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The Lyric Is Back

Lyric Theatre

irmingham’ s Lyric Theatre, the century old former vaudeville showplace on Third Avenue, North, reopened to an enthusiastic crowd last week after a $11.5 million renovation. It had been vacant since the 1970s.

Minus the burlesque, the opening show on Jan. 14 included three variety shows with local performers and vaudeville themes. Upcoming is a new entertainment series called "Live at the Lyric" featuring nationally known entertainers.

Built in 1914, the ornate World War I vintage theatre seats 750. The Birmingham Landmarks Foundation, which owns the facility, hopes it will attract not only variety and traveling shows but concerts, plays, dance, comedy and civic events.

The JCHA has been a long-time supporter of bringing the building back to life, its officers attending a pre-construction tour of the old theatre in 2013.

Next Meeting

Thursday, January 28, 2016
Emmet O’Neal Library
Time: 6:30p.m.
Speaker: Billy McDonald

“My father’s experiences in
‘Flying the Hump’”



Message from the President

Alice Williams

Alice Williams


APPY, HAPPY NEW YEAR to each and every one of you. I hope everyone had a lovely holiday season and is looking forward to a happy, healthy and prosperous 2016. Vice President/Program Chair Tom Carruthers has lined up a stellar group of programs – he has already got us booked through January 2017! Three of our speakers will have new books coming out at about the time of their talk. It promises to be an exciting year.

On another front, board member and past president, Ed Stevenson, has spent many hours over the last several months driving from one side of the county to the other to photograph all 24 of our historical markers. He has compiled these into a lovely picture booklet that he has dedicated to the memory of our good friend, Tom West. He has contributed a generous number to the Association Board and to the Birmingham History Center. He has also had the foresight to use the modified loose-leaf format so that pages can be added as we add markers. Several copies will be saved for the Association’s archives. The Board may also decide to make more to give to schools and libraries. There is a CD of the booklet so that if any of you would like a copy, you can see one of the officers and we can arrange it for cost. I will have it at the January meeting to show it off. Please thank Ed when you see him. This has truly been a labor of love.

How To Contact Us

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.

Jim Ben net, Editor.
Mail: The Jefferson Journal,
112 Meadow Croft Circle,
Birmingham, AL 35242.

Secretary George Jenkins is also now having sets of the Jim Bennett edited Jefferson Journal bound to have for our archives as well as selected local libraries. If you want your own set, again see me or George and we may be able to arrange it at our cost. The Birmingham History Center has changed the display case exhibit in the lobby of Mountain Brook City Hall. It has some fun as well as memory producing artifacts, so stop by when you have a chance. Their contract has been renewed, so they will be changing out the display every four months for another year.

The January meeting is our annual meeting, so once again we will be electing officers and new board members. I want to thank all of the team for their service, talent and dedication and the excellent job they have done this year. They are truly a wonderful asset for the Association. Dues are also due for 2016. Your board appreciates your support through your dues which pay for our excellent programs, our beloved newsletter, maintenance for our historical markers, and other projects. Your prompt response helps us to better plan for the next year. You are the ones that make it happen!

Thank you all for your support this past year. Hope to see you in January.

— Alice Williams, JCHA President

The Jefferson Journal

Published quarterly by and for the membership of the Jefferson County Historical Association.
Copyright © 2012. All rights reserved.

Editorial Board

Jim Bennett, Editor    Email:

Judy Haise    Email:

Tom Badham    Email:

Dr. Ed Stevenson    Email:


Alabama Had Some Really Heavy Representation in the U.S. Senate

Portrait of the Honorable Dixon Hall Lewis.

Portrait of the Honorable Dixon Hall Lewis (1802-1848) (About 1841-1843), Sarah Miriam Peale, oil on canvas, on loan to the Birmingham Museum of Art from the collection of Dr. and Mrs. David A. Skier.



ot that you would ever call Alabama’s two U.S. senators, Richard Shelby and Jeff Sessions, light weights, Alabama had the country’s heaviest senator ever when James Polk moved into the White House. Sen. Dixon Hall Lewis weighed 500 pounds occupying his seat in the Senate from 1844 until he died at age 46 in New York seeking medical treatment in 1848. His colleagues cracked that Alabama had the largest representation of any state.

A strikingly obese figure, Lewis was known to weigh as much as metal dumpster making him the heaviest member of Congress ever. A specially-constructed seat was provided in the Senate chambers for him, and his carriage was fitted with unusually heavy suspension springs. While in the Alabama State House of Representatives, he also had a special chair. Because of his great weight, Lewis gave speeches sitting down and aides frequently fanned him.

