NEXT MEETING: April 20, 2017
Reception at 6:30 p.m. Meeting at 7:00 p.m.
Emmet O’Neal Library, Mountain Brook
SPEAKER: James Lowery
TOPIC: Birmingham Mineral Railroad
—by: Tom Badham
hile Truman H. Aldrich is known for being an industrial pioneer of the Birmingham Mineral District, little has been written about his younger brother, William, who also accomplished a great deal in his lifetime in Alabama.
Born on March 11, 1853, William Farrington Aldrich, Jr., came to Alabama as a twenty-one-year-old from Palmyra, New York. With a Civil Engineering degree from the Warren Military Academy, he began his career at his brother’s coal mines near Montevallo in Shelby County two years after Truman Aldrich acquired them in 1872.
Coal mining in Alabama then was little more than finding a coal seam in the side of a hill and digging away at it. When the overburden (the top or side of the hill) collapsed down over the seam, another outcropping was found. The Aldrich brothers changed all that. They were the first to mine coal in Alabama using all the mine construction technology and knowledge then available. They also were the first to mine all through the year, piling up hills of coal waiting to be sold when winter arrived. When people wanted coal to heat their homes and businesses, the Aldriches were ready.
Their coal was of a special type called "grate coal". It was a premium type used for home heating in coal fireplaces. For a non-coking (couldn’t be used in blast furnaces) coal it was very hard, but burned freely producing a dry heat and cheery flames. It also did not produce "clinkers" (slag) but burned to a heavy red ash.
It was a premium coal only found on the Aldrich lands. It always sold for more than other coals used for home heating. Before the Montevallo mines got into production, English "channel coal" shipped from England to Mobile and New Orleans was preferred home heating coal in the South. After Montevallo production and shipping began, premium English coal was priced out of the market.
William was soon put to work on a myriad of projects. He designed the construction and mapped the mine shafts, surveyed out the site plans and designed the structures of all the mine buildings and equipment as well as surveying the little railway which connected the mines to the East Tennessee, Virginia and Georgia Railroad.
Within two years, William purchased the mines from his brother, Truman; who then partnered with Henry DeBardeleben and James Sloss and developed the Pratt Coal Seam founding the Pratt Coal and Coke Company.
While DeBardeleben and his partners were "turning over mountains", William stayed in Montevallo , building the safest mines and one of the cleanest and best laid out mining camps, which became the village of Aldrich, in Alabama. This in itself was no mean feat. Aldrich mines didn’t cave in. Aldrich mines didn’t blow up. Aldrich mines were well ventilated and the miners didn’t get sick. The equipment, buildings and machinery were well laid out so there weren’t many accidents. Aldrich miners didn’t strike because they had as safe and stable a mining job as was possible. While the Aldrich family owned the mines, no convict labor was ever used.
Since Truman and William owned the thousands of acres the mines and the miners’ houses were on, they seriously enforced some rules. First was that no alcohol was sold on the property and no drunkenness or rowdiness was tolerated. Second, churches were welcomed and help was given to build them.
Third was the commissary (the company store) had competitive prices with all the other stores in the area and miners were free to shop where they wished. Miners with families were welcomed. Compared to other mining camps, the little mining village of Aldrich was very nice little community.
William Aldrich wasn’t an absentee owner, either. He, his wife, Josephine Cables Aldrich, daughter Josephine and adopted son Farrington lived on the property. He built a four-story palatial home known as Rajah Lodge just over the hill from the mines. The extensive grounds around the home were laid out in beautiful formal gardens which were open to all. It was a popular pastime to stroll through the gardens after church on Sunday afternoons.
In 1895 William Aldrich accomplished a completely different feat. In then solidly Democratic Party dominated Alabama he was elected not once, but three times, starting in 1895 to the Shelby County Congressional Seat in the U.S. Congress. A coalition of the Populist and Republican Parties not only elected him, but he successfully challenged in Congress the Democratic Party’s attempts at voter fraud – not once, but all three times he was elected!
