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A look into the life of James Bowron

a personal reflection

—by: Jeff Norrell

Editor’s Note: As leader of the Commercial Club, it was at James Bowron’s insistence that the Vulcan Statue be held in public hands after its 1904 World’s Fair debut. It eventually to make its way to the top of Red Mountain.


ome years ago I examined a collection of materials that I had often seen cited on Birmingham’s industrial history, the papers of James Bowron (1844–1928), deposited at the University of Alabama’s Special Collections in Tuscaloosa. Bowron was an English-born iron and steel industrialist who compiled but never published an autobiography that provided unique insights into the southern economy during his time managing Tennessee Coal and Iron (TCI) and Gulf States Steel. Bowron’s account illuminates the realities of outside control, business ineptitude, and technological failure. But it also explains how Birmingham became a great industrial city by 1910.

I was astonished at the volume of material in the Bowron collection: fifty volumes of diaries, several volumes of an autobiography, and many scrapbooks. I soon realized that no scholar had ever examined the whole collection, or that few people interested in Birmingham or the industrial history of the South would ever make it through so voluminous a collection of sources deposited in a university library.

The more I read of Bowron’s writing the more I was convinced that students of Alabama and southern history should have access to his thoughts. Few American businessmen in the late nineteenth century had left memoirs, which seemed to me a gaping hole in American letters for the time when our economy became the most powerful in the world. Bowron inherited the Quaker tradition of constant reflection on the state of one’s soul that encouraged the keeping of diaries and writing an autobiography. I edited Bowron’s relentlessly chronological autobiography into a more thematic—and readable—text, with occasional insertions from his diaries and scrapbooks, and I added contextual introductions and notes.

The English investment that brought James Bowron to America began in the mid-1870s. It can be traced to the visit to America in 1874 of Sir Isaac Lowthian Bell, the noted English metallurgist and iron manufacturer. Bell wrote in 1875 that the close proximity of coal and iron ore in Alabama and Tennessee would "place several localities in those provinces in a position of equality with the most favored of those I have examined in Europe." Bell said that Alabama’s cheap production would "eventually dictate to the world what the price of iron should be." But Chattanooga had already gotten a head start to begin commercial sale of pig iron for the market, which directed the attention of English investors to Tennessee.

James Bowron

TCI’s James Bowron

James Bowron settled in South Pittsburg, Tennessee, in 1877, amid a depression in the iron market. In 1882 Bowron became chief financial officer of TCI in Nashville, at the moment of another slump, and for the next 40 years no southern businessman matched his skill for financing industrial operations. By 1886 the center of southern iron making had moved from Chattanooga to Birmingham. That year the Pratt Coal and Iron Company, Henry DeBardeleben’s original creation, consolidated most of the developed mineral land in the Birmingham area, a large portion of the area’s coke production, and two blast furnaces, it merged with TCI. At that point Bowron moved to Birmingham, where he became the steadiest and most reliable financial manager of, and spokesman for, the Birmingham iron industry, especially during the volatile 1890s.

As is common with men proud of their achievements, Bowron sometimes felt that his works went unappreciated. He thought Ethel Armes, the recorder of Birmingham’s industrial history, had slighted his accomplishments, despite extensive assistance he gave her, because he failed to contribute enough money toward her book’s publication. "I suppose if I had been in a position to have made her a present of $100 or $200," he wrote, "I would have had at least one page devoted to my accomplishments and services in keeping the Tennessee Company through three financial panics and for 20 years out of the hands of a receiver."

In 1991 the University of North Carolina Press published Bowron: Autobiography Of A New South Industrialist, and as happy as I was with how the book turned out, I felt a bit like Bowron—my efforts were not appreciated by nearly enough readers. Bowron’s story still remains to be heard by many students of Birmingham’s history.

Robert J. Norrell holds the Bernadotte Schmitt Chair of Excellence at the University of Tennessee. Readers interested in acquiring a signed hardcover copy of James Bowron: The Autobiography Of A New South Industrialist can send $25.00, + $3.00 postage to: Professor Norrell at
5014 Nancy Circle Huntsville, AL 35811-9559.


