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The Valley Creek – Bessemer Canal, That Never Was

—By Tom Badham

Valley Creek map

Valley Creek map


ince its beginning, the Birmingham industrial district was held hostage to the railroads and the financial moguls, such as Cornelius Vanderbilt, J. P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie, who controlled them. In order to protect their vast northern industrial fiefdoms, those moguls pressured the railroads to enact what became known as the "Pittsburgh Plus." Even if a load of pig iron was moved from Bessemer to Birmingham, it was supposed to charged by the railroad as if it was moved from Pittsburgh to Birmingham.

The northern industrial centers also had a great advantage since they could use much cheaper river barge freight rates to move their bulk industrial products to markets along the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio River systems.

Birmingport on the Warrior River is approximately 12 miles in a straight line from Birmingham’s industrial center. The railroad line servicing Birmingport winds 70 miles around the myriad hills separating the river from Birmingham. Birmingport’s facilities also suffered from the rise and fall of the river since that hindered the loading and off loading of cargos.

During the first half of the 1900’s Birmingham’s leaders stubbornly tried to get the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Government to build a canal from the Warrior River to Birmingham. Various canal routes were proposed and all were rejected by government engineers as being far too expensive to build. The last proposal was put forward just after World War II.

The leaders of Birmingham selected the president of the Bessemer Coal, Iron and Land Company, Henry L. Badham Jr., to testify in support of the canal in hearings before the Corps of Engineers. He made a 2,500-word speech with supporting engineering studies, maps and canal elevation profiles of a canal route following Village Creek from the Warrior River with the loading basin at the confluence of Valley and O’Possum Creeks near McAdory and what is now Westlake Highlands in Bessemer.

The course of Valley Creek from Bessemer to the Warrior River is shaped like a 20 mile long hockey stick with the handle running north-west and south-east from the river to a point a couple of miles south of where the Virginia mines were. The blade of the "stick" then meanders east and west into the Bessemer area.

In those 20 miles the creek takes many more miles winding around the hills and through the valleys on its way to the Warrior River. This canal would have to be built on a width and depth similar to the inter-coastal canal which runs along both the Gulf Coast and the Atlantic Coast.

The Birmingham district was at the height of its industrial might from having its heavy industry contributing to the war effort. Col. Badham had been recently released from federal service as a senior reserve officer on active duty serving in the Army Air Force in Great Britain. Presenting the points of his testimony with military precision, he covered the benefits of the canal in regards to civilian job increases, greatly expanded manufacturing with new industries and trade not only to the district, but to the South and the rest of the United States. The effected land owners of the Birmingham district, offered to donate the land for the canal right of ways.

Just from the expected bulk distribution of coal tar by‑products from Birmingham’s coke ovens, new Birmingham manufacturing plants with their skilled, well paid employees could make aspirin, saccharine, paint, rouge, explosives and dozens of other products. Then those products could be easily and cheaply exported not only through the South and most of the United States, but to South America and the rest of the world through the port of Mobile. The same applied to cast iron pipe, steel, cement, coal and coke as well as the many products made from iron.

From the proposed loading basin to McAdory three 25‑foot lifting locks would be constructed. From McAdory to the Warrior River the canal would need four locks, a 25‑foot, a 50‑foot and two 63‑foot locks for a total elevation of 276 feet. Each of those locks would need space above and below it for the "parking" of barges waiting their turn to go through the lock. These areas would also need to be excavated and constructed. At least one reservoir would need to be constructed to insure high enough water levels for passage in times of drought.

Many of the loops of Valley Creek would have to be "straightened", which meant a lot of the canal would have to be dug out in rugged country rather than just deepening the channel of the creek. That comparatively shallow narrow channel would take quite a bit of deepening and widening to make two‑way barge traffic possible. Then too were the road and railroad bridges that would have to be constructed to span the canal. Bridges that size are expensive difficult construction projects in themselves.

The Corps of Engineers after consultation with their political masters decided that: "The improvement would place Bessemer on a direct inland water route, but the cost would be entirely incommensurate with the anticipated benefits."