A resident of Autauga County, Lewis was elected a member of the Alabama House of Representatives in 1826 after he moved to Lowndesboro where he served until 1828. He was elected as a States Rights Democrat to the 21st and to the seven succeeding Congresses. He served from March 4, 1829, to April 22, 1844, when he resigned the House to join the Senate. He served as chairman of the United States House Committee on Indian Affairs from 1831 to 1835. He was nearly elected Speaker of the House in the 26th Congress, receiving 113 votes on the 8th ballot, just four votes short of the necessary 117 needed to be elected. Robert M. T. Hunter from Virginia was elected on the 11th ballot.

In 1844 Lewis was appointed by his brother in- law, Governor Benjamin Fitzpatrick, to the U.S. Senate to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of William R. King in 1844 who had been appointed as ambassador to France. King later became vice president. Lewis was reelected as the Democratic candidate in 1847 and served from April 22, 1844, until his death in New York City Oct. 25, 1848. In the Senate he served as chairman of the Finance Committee from 1845 to 1847.

Lewis served as a member of the Board of Trustees at the University of Alabama from 1828–1831.

His portrait, painted by Sarah Miriam Peale, is in the collection of the Birmingham Museum of Art.

References: Alabama State Planning Commission, Alabama: A Guide to the Deep South. American Guide Series, compiled by Workers of the Writer’s Project of the Works Projects Administration in the State of Alabama, 1941; Dixon Hall Lewis, Biographical Directory of the United States Congress; Harriet Amos Doss, Dixon Hall Lewis, American National Biography, Vol. 13, Oxford University Press, 1999; Encyclopedia of Alabama, 2008.



The Facts and the Fiction:
Birmingham, A River Runs Through It

"We’ll idly float in fairy boat where moonbeams never quiver.
We’ll pull an oar to foreign shore down on the Mystic River."— Birmingham Iron Age

—by: Jim Bennett

An artist rendition that appeared in the Birmingham News in 1957 of two boys approaching the underground river

An artist rendition that appeared in the Birmingham News in 1957 of two boys approaching "the underground river."


here are numerous references, some fictional, some not, to an underground river flowing beneath downtown Birmingham.

UAB geology instructor George Brockman says he thinks there is a below-ground stream downtown. Other geologists including Randy Gray think there just may be a series of underground reservoirs people are tapping into. The floor of Jones Valley, like much of the Birmingham District, consists primarily of limestone karsts. Limestone, as a relatively soft sedimentary rock, is easily worn and shaped by eons of water flow. Slightly acidic runoff can accelerate the formation of caverns which become sinkholes when they collapse. "Groundwater is moving through cracks and crevices in the limestone, forming caves or caverns underground," adds Sandy Ebersole, with the Geological Survey of Alabama "Eventually, the caves or caverns get so big, or the weight above gets so heavy, the roof of the cave collapses."

That became an issue last year when a 100-foot deep sinkhole formed at the entrance of Birmingham’s new baseball stadium, Regions Field. The largest sinkhole in Alabama developed near Calera in Shelby County in December 1972 called the "Golly Hole" near county road 84. A local resident heard what sounded like trees crashing during the night. The following day, hunters in the area discovered a large sinkhole—about 325 feet long, 300 feet wide (roughly a football field length across) and 120 feet deep. A Jan. 15, 1961 Tuscaloosa News article describes a sinkhole appearing in Midfield that swallowed about 25 square feet and a pair of shrubs from David Holland’s front yard. The hole opened to a "river" about 15 feet below ground level and another 70 feet deep.

Movement of underground water has also caused delays in the construction of several downtown buildings including the 20-story Daniel Building at 20th Street and Second Avenue, South in 1967. Project engineers had to delay work while they searched for areas of solid bedrock between limestone cavities on which to erect its caissons.

When the Pizitz Department Store was built in 1923, building contractors reportedly used bales of cotton to soak up groundwater as its foundations were being laid. Construction of the Tutwiler Hotel in 1914 was delayed so steel beams could be added to the foundation in order to span a water cavern. The Liberty National Building in 1971 was required to pump groundwater from its subbasements. The Florentine Building (1927), which was planned as a 10-story building, only went to two stories, partly because of the expense of shoring the foundation. The Federal Reserve building’s 1957 annex was beset by foundation flooding. The excavation filled with clear water and was pumped out continuously during construction.

Flooding in the basement of the Thomas Jefferson Hotel after it became vacant was blamed on an underground stream. The nearby Ideal Building is said to experience frequent basement flooding from subsurface water. After the John A. Hand Building was vacated in 1994, flooding in the basement occurred and was attributed to the underground river.