How a Birmingham Banker Outfoxed George S. Patton

—by: Tom Badham.

Major General Persons

Maj. Gen. Persons, Camp Blanding, Florida, 1941.


rom 1939 onward, the United States Army desperately tried to bring its equipment, strength and training up to a standard where it might have a chance against the now professional, fully equipped, armies of Japan and Germany. Years of ever decreasing budgets, troop strength and obsolete equipment could not be reversed overnight.

In November, 1940, all the Army National Guard divisions were brought into Federal service. The Regular Army officers, for the most part, thought of National Guard troops as "week-end soldiers" who were poorly trained and led by part-time officers who didn’t know their hats from a hole in the ground. For the most part, the guard divisions were used as "training cadres" to set up basic training camps for new recruits. They were also used as "enemy troops" in training exercises against the Regular Army units.

During the Carolina War Games in the summer of 1941, Maj. Gen. George S. Patton found out just how bad one of these divisions was. In one exercise, Patton was to attack with his armored force across a small creek guarded by a division of National Guard infantry. The armor was not supposed to have any trouble in rolling up the "enemy" infantry.

The National Guard 31st “Dixie” Division was the opponent led by Maj. Gen. John Cecil Persons, who wasn’t your average National Guard officer. Trained as a lawyer, Persons was the president of Birmingham’s First National Bank. Awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for heroism in saving another soldier’s life while in combat during World War I, Persons trained his men well and had a good staff of officers. The Dixie Division also had a secret weapon that the Regular Army officers never counted on. Before the exercise began, Persons and his officers looked over the maps and made a bold plan of "defense".

In peace time the Dixie Division’s units had been scattered over Alabama, Florida, Louisiana and Mississippi. Most of its soldiers were either from small towns or were farmers. The guardsmen grew up during the worst part of the Depression. Most of them hunted and fished to put fresh food on their families’ tables. They grew up in the southern woods and swamps stalking wild game and evading "revenooers" looking for wildcat whiskey stills. Their woods skills far exceeded that of Regular Army troops.

Patton was convinced that his armored division could just frontally attack the "enemy" division and roll them up by brute force. What he didn’t plan on were the guardsmen slipping through the woods and establishing hidden forward observation posts overlooking his gasoline supply depot and headquarters with many more guardsmen hidden a ways behind them.

When Patton turned loose his tanks and charged across the creek, Dixie Division units carefully fell back, luring the tanks and other armor deeper into the woods. Only a few tanks had radios, so standard procedure was to have pre-arranged fueling stops. When the tanks had literally gone so far as to not be able to return to the supply dump, Persons and his troops with complete surprise, successfully "attacked" the lightly defended supply dump and headquarters. No gasoline had been moved from the supply dump. The armor ran out of gas in the woods and became sitting ducks for the "enemy" infantry to surround and capture. Patton’s entire division was "captured and destroyed" according to the war game umpires overseeing the exercise. Amazingly enough, this incident is not recorded in Patton’s memoirs.

In April, 1944, Persons and the Dixie Division sailed for the Pacific Theater becoming part of General Douglas MacArthur’s Sixth Army commanded by Lt. General Walter Krueger. From July 18, 1944, to September 11, 1944, Persons was tactical commander of the Tornado Task Force, basically the 31st Division with attached units, with the mission of protecting the airport on Wadke Island against the Japanese.

On September 15, 1944 The Dixie Division made a successful amphibious assault on the small island of Morotai. MacArthur, pleased at how well the amphibious landings and investiture of the island went, recommended promotions for all the Regular Army generals attached to the operation except for General Persons.

MacArthur considered General Persons a "National Guard" general who would not have any personal loyalty to him. General Persons looked upon this slight as a personal insult to the excellent job that he and the 31st Division accomplished. On September 25, 1944, Persons requested to be relieved as commander of the 31st Division. This would be his last combat command.

In 1946, at the request of Alabama Governor Chauncey Sparks, Persons reorganized Alabama’s National Guard to better serve the state. He retired from the Army National Guard with the rank of Lieutenant General in 1948. He retired from his duties as president and chairman of the board of the First National Bank of Birmingham in 1957.