The first steel tipple in the Birmingham District

The first steel tipple in the Birmingham District, Raimund No. 1 Slope of the
Republic Iron and Steel Company, Red Mountain two miles south
of Bessemer, Alabama (Monthly output 20,000 tons of Iron Ore.)

Historic Raimund Red Ore Mine Added To Red Mountain Park

—by: Tom Badham.


ith the addition of the old Raimund Mine property near Bessemer, Red Mountain Park has grown by another 53 acres expanding the mountain-top historic site overlooking Birmingham to 1,353 acres.

Raimund Mine was first opened in 1896 by the Pioneer Mining and Manufacturing Company of Pennsylvania— later becoming part of Republic Steel. This was the same company that opened brown ore mines near Tannehill in the Goethite seam just after the Civil War.

The company also opened coal mines near Sayreton and Republic. According to company records, Republic Steel Corporation purchased 26,000 acres of Jefferson County land including 70 million tons of ore reserves and 50 million tons of coal lands. The purchase created a stir in national business circles.

David Dionne, executive director of Red Mountain Park, called the expansion a significant addition.

"Not only does it give us extra acreage but it helps us to tell the complete story of Red Mountain and its impact not only on Birmingham and the state of Alabama but its impact on the nation," he said.

There were four major mining companies that mined red ore on Red Mountain from the late 1880s to the 1960s, U.S. Steel/TCI, Woodward Coal and Iron, Republic Steel and Sloss Coal and Iron Company.

The Raimund Mine was developed by John Adams for the Pioneer Mining and Manufacturing Company in 1896 when Samuel Thomas was its president. It was located on the L&N’s Birmingham Mineral RR, and was named for Thomas’ grandson, Raimund.

In 1899 the property was purchased by Republic Iron and Steel Company, which began mining operations there in 1905. This operation was successful, producing over 12 million tons of iron ore by 1938. In 1944, Republic sold the property to Edwards Brothers Realty, of Bessemer, who operated the mine as Edwards Ore Mine until 1962.

In the Republic purchase, the steel company also acquired the old Birmingham Rolling Mill and the Alabama Rolling Mill in Gate City.

Several significant historical events took place at Raimund Mine which was located just below the large Muscoda mine sites opened by TCI in 1881 along the Red Mountain ridge line. The Raimund Mine is located two miles below Bessemer off Highway 150.

The first iron tipple in the Birmingham district needed for loading ore into rail cars was built at Raimund Mine No. 1. Tipples previously had been made of wood.

The mine was also involved in a federal law suit dealing with overtime for miners. A U.S. Supreme Court case in 1944 held that travel to the mine site on company property constituted a part of the workday and demanded an overtime rate of one and a half times past 40 hours. The case applied to Republic’s Raimund Mine, TCI’s Muscoda operations and the Sloss red ore group. Underground travel, the ruling stated, constitutes compensable work or employment within the meaning of the Fair Labor Standards Act. Previously, miners were not paid for travel into the mines, despite it being on company property.

Red Mountain ore sites also played a key role in the civil rights movement where protests ended the practice of paying miners in company clacker rather than currency.

Remnants of the Raimund ore operations still remain and will become a part of protected mine sites along Red Mountain Park trails.

The property was donated to the park by the Fresh Water Land Trust and the J. K. Edwards estate.

The Raimund Mine fed the Thomas Works (Republic Steel) located on the old Williamson Hawkins plantation across I-20 from Birmingham-Southern College. The Thomas furnaces, among Birmingham’s largest, went into blast in 1888.

Originally, the Thomas Works used one half to two thirds red ore from mines like Raimund and one third to one half brown ore from Tannehill. Republic’s second furnace was built in 1890 and a third in 1902. The latter furnace when it was built was the largest in the Birmingham District producing 250 tons a day.


Recent History Center Acquisitions

Sometimes we get artifact donations that tickle our fancy. Ann Warren Katholi recently sent us a jug of "spirits" that had been made by her father during Prohibition in the late 1920s or early 1930s. Apparently the jug had been passed around a few times over the past 80 years, as it came to us half full of a sweet smelling liquid that had a remarkable similarity to Jack Daniels Whiskey.

