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
Alice McSpadden Williams President
Thomas N. Carruthers
Harry F. Bradford
BOARD OF DIRECTORS:
Cathy Criss Adams
Craig Allen, Jr.
Thomas E. Badham
Jeanne B. Bradford
Judy S. Haise
Catherine Pittman Smith
Mary Ellen West
Herb F. Griffin
Edward W. Stevenson, MD
very happy, healthy, and prosperous New Year to you all. I hope you had a wonderful Thanksgiving and a beautiful December holiday season. We can all be glad that 2017 is here, putting behind us an ugly, divisive election year and the seemingly interminable drought. Vice President/Program Chair Tom Carruthers has once again lined up an entire year of excellent programs. We start the year off with Gillian Goodrich and her program on the Comer family. This picks back up the theme we had running for several years of grandchildren/great grandchildren giving an inside look at founding families of Jefferson County. As 2017 marks the first of three years celebrating the bicentennial of Alabama, it is a wonderfully appropriate program with which to start the year.
I skipped over all announcements in my last column, so have some catching up to do. The artifacts case at Mountain Brook City Hall has been changed out and will have its current display until mid-March. Go by and catch a look. After a year of trying, Billy McDonald will be with us in January, finally, to sign his book, Shadow Tiger. He will have both hard and soft back editions. We will also have copies of all of our other books, as well as books from recent programs.
The January meeting is our annual meeting. so we will be electing officers and filling vacancies on the board. Thanks are due to your entire team. They have done an excellent job this past year, streamlining and improving a lot of the infrastructure that helps us function as an organization. They are truly an asset for our Association. DUES ARE ALSO DUE. There is an insert in this newsletter that serves as your notice. Your board appreciates your support through your dues which pay for our excellent programs and refreshments, the much loved Newsletter, maintenance for our markers and other projects. If you are a new member and have paid dues after September 2016, that counts for 2017. Please be prompt as it helps us to better plan for the 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 McSpadden Williams, President
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.
Email: Tom Badham, Editor.
Mail: The Jefferson County Historical Association Editorial Office, 471 Midway Road, Union Grove,
Published quarterly by and for the membership of the Jefferson County Historical Association.
Copyright © 2012. All rights reserved.
Tom Badham, Editor Email:
Jim LaRussa, Design Editor Email:
Judy Haise Email:
Dr. Ed Stevenson Email:
(See Page 3 For More Info)
—by: John Troulias
ne of Jefferson County’s industrial railroads was the Tennessee Coal Iron & Railroad “High Line” railroad route built in 1925. Built to serve the Red Mountain iron mines, the loaded ore cars dropped down from the mines via gravity to the Ensley and Fairfield steel mills. The last of the 15 ore mines on Red Mountain closed in 1962.
In May, 2016, the north-south part of this old rail bed was opened as The High Line Ore Trail. The new two mile paved walking/bicycling trail is one of the main access points for the Red Rock Ridge & Valley Trail System. The system is a 30-year, $200 million plan which will include 250 miles of greenways and trails. Many of the planned routes of the Red Rock Ridge & Valley Trail System encompass former rail routes or other historic sites.
The trail system was begun by the Freshwater Land Trust with community support exceeding original expectations. The first part of the system was completed ahead of schedule when the Rotary Trail along First Avenue South in Birmingham opened in April, 2016.
Parking for the main entrance to the High Ore Line Trail is available at the Jefferson County Health Department’s Western Health Center, 631 Bessemer Super Highway in Midfield. From the northeast end of the Health Center’s parking lot by M.L. King Drive, walk east (to your right back towards Birmingham) along the sidewalk to the trail entrance. The trail proceeds south over Highway 11 and Valley Creek ending at 879 Wenonah Road near the former ore conditioning plant where no parking lot is available. However cars can park alongside the road. The trail is planned to extend into the undeveloped northwestern section of Red Mountain Park.
Crossing over a rarely viewed scenic portion of Valley Creek, the trail passes over the still active double main rail line of the Norfolk Southern Railway and two separate CSX rail lines, one of which includes a portion of the former Birmingham Mineral Railroad North Branch roadbed. On a two-hour easy walk on the trail, one could view a CSX or two Norfolk Southern freight trains as well as watching Amtrak passenger trains pass under the trail.
The starting and ending points for the trail are marked by a sign that has a sketch of a steam locomotive pulling a passenger train. If there ever was a passenger car on this line, it would have been to transport dignitaries on an inspection trip to the ore mines. A more accurate depiction would be a locomotive with a train of ore cars.
