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Alabama’s Early Coal Mining History

—by: Tom Badham

Underground coal miners early 1940’s.

Underground coal miners early 1940’s.


eginning in the 1830’s, relatively soft bituminous coal, also known as blacksmith coal, would be pried out from the bottoms of creeks and the bottom of the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior River with picks and crowbars. James Cain and Stephen Busby were among the first to gather coal from the Lost Creek and flatboat it to Mobile. Up to this time the only coal to be had in Mobile was anthracite “cannel coal” which was several times more expensive and imported from England.

Due to coal’s local scarcity downriver, Cain and Busby were quite profitably paid as high as $10 a ton for their first shipments. The average size of a flatboat was seventy feet long by twenty-feet wide. Costing about a dollar per foot in length, it was easier and more profitable to sell the flatboats in Mobile than to shove them back up river.

The flatboats were built in the Winter and Spring with the coal gathered when the water was low during the dry summer months and then flat boated down the river after the fall rains raised the river levels so that the boats might pass over the dangerous Squaw Shoals. Those shoals, which claimed one flatboat in eight, began twenty-six miles above Tuscaloosa and extended seven miles up the river.

As the demand for coal grew, so did the number of people building flat boats in Walker and Tuscaloosa County. One of Tuscaloosa County’s early mines was located on what became the University of Alabama Campus. There was a market for blacksmith coal in all the towns down river towards Mobile.

This was when most iron ore smelting in the South were in a crude blast furnaces fueled with many bushels of cedar wood charcoal. In the northeastern Pennsylvania anthracite coal region, hard anthracite – stone coal as it was called – began to replace the ever more expensive and scarce cedar wood charcoal in re-designed blast furnaces. Since it burned relatively cleanly with little smoke, anthracite also became the preferred fuel of cities. By 1850 it had replaced wood when it could be got.

Bituminous coal was used for blacksmithing and increasingly through the century as steam boiler fuel as well as for house heating.

In 1839, the first coal mine shaft in Walker County was sunk near the mouth of Lost Creek. The property was owned by Jesse Van Hoose and James Cain with Gideon, Gordon and Joe Frierson in charge of the work with the shaft known as Frierson’s shaft.

By 1850, in England and Pennsylvania hard anthracite coal was being used in new re-designed blast furnaces to smelt iron. But first, the coal had to be baked 48 to 72 hours at high temperatures to get rid of all non-carbon impurities. What was left is a light porous mass made of pure carbon known as Coke. This fuel actually burned more efficiently per weight than anthracite coal.

The coal was baked in glazed firebrick ovens shaped like beehives. The ovens were built side against side to conserve heat. They were loaded with coal from the top of the oven. Tramways were built to convey the coal to the oven and to remove the raked out burning coke from them.

The completion of the South and North Railroad from Huntsville to Mobile was a huge impetus for explosive industrial growth in Alabama. Coal was consumed in ever larger amounts in every step of industrialization and mechanization all over the world. With four great bituminous coal fields, the Warrior, Cahaba, Coosa and Plateau, the Birmingham mining district was awash in coal. Alabama’s biggest coal seams run through Tuscaloosa, Fayette, Jefferson, Walker and Shelby counties.

In the United States annual anthracite production passed the million-ton mark by 1840, then quadrupled by 1850. But, by 1850 bituminous soft coal which was cheaper, but dirtier, began to be used for railway locomotives and stationary steam engines in ever growing amounts as steam engines began moving everything.

In 1870, iron makers began experimenting with coke made from bituminous soft coal to fuel their blast furnaces. It was March 11, 1876 before Levin S. Goodrich succeeded in making the Oxmoor Furnace the first in Alabama to use coke made from local bituminous coal.

By 1889, Alabama ranked sixth in US coal production with 3,573,000 tons. Total US coal output soared until 1918. Before 1890, it doubled every ten years, going from 8.4 million tons in 1850 to 40 million in 1870, 270 million in 1900, and peaking at 680 million tons in 1918. The Great Depression of the 1930’s lowered the demand to 360 million tons in 1932.

Annual bituminous coal prices, fixed by the Seaboard Coal Association, ran from $2.10 per long ton (2,240 lbs.) in 1886 to $2.00 per long ton in 1889. By 1907 the price had risen to $2.80 per long ton. It hovered there until the outbreak of World War I.

On October 10th and 11th, 1912, the first convention of southeastern coal operators was held in Birmingham. Two hundred visiting coal operators from Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee and Florida attended. Special trains took them on tours through the various parts of the massive Tennessee Coal, Iron and RR Division of US Steel’s operations here. Their main banquet was held at the Hillman Hotel with Henry L. Badham, president of the Bessemer Coal, Iron and Land Company as Toastmaster.

The Coal Trade Journal Bureau of Labor Statistics, Department of Labor, 1919.

The Fuel Magazine, October 30, 1912. Sloss Furnace and the Rise of the Birmingham District by W. David Lewis.

Western Supermarket 5 Points West, 1981.

Photo of Lakeview hotel looking southwest from the lake.

Photo of Lakeview hotel looking southwest from the lake.