His personal reputation for honesty and fair dealing made the seat his for as long as he wanted it. He was one of the three Republicans who advised President Theodore Roosevelt on political matters in the South. After three terms, he was ready to return to Alabama.
Aldrich was also one of the "bright" Masonic Lodge members. As a 32nd Degree Mason and Shriner he held many important offices in his home lodge and the Alabama Grand Lodge. No one could impugn his charitable works, honesty, intelligence or ability to get things done correctly.
Tragedy struck the Aldrich family when 19-year-old Farrington Aldrich contracted typhoid fever and died at Aldrich in 1908. The grieving family sold the mines with William Aldrich retiring from business and public life. They re-located to Birmingham; building a mansion on the western end of Shades Crest Road. Josephine Cables Aldrich died in 1917 with William Aldrich then moving to the Clairmont Apartments on Highland Avenue where he passed away on October 30, 1925.
Sources: Garland C. Smith interview; Aldrich family and public records.
(From the Alabama Power Employee 2012 Newsletter)
he community of Avondale predates the founding of lectric street lighting in Alabama was first generated by the Woodstock Iron Company of Anniston in 1882. Montgomery had electric street lights in 1883 and electric trolleys by 1886. Birmingham’s streets had gas lights until 1886. Then the city began converting the gas lights to electric arc lights.
In those early days of electrical power generation there were four different companies in Birmingham which competed for supplying both gas and electrical power for lighting to homes and businesses. Their small generators proved inadequate for a growing city, and the various companies began to consolidate.
By 1896 the Consolidated Electric Light Company completed construction of a coal fired steam generation plant at Powell Avenue and 19th Street. At a cost of about $300, 000, Stone and Webster of Philadelphia constructed the red brick building, which was 150 feet by 150 feet and 40 feet high. For many years, the Powell Avenue Plant was operated as part of the Birmingham Electric Company.
The Powell Avenue building was later expanded twice to provide for the increased demand for electricity. In 1900 the building was increased to 200 feet by 150, and in 1905 built to its present size of 400 feet by 500 feet. The location of the plant next to the railroad tracks allowed it to receive coal directly from the cars on tracks adjacent to the plant.
Beginning in 1902, the low-pressure steam from the generating process had been used to heat buildings in an area close to the Powell Avenue Plant. The plant produced all the electricity needed to run the trolley system, but in 1914 Birmingham Electric Company began to purchase wholesale electricity from Alabama Power Company.
Much of this electricity came from the powerhouse of Alabama Power’s new dam at Lock 12 on the Coosa River. Later the dam was named Lay Dam for company founder William Patrick Lay.
In 1888 the wives of several Birmingham business leaders opened Hillman Hospital to serve the health needs of the poor. In 1944, the charity hospital and a new Jefferson Hospital became part of the University of Alabama’s four year medical school.
In 1947, a new high pressure main was installed to serve the sterilization, heating, laundry, cooking and humidity control needs of these hospitals and the new Veterans Hospital. Soon the medical community became the primary customers for the Powell Avenue Plant’s steam.
In June 1950, Birmingham Electric Company became part of Alabama Power Company, but it was the end of 1952 before the merger was finalized. The Powell Avenue Plant became part of Alabama Power’s operations, but the generation of electricity ceased and only steam production remained.
After 117 years of producing steam, Alabama Power Company’s Powell Avenue Steam Plant was shut down in February 2013. The plant’s rich history runs parallel with the history of Birmingham. Its generators powered the extensive streetcar system that brought workers from Bessemer, Woodlawn, Edgewood and the north Birmingham area to their jobs in manufacturing plants, foundries, stores and schools.
As one of the few surviving 19th century urban power plants in the country, the Powell Avenue Plant’s location and the character of its structure secures its significance in Birmingham’s story and the city’s promising future.