When R.H.L. Wharton purchased the "water privilege" for the new city of Birmingham shortly after its founding in 1871, he dug wells on 2nd Avenue North at 20th and between 20th and 21st Streets. The latter well was reported to have struck an underground stream and to be inexhaustible. Wharton’s wells were closed after the establishment of the Birmingham Water Works in 1872.

the Golly Hole

Geologists say the Golly Hole, nestled deep in the woods near
Shelby County 84, may be the state’s largest sinkhole ever.
It suddenly appeared in December, 1972..

A spring was still reported to exist below the Dude Saloon in the Webb Building that used to supply the neighborhood with water. A third well in the center of the intersection of 2nd Avenue and 21st Street was reported to have had the bottom drop out of it.

Reportedly, William Barker, the chief engineer who laid out the city’s lot lines for the Elyton Land Company in 1871, was convinced of the presence of the underground river. In the 1880s, local residents said they knew of a "lime sink" near 5th Avenue and 20th Street where cold water could be drawn up in buckets from far below. In 1883, a well-drilling team struck a flowing stream of water approximately 300 feet below the surface.

A March 25, 1886 report by W. C. Kerr, engaged in boring wells for the Birmingham Rolling Mill, indicated that water from an underground stream filled his 500-foot borings to within 12-feet of the surface. Those pressing their ears to the top of his holes could hear water rushing below.

Access to an underground stream near Highland Avenue and 12th Avenue South was sealed by the city in the early 1900s because it posed a danger to children. Cascade Plunge in East Birmingham was filled with natural spring water as was East Lake by damming up Roebuck Springs (and Village Creek). In the early years, a large well was also located near the former J. T. Massey Feed Store at Second Avenue, North and 25th Street.

Springs are upward moving water flows that break the surface from underground steams. While once prominent features in early Birmingham, almost all have been filled in and covered by buildings or roadways. Some springs form the beginnings of creeks and rivers.

Geologists say the Golly Hole, nestled deep in the woods near Shelby County 84, may be the state’s largest sinkhole ever. It suddenly appeared in December, 1972.


The presence of the underground water movements have given rise to some fantastic stories over the years including one that downtown Birmingham could sink at any moment.

A notorious tale-teller named Joe Mulhatton produced a sensational report of a huge river flowing beneath the city and endangering the entire area. His fictional report first appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal, but was picked up by other newspapers afterward. Among Mulhatton’s claims were that the city rested on a "crust" of stone only a few feet thick which had been broken open during construction of a large building. He claimed that many buildings had collapsed and that City Hall, then three years old, had settled 4 feet on one corner into a widening fissure. The city was "flooded with telegrams" inquiring about the calamity over the following days.

The Birmingham Iron-Age dubbed the reported stream the "Mystic River".

Mulhattan also fabricated a report sent to the newspaper which published it on August 28, 1884 with the headline "Underneath Us". He claimed he had been hired by a group of leading citizens to investigate the city’s underground river. After negotiating the narrow entrance, he claimed to have spent an entire Saturday with a small company exploring a 300-foot wide 15-mile long tunnel in an improvised boat. He reported that the 45-to-70-foot-deep river was suitable for steamship travel and "connected with tide water", meaning that the district’s mines and mills could enjoy a direct route to sea. He concluded that his was "undoubtedly the most remarkable discovery ever made on the American continent," that the river was "greater in volume than the mighty Mississippi."

He also reported he had found mummies with sandals still on their feet, all in a state of perfect preservation, shipwrecks and the remains of an ichthyosaurus, an "extinct sea monster".

Another fantastical report, similar to Mulhattan’s, appeared in the May 29, 1886 edition of the Birmingham Age, under the cryptic byline "H". It tells the story of a covert voyage in a stolen boat under the city entering at the cave spring at Avondale Park, the discovery of an outlaw’s hidden counterfeiting operation along the way, and of eventually surfacing into the Warrior River.

An office in the vicinity of fifth Avenue North and 22nd Street advertised “Mystic Underground River” excursions during the 1880s and 1890s.

In an even earlier time, settlers were supposedly informed by Native Americans that an underground stream ran the full length of the county. According to Leah Rawls Atkins’ 1981 history, The Valley and the Hills, "Indian children, when they came into the white settlements to trade at the stores, would play with pioneer children and tell them stories of how they had come from a long canoe ride on this underground river."

One thing we know for sure, there’s plenty of water underneath all those downtown skyscrapers and on the Southside too. Whether any of it is navigable in an underground boat, well that’s another story.

References: A River Runs Through It: The strange, sometimes fabricated story of Birmingham’s ‘mystic, underground river’, Jeremy Gray, Birmingham News, February 12, 2014; "Underground River", BhamWiki, August 28, 2007; Birmingham’s Wonder: The Curiosities of an Underground Stream—How it Was Discovered", August 17, 1884, Atlanta Constitution; "Underneath Us", Birmingham Iron Age, August 28, 1884.

Forg Ad 1949

Birmingham News, 1949




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