the grays won the day.

Downtown, General Charles W. Hooper led a huge parade for 15 blocks under gray skies. In addition to the assembled veterans marching with their companies, the parade featured cars carrying the sponsors and girls from each state, dignitaries from various organizations, fifteen bands and large groups of school children who serenaded the crowds with patriotic songs and waved Confederate flags. The parade even had a group of Ku-Klux-Klan members parading in full costume on horseback. Hundreds of Boy Scouts acted as helpers to the aging veterans.

The reunion headquarters was housed in the Chamber of Commerce Building with general sessions in the Bijou Theater. General Bennett Young, Commander in Chief of the UCV, held court at the Tutwiler Hotel. Miss Gladys Kernan of New Orleans was appointed "Sponsor for the South" for the event, while the various states sent their own young sponsors. In addition to the United Confederate Veterans, the event hosted meetings of the United Daughters of the Confederacy, and the Confederated Southern Memorial Association. Actor Henry Walthall was a special guest of the reunion. Other events took place around the Confederate Memorial at Capitol Park, where Kentucky’s "Orphan Brigade" was encamped.

Visitors arriving at the convention hall were entertained by Southern airs performed by Memoli’s Band. Mayor George Ward and other leaders addressed the assembly. Novelist and actor Irvin Cobb delivered the principal address. During the week’s proceedings the UCV reaffirmed its oath of "unfaltering allegiance to the government of the United States in this its hour of great international difficulties" (World War I was still underway) and made an official recommendation that every male sixteen years old or older be required to report to the probate judge of his county and swear loyalty to the United States. Brigadier General George Harrison was elected to succeed Young as Commander of the United Confederate Veterans and plans were made to hold the 27th annual reunion in Washington, D. C.

Blach’s department store advertised in anticipation of the event that “for the coming Reunion you will probably need a new, correct uniform,” offering the “Grey Potomac Special” manufactured by Levy Bros. of Louisville, Kentucky with regulation UCV buttons for $9.50. The Louisville & Nashville Railroad offered special roundtrip fares to veterans. Printed muslin Confederate battle flags on sticks were offered by Meyer’s Military Shops of Washington D. C. for 25¢ per dozen. The Jefferson Theatre offered a revival of D. W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” (which had its Birmingham premiere there a year earlier).

Birmingham also hosted Confederate reunions and gatherings in 1894, 1903, 1908 and 1926.

(Thanks to Bhamwiki for portions of this article).

Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick

Famous Last Words

To the many Alabama Confederate troops at the Battle of Spotsylvania (Virginia) May 9, 1864— including some from Jefferson County in the 10th and 43rd Alabama infantry—federal Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick must have appeared openly defiant.

During the battle where he was boldly exposing himself to snipers while directing artillery fire, and reassuring his men that Confederate sharpshooters could not hit an elephant at that distance, he was shot dead on the spot.



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