Several easy additions could be made to the trail. It would be nice if there could be a sign board at the trail entrances with a short history of the usage of the track.
In the 1980s, U.S. Steel donated the TCI ore mines paymaster’s armored rail car for a proposed mining museum in Muscoda at Hwy 150 and Morgan Road to display the large collection of mining artifacts and machines a local resident had accumulated. The museum never materialized.
The car appears to have received no maintenance since its relocation to this overgrown, weed-filled lot. An internet search revealed that this specialized type of car was last used in 1962 – this may be the last one in existence. It would be great if this car could be positioned at the trail access point in Midfield or at the Red Mountain Park.
Considering that U.S. Steel will no longer be operating its local blast furnace, maybe one of its ore cars could be donated for a permanent display. Although these ore cars last visited Red Mountain in 1962, they are being used to bring South American ore from the Warrior River to the mills.
While people walk or bike the trail system, the history of our great city should not be overlooked.
—by: E.W. Stevenson, M.D.
any thousands of people drive on Green Springs Highway between Birmingham and Homewood. Some will see a prominent sign that says "George Ward Park", while others may never notice it. Most of those who notice it will neither know nor care who George Ward was; so who was George Ward; and why would a city park bear his name?
George B. Ward literally grew up with earliest Birmingham. He was born in Georgia in 1867, but his parents moved to Birmingham in 1871 when George was 4 years old. His father and mother and grandfather operated Birmingham’s first hotel, The Relay House. His mother, Margaret Ketchum Ward, helped in the founding of The Cathedral Church of the Advent. He attended Powell School until age 16 and attended Cumberland University in Tennessee. He went to work for the First National Bank in Birmingham successfully rising to positions of higher rank and responsibility before entering the political arena.
His first entry into the political life of Birmingham was in 1899 at age 32, when he won election to the Board of Aldermen. Meanwhile, in the private sector, he formed a stock and bond company with John M. Caldwell in 1901. The experience as an alderman introduced him to a deeper understanding of activities and personalities in city government; so he unsuccessfully challenged incumbent Mayor W. M. Drennen in the 1903 mayoral election. The next election, however, proved more successful with him being inaugurated the 13th Mayor of Birmingham in 1905 at age 38; winning re-election for a second two-year term in 1907. Apparently he maintained his private business activities while serving in public office.
During his four mayoral years, we now probably would consider him to be a "progressive populist". His recognition of, and concern for, contemporary needs of the citizens, and his vision of their future needs, demonstrated a very astute and intelligent mentality. A study of the life of his mother, Margaret Ward, suggests that much of his concern for the well-being of the citizens stemmed from her caring attitudes and activities, which he had observed in his early life. A listing of his important civic achievements is truly too long to list here. He took a detailed interest in all phases of city government. Among his most noteworthy accomplishments was to have the utilities such as power, water and sewer brought under public control. Related to that, he had utility cables and wires moved from power poles and buried underground.
A very special concern, however, was his interest in establishing city parks so that the people would have facilities to use during their leisure hours. During his years as mayor, and with his leadership, the city bought substantial acreage for development into public parks, increasing 600%, from 30 acres in 1905 to 177 acres in 1909. One of the purchases was 100 acres adjacent to Robert Jemison Sr.’s private Glen Iris Park Development. Glen Iris became the location of Jemison’s second Birmingham home and residences for his selected neighbors.
The "Green Springs Park" original plan by the Massachusetts-based Olmsted brothers, who had developed Central Park in New York, was to make a quiet, pastoral park. The original plan did not have any noisy athletic fields, which could disturb the tranquility of the adjacent residential Glen Iris Park.
However, Mayor Ward added athletic fields on park land that had not been developed in the Olmsted plans. Ward did not want anything named for him during his lifetime. After his death in 1940, in recognition of his energetic development of city parks, the name of Green Springs Park was changed to "George Ward Park".
In some historians’ opinions, George Ward was the best mayor Birmingham ever had. Having served two terms as mayor, he elected not to run for additional terms, believing two terms should be the limit for anyone holding that office. Although Ward would not agree to run for mayor after two terms, he did not totally withdraw from politics. He unsuccessfully ran for the office of Sheriff in 1910; and successfully ran for the office of the first President of the newly-created Birmingham City Commission in 1913. He held that office until 1917.