John C. Persons died in Birmingham on December 22, 1974. He was survived by his wife, Elonia Hutchinson Persons, his two daughters, Elonia Nelson McHenry and Alice Virginia Steward and four grandsons. His memory lives on.


In 1916 Irondale was "All-Shook-Up"

—by: Jim Bennett


emember that song Elvis sang about being all shook up?

Well, the residents of Irondale were shook up a bit on October 19, 1916 when the ground rumbled with a magnitude 5.10 earthquake, the largest on record in Alabama. While there were no fatalities, the earthquake, according to newspaper accounts of the day, resulted in widespread panic, sending alarmed workers from tall buildings in Birmingham. The Birmingham News at the time reported: "The sensation on the upper floors of buildings was similar to that of standing on the deck of a vessel in a slight sea. There was the slight pitch, with the suggestion of a roll". It was felt all the way to Atlanta.

On the basis of the number of chimneys destroyed, Irondale was the epicenter where damage was more severe than in any other town between Easonville in St. Clair County and Birmingham. At Irondale, 14 chimneys in a two-block area were partly destroyed, and six chimneys on a brick store were leveled almost to the roof line. Many other chimneys either were leveled to the roofs or were cracked so badly that they had to be rebuilt.

At Pell City, a few bricks were dislocated from one of the St. Clair County Courthouse chimneys, and near Easonville, a few chimneys were damaged lightly. Poorlybuilt chimneys on the eastern edge of Birmingham were also heavily damaged.

At the time, a study of the Red Gap fault, which extends from near Gate City to beyond Irondale, did not reveal direct evidence of recent earth movement. The most significant geologic result was the effect the earthquake had on underground water, particularly in Irondale. Five wells in a one-block area of Irondale went dry immediately after the shock and the water level in many others was lowered. At Pell City, the shock lowered the water level in one well about 16 inches.

seismic chart

Several small aftershocks occurred through Oct. 28. The quake was also felt in Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Mississippi, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Tennessee.

Easonville, which no longer exists, is an interesting story of its own. It was located between Leeds and Talladega. All of the residents were moved, including the dead ones in cemeteries, when the community was flooded by the construction of the Logan Martin Dam in the early 1960s and the creation of Logan Martin Lake. Roadbeds of the former community still exist on the river’s bed, as well as some home foundations.

An earthquake at Palmerdale near Pinson on August 29, 1975 cracked a sheetrock ceiling and shifted lamps on tables. It caused slight damage in Watson, where furniture was displaced slightly. Another tremor that caused minor damage in the Birmingham area occurred on April 23, 1957. Centered near the Tennessee River below Guntersville Dam, the earthquake shook residents in southern Tennessee, western Georgia, and most of northern and central Alabama.

The first earthquake of consequence on record in the state shook residents of Sumter and Marengo Counties on February 4, 1886. Alabama has seen roughly 20 earthquakes since the beginning of the 20th century. Other quakes have been recorded near Fort Payne (2003), Escambia County (1997), Huntsville (1959), Anniston (1939), Cullman (1931), Scottsboro (1927) and in Rosemary in West Alabama (1917).

Alabama, no doubt, also felt the effects of the giant earthquake which produced Reelfoot Lake in northwest Tennessee in 1811 and 1812. And just for the record: The Geological Survey of Alabama predicts a 90 percent chance of an earthquake registering 6.0 or greater in this quake zone by 2040. If this proved true, the shaking from such an earthquake would likely spread again into the northern part of Alabama.

seismic map

(Information taken from the U.S. Department of the Interior, U. S. Geological Survey and other sources.) Alabama’s largest earthquake, Irondale, Jefferson County, Alabama,1916 10 18 22:04 UTC, Magnitude 5.10, Intensity VII (Abridged from Seismicity of the United States, 1568–1989 (Revised), by Carl W. Stover and Jerry L. Coffman, U.S. Geological Survey Professional Paper 1527, United States Government Printing Office, Washington: 1993.)


Birmingham News, September 1956

Birmingham News, August 1956




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