Lakeview Hotel:
Determining the “Footprint” of the 1890’s Lakeview Hotel

Condensed from the manuscript by Charles Pugh, J. David Pugh, David Franks and Mark B. Pugh



ery few visible reminders of Highland Golf Course’s rich history remain, which may explain why so few today are aware of what all took place on that little patch of green on the slope of Red Mountain. Most golfers will at least know something of the golf history at Highlands, including that Bobby Jones really did walk down those marble steps that come down the hill from the 18th hole tee box!

More serious history buffs know of the plays, operas, political meetings, and even prize fights which were performed at the Pavilion (just behind the dam). In the 1890’s, the Pavilion was a very popular entertainment center. However, interest slowly declined, and the building was demolished about 1900.

The most captivating story by far is the history of the Lakeview Hotel building which only existed from 1887 to 1893. An imposing two-story frame structure with 132 rooms located on “an elevated site overlooking the Lake”, it was a showplace regionally renowned for its luxury. French chefs prepared meals for the guests on Birmingham Baxter Manufacturing Co. cast iron stoves. As the showplace of Birmingham, it hosted many local social events and was visited by Presidents Grover Cleveland and Benjamin Harrison.

Unfortunately, the hotel – mainly popular during the warm summer months – could not turn a profit during the rest of the year. It officially closed its doors on August 21, 1891. According to James F. Sulzby’s book, Birmingham Sketches and Historic Alabama Hotels and Resorts, it was opened again in the Fall of that year as the Southern Female University, a ladies’ seminary. It operated as a boarding school until the building burned in 1893. Tragically, one of the students lost her life when she attempted to re-enter the building to retrieve her watch.

Today, even the location of this significant piece of Birmingham history is in doubt. While the exact building footprint may not be known, there are still abundant clues as to the hotel’s approximate location. There are several very interesting photographs and sketches featuring the hotel.

According to notes written in 1947 by Hill Ferguson, the first president of the Birmingham Historical Society, “The hotel was 300 to 400 feet south of the lake.” So, we do have this general information; yet, there was always that lingering question: Is there not a drawing, note or reference of some kind, maybe in the archives or somewhere which would tell us exactly where the 1890’s hotel was located? Before we knew it, we were in the middle of a major project.

Determining the “footprint” of the 1890’s Lakeview Hotel would ultimately entail reviewing old pictures, newspaper articles, books, maps, and other documents, only to find frustrating dead ends. Then, “Eureka!” Our team UAB engineer, Mark B. Pugh, found the “missing piece of the puzzle!”

Lakeview Lake looking north towards Clairmont Avenue.

Lakeview Lake looking north towards Clairmont Avenue.

On an old Birmingham street map, drawn in 1888 by H. Schoel for the Elyton Land Company, the location of the hotel was clearly shown. The hotel on this 1888 drawing is not to scale; however, the original 1887 hotel configuration is shown and, most importantly, the location is detailed.

Another very important map found in our review was a 1902 Baist Property Atlas Map of Lakeview Park. This 1902 map locates the dam and gazebo (shown in the Sulzby picture of the hotel relative to Highland Avenue. The gazebo, the boathouse, and the island are shown in a very early photograph (1889) of the lake. Not only does the 1902 Atlas map locate these landmarks, but the location of the portals that framed the Highland Avenue “entry and carriage path” to the hotel are also shown (across Highland Avenue from Myrtle Street).

We were not successful in finding a hotel foundation drawing. However, the Sulzby Hotel Picture, the 1888 H. Schoel Birmingham Street Map, and the 1902 Atlas Map together provide enough information to determine the approximate footprint of the 60 foot by 250-foot Lakeview Hotel.

According to Sulzby, the hotel could accommodate as many as 320 guests. In that day, preparing meals for that many guests would have required major kitchen and dining facilities. In addition, the Hotel proudly advertised that “The entire house is lighted by electric light and is heated throughout by steam.”

The fact that the entire Hotel is “heated with steam and lighted with electric light” makes it apparent that the large chimney in the center rear of the hotel was in fact a major part of the hotel “Power House”. A boiler for steam, a steam engine running a dynamo (for electricity) would be typical equipment.

As convention would have it, the Lakeview Hotel dining Room would have been located behind the Entry Foyer, then the Kitchen and finally the Power House. Steam heat, electric lights and fine dining, nothing but the best for the Lakeview Hotel!

The Sulzby hotel picture was taken from the north side of the lake just below the present day 18th hole tee (back tee). With this as the reference, and using the location information from the 1888 Schoel and 1902 Atlas Maps, the relative “orientation” of the hotel can be determined. In the Sulzby hotel picture, a section of a “wing” is visible in the rear of the hotel (behind the kitchen).

This wing addition, according to Sulzby, added 60 rooms to the 72-room hotel. Using a proportion based on other known dimensions of the hotel, the addition would have been approximately 165 feet long. On this basis, when viewed from across the lake (with the gazebo in the center/left), the hotel was oriented toward Highland Avenue so that the rear of the 1888 wing addition was visible.