George Ward was highly successful as a businessman and financier. His interests were manifold; his personality engaging and controversial. He last ran for public office in 1917, when he was defeated in the race for President of the City Commission. He lived until 1940, engaged quite actively in business and private pursuits. The Birmingham News stated, “George Ward was a many-sided man. There were so many ways his interests found outlets.”
Ward’s life as a business man actually bridged both chronological phases of his life, since he believed that the best politicians were members of the business community. As a very young man with limited higher education, he began his business career at age 16 with the First National Bank. At age 35, in 1902, he joined with John N. Caldwell to form a stock and bond brokerage firm, Caldwell-Ward Company. In 1919 he, as senior partner, joined with Mervyn H. Sterne to form Ward, Sterne and Company, a stock brokerage firm that became Sterne, Agee and Leach. ( By 2015, Sterne, Agee and Leach, was one of the nation’s largest and oldest privately-owned financial services companies outside of Wall Street.) Naturally, his successful business enterprises had brought substantial financial rewards. Certainly his political life had made him a well-recognized name in Birmingham and Alabama, which complemented his business life, and contributed to his successes.
Paradoxically, George Ward is not remembered for his great political contributions or his successful business interests, but for his architectural and artistic interests and legacy. O’Brien’s Opera House, the city’s first opera house, offered young George an artistic outlet as a thespian during those early years; and that experience possibly introduced him to Shakespeare and a wider world. As his life matured, he became a world traveler, and a student of history, art and architecture. He was a serious student of Greek and Roman history. In 1923, he bought 20 acres of land on Shades Mountain. In the following two years, he built a fabulous Greco-Roman style home on that tract. On one of his trips to Italy, he had bought a model of the Temple of Vesta in Rome. He credited the idea of the design of his home to an architect who had seen Ward’s model. He named the home "Vesta". Beautiful gardens were included in the total package, and a gazebo-type Temple of Sibyl, copied from a structure in Tivoli, 12 miles from Rome, was placed toward the back of the gardens.
Vesta has been spoken of as George Ward’s bachelor home, which would imply that he had not been married. The fact is that he was married to Frances Green Hunt at Independent Presbyterian Church in 1924, while the house was under construction; but the marriage ended in divorce after 20 months. Family tradition was that the newlywed couple went on an extended around-the-world honeymoon; and, when they returned to the new mansion, Frances was not pleased with living in a "pagan temple of vestal virgins"; so she only lived in the house one night.
Students of Latin will remember the textbook references to the Roman highway, APPIA VIA, "the Appian Way". In that spirit, the driveway leading to the home was named VESTA VIA, shortened by default to VESTAVIA. The residential community which evolved is Vestavia Hills, which is now the large suburban municipality. Following George’s death in 1940, three nieces inherited the house, but it was sold to pay debts of the estate.
For seven years it suffered neglect and vandalism. It was bought by a real estate developer, who tried to convert it, at considerable expense, to a restaurant and tourist attraction; but it was a financial failure and closed in 1958. It was sold to the Vestavia Hills Baptist Church, which held services in the former pagan temple for about ten years.
The building was demolished in 1970, and replaced with the present modern church. The church donated the Sybil Temple gazebo to the Vestavia Hills Garden Club. In 1975 it was moved and installed above U.S. Highway 31 at the crest of Shades Mountain, not far from Brookwood Baptist Medical Center. Its image is used as a logo for the city.
Because of George Ward’s intelligence, energy, originality, and love of Birmingham and all of its people, Birmingham evolved into a much better place than it could have been. He may still deserve the title of the best Mayor that Birmingham ever had. Historian Edward LaMonte concluded, "What distinguishes George Ward in the final analysis is this fact that he rose above the preoccupation with the daily affairs of municipal government, holding a vision of what this city ought to be."
George Ward died in 1940 in New York City, after a five-year battle with throat cancer. He had wished to be buried in a tomb below the Temple of Sybil on the estate grounds, but city ordinances forbade it. His funeral was held at The Church of the Advent, which his mother had helped to organize at its beginning; and he was buried in Elmwood Cemetery.
References: LaMonte, Edward S: "George B. Ward: Birmingham’s Urban Statesman" 1974. Birmingham Public Library. Poor, Frances B. "Vestavia Hills: A Historical Collection". 2000. Private publication of Vestavia Hills Garden Club. Wikipedia Cameron Vowell, private conversation