To ensure its survival for another 80 years, our curator, Gary Gerlach, resealed the jug and put it away in a safe place – or so he says.

To donate artifacts related to the history of the Birmingham region, please call 205‑202‑4146 or bring items to the History Center at:
1731 First Avenue North, Birmingham, AL.

Whiskey Jug

Jug of Depression Era "Hooch,"
donated by Ann Warren Katholi

Alabama history books from the collection

We have been slowly cataloging ten boxes of books donated by Mary Ellen West, from Tommy West’s collection of Birmingham and Alabama related monographs. The size of the collections and its scope demonstrates the historical knowledge and curiosity of our departed founder and friend.

drawing of the Terminal Station

Occasionally, the History Center will purchase an artifact of interest. This drawing of the Terminal Station was published in the July, 1909 issue of The American Architect. It identifies P. Thornton Marye as the architect of the building.


Birmingham’s Cabana Hotel, Once The Jewel of The
West Side, May Have A New Life

—By Jim Bennett


he Cabana Hotel, earlier known as the Thomas Jefferson, had the last rooftop zeppelin mooring mast in the world. It was never used. Today, it is as if all the balloons have flown away along with a bit of history.

But with announced plans for renovation into a mixed-use development including apartments, things are looking up. The building has been purchased by a group of investors including former pro-basketball player Brian Beshara.

Begun in 1926 to add some glitz and glamour to a rapidly-expanding Birmingham, the 20-story hotel cost $2.9 million before it officially opened in 1929 to the sound of a New York orchestra.

Birmingham newspapers in 1940 declared the 200- room hotel tower as one of the finest in the country. Built to host huge gatherings, it was stocked with 7,000 pieces of silverware, 5,000 glasses and 4,000 sets of linen. As an affiliate of the National Hotels chain and under the management of Austin Frame, the Thomas Jefferson advertised rooms from $9 to 18 a night and multi-room suites for $18 to 35. All rooms were air conditioned and provided with a private bath, radio, television and Muzak. The hotel operated a laundry and valet service and housed a coffee shop, lounge, pharmacy and barber shop. Nightly dinner dances were held in the Windsor Room.

Its luxury status made it a prime spot for celebrities visiting the city, including Mickey Rooney, Ethel Merman, George Burns and Jerry Lee Lewis. U.S Presidents Calvin Coolidge and Herbert Hoover and singer Ray Charles also stayed at the hotel.

A special suite was reserved for Bear Bryant during games at Legion Field. It was also a favorite for Gov. George Wallace and other political leaders. But most of the guests were businessmen, often salesmen who rented one room for sleeping and another as an office for peddling their inventory.

In the 1960s, WATV-AM had its broadcast facilities located inside the hotel. In 1972, it was renamed the Cabana Hotel under the ownership of Travelodge franchisees W. C. Maddox and Sam Raine.

Thomas Jefferson Hotel

This photograph of the Thomas Jefferson Hotel was made
April 1, 1949 by A. C. Keily (Birmingham Public Library).

By the 1970s, its former glory had begun to fade facing newer hotels closer to the city’s center. The Cabana was the last of the perennial hotels to fade away following the demise of the original Tutwiler Hotel in 1974, and the Bankhead Hotel conversion into senior housing.

The hotel had suffered two major fires during this period of decline: one large one in 1980 and a smaller one in 1981. By 1981, the Cabana was a second-rate, $200-a-month apartment building with fewer than 100 residents. The hotel was shut down on May 31, 1983, by city health officials after it was declared uninhabitable on account of "bad plumbing, insufficient lighting, some inoperative smoke detectors and failure to upgrade to city fire codes".

An earlier attempt to save the aging structure was made by a California developer who wanted to rename it the Leer Tower. Before the economy worsened, he estimated the renovation cost would run about $23 million. When the company could not secure financing, the property went into foreclosure in June of 2008. The firm left the building gutted and it fell into further disrepair when the basement became flooded by an underground stream and vagrants squatted in the upper floors.



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