Based on all that we have been able to observe and study, we can conclude with reasonable certainty the “footprint” of the 1890’s Lakeview Hotel on the present day Highland Golf Course! We focused our efforts on transferring (overlaying) the 1890’s information from the vintage pictures and maps onto a 2019 Google satellite map of The Highland Golf Course.

Lakeview Park, H. Schoel Map, 1888, showing location of Lakeview Hotel.

Lakeview Park, H. Schoel Map, 1888, showing location of Lakeview Hotel.

It soon became apparent that there have been so many changes to the Highland landscape over the past 130 years, a simple direct transfer was just not possible. After a detailed review we determined that the transfer could be made using relative angles of the landmarks (from Highland Avenue) and proportional distances from:

The 1888 H. Schoel Map and the 1902 Atlas Map.

The Sulzby hotel picture.

Benchmark locations such as Highland Ave., the center of the dam, the gazebo and the intersection of Highland Ave. and Violet Ave. (33rd St.).

The location and orientation of the Lakeview Hotel was determined and transferred (overlaid) onto a 2019 Google map. Once the hotel and all the landmarks had been transferred, this overlaid 2019 Google map served as final documentation for the Project.

The “footprint of the Lakeview Hotel” as well as the other Lakeview Park landmarks, circa 1890, are shown (located) on the 2019 satellite image. On the same satellite image, note that on the north bank of the lake and extending into the water, there is an outline of what is probably the submerged bridge landing. In 1889 there was a pier at this location.

Lakeview Lake looking southeast from Highland Avenue

Lakeview Lake looking southeast from Highland Avenue.

Then we had another “Eureka” finding. In our continuing research, we found the source of the Lakeview Hotel information discussed in the James F. Sulzby, Jr. books. Sulzby’s resource: a publication on North American cities published in 1888. Not only was this publication the source of information for the Hotel (Page 122), but the original picture for our cover picture and may be found on page 42. This publication is an invaluable resource for the early history of Birmingham and other North American cities in the latter half of the nineteenth century.

So, if one of your golf buddies should ask you, “Now where was that hotel located?” you answer might be: “Well, it was about 250 feet wide, faced the lake which was about 400 feet away and lay across the present day 10th and 18th fairways. The front entrance was right there in front of the present-day Maintenance Building and located about right where you see that ridge that was built up to separate those fairways. There was a carriage path from Highland Avenue that led up to the entry, a towering structure with a cupola and spire. And, in front of the entrance and just across that carriage path was a fabulous fountain, maybe 20 feet high. Yes, it was quite impressive!”

There is yet another “landmark” close by the location of the hotel. Highland Golf Course golfers are certainly familiar with that great old oak tree which stands next to the cart-path and fiercely guards the 18th hole green. Oak trees usually live to be 150 to 400 years old, and this particular old tree is in its last days. If that old tree is more than 126 years old, then in 1893 it stood about 90 feet from the rear wing of the hotel (1888 addition) and witnessed the fire that burned the hotel to the ground!

Also, it very probably would be one of the young trees that can be seen in the Sulzby Hotel Picture (left of the hotel in the picture). Without a doubt, this Grand Old Tree was there when young Bobby Jones at age 14 won that Championship Cup in 1916, and then again in 1920, and to have witnessed those matches, a golfer’s dream.

That old Oak Tree is a living landmark, but that is not the end of the story. In 1916, when Bobby Jones beat 27-year-old Jack Allison, Allison was the local favorite for that championship Cup. For Jones, his victory was a stepping stone to becoming the first Icon of American Golf. Nonetheless, at the time this tournament was being played, Jones rapidly ascending prowess as a golfer was certainly not the most important story of the day. At that time, around the world the dark ominous clouds of World War I were streaming across the skies. World War I was “The Great War”, and more than 9 million would lose their lives before it was over.

Sadly, in October of 1918, just a month before the end of the Great War, Lieutenant Jack Stewart Allison, who was married in January of that year, was killed in action in France’s Argonne Forest.

Now, if any of you would like to play a round of golf at this grand old course, well, it really is like a walk back in time. The history of the old course, Bobby Jones versus Jack Allison in 1916 and beating Herbert Tutwiler in 1920, Lakeview Park, and that “magnificent old Lakeview Hotel,” takes one back to the earliest days of Birmingham – all the way back to the 1880’s!

Yes, a walk back in time, “Now, where exactly was that hotel located?”

    Historic Alabama Hotels and Resorts, James F. Sulsby, Jr., 1960, University of Alabama Press.
    Yesterday’s Birmingham, Malcolm C. McMillian, 1875, E.A. Seaman Publishing, Miami, Florida.
    Lakeview Park and Hotel, Samford University Library, Special Collection, SCAV 1342.
    Map of the City of Birmingham, Alabama, and Suburbs drawn for the Elyton Land Company, Martin L. Everse, Lakeview Park Postcards
    North Alabama 1888, New York, Birmingham, Southern Commercial Publishing, Library of Congress, Call No. 7722372
    The Country Club of Birmingham, Carolyn Satterfield, 1999, Published by The Country Club of Birmingham.

Current day view of location where the Lakeview Hotel once stood, looking southeast towards the old oak tree.

Current day view of location where the Lakeview Hotel once stood, looking southeast towards the old oak tree.



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