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Cane Creek Trestle.

Opening the Northwest Jefferson County Coal Mines

—by: Tom Badham


n 1870, mining prospector William "Uncle Billy" Gould found a five foot thick coal seam later named the Pratt Coal Seam near where John T. Milner shortly began his New Castle Coal Mines. By 1874 a pine log “corduroy” road had been constructed from the site and several ox cart loads of the coal were sent to the little settlement of Birmingham to see if it could be made into blast furnace coke. Experiments at the Oxmoor Furnace produced good quality pig iron on February 28, 1876. Coke reduced from this Alabama coal and Red Mountain iron ore opened the door for the development of the Birmingham iron and steel industry.

Getting at that wealth of metallurgical grade coal would prove difficult and expensive. To serve the ever expanding number of mines, railroad branches had to be constructed through northwest Jefferson County–rough, hilly terrain cut by innumerable creeks flowing into the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior River. For the next sixty years various railroads would construct rail branches and spurs which would have to trestle over creeks, tunnel through or cut down steep hills or fill gullies to ship that coal to various coke oven batteries or other destinations.

Even though the Louisville & Nashville Railroad (L&N) built a short spur to Milner’s New Castle mines, they showed no immediate interest in driving a branch into the coal fields. Knowing a good business opportunity, John T. Milner and Dr. Henry Caldwell created the Milner Coal and Railroad Company to build a railroad along Five Mile Creek from Birmingham into the heart of the area. However, heavy construction costs along with a weak coal market stopped completion of this short line.

A new railroad, the Georgia Pacific, was planned to run from Atlanta to the Mississippi River. Financed by Virginia investors of the huge Danville and Terminal companies headquartered in Richmond, the railroad’s investors had immense long term plans for their railroads and Birmingham’s mineral wealth. In 1882 the company sent one of Virginia’s greatest geologists, William H. Ruffner, to survey the Alabama mineral lands along the 400 mile projected route. His report insured the company’s continued interest.

In 1883, Thomas Seddon (son of James Seddon, the Confederate Secretary of War) and Bernard Peyton (an attorney for the railroad) completed a horse back inspection of the proposed route where they couldn’t ride by rail. The rails had been laid east from Columbus, Mississippi, to the western borders of Walker County and west from Atlanta to six miles west of Anniston. But there was a sixty-six mile gap, "over as rough a country as one would like to see" according to an article in The Atlanta Constitution.

The Georgia Pacific then bought controlling interest in the Milner Coal and Railroad Company for a reported $375,000. This gave the Georgia Pacific extensive coal deposits, an unfinished spur line, and access to convict labor that Milner had used under a contract with the county government. The company was renamed the Coalburg Coal and Coke Company and incorporated with a capitalization of one million dollars. Another Virginian, Edward M. Tutwiler, became the manager of the Coalburg mines.

On May 11, 1883, the Elyton Land Company gave the Georgia Pacific a right-of-way through Birmingham along with adjoining property for a depot, shops, and other facilities. Still to be built along the route was an 800 foot long, 70 foot high trestle as well as finishing the 810 foot long Cane Creek Tunnel out towards Anniston. Telegraph wires had been strung along the right-of-way resulting in the first direct telegraphic connections between Atlanta and Birmingham.

The Cane Creek Tunnel was completed and uninterrupted traffic began to flow between Atlanta and Birmingham in mid-November 1883. Soon Birmingham pig iron reached northeastern markets, and Birmingham replaced Atlanta as the line’s operational headquarters. Then a business recession hit the United States with further work on the Coalburg spur stopped until the demand for coal improved. It was 1886 before the Georgia Pacific pushed its spur through the Warrior Coal Field.

Newfound Creek Trestle

Newfound Creek Trestle

In 1884, Milton H. Smith became the president of the L&N railroad. In return for business from north Alabama mines and furnaces, he promised such men as Truman H. Aldrich and Henry F. DeBardeleben that he would stay out of coal and iron production, sell the railroad’s trackside land at bargain prices to local industrialists, and keep freight rates as low as possible.

He spearheaded the development of the Birmingham Mineral Railroad, a complex of feeder lines (branches) running eleven miles along both sides of Red Mountain. Begun in 1884, the road carried coal, iron ore, and limestone at cheap rates to coke oven batteries and blast furnaces along its right-of-way. The Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company (TCI) encouraged this by making the L&N its exclusive carrier.

By the late 1890’s a large part of the Mineral Railroad had been built. It encompassed 156 miles of rails, laid at a cost exceeding six million dollars. Other branches and extensions added until 1912 took the Birmingham Mineral Railroad to Moragne (in 1905) on the way to Attalla and to Tuscaloosa (in 1912) for a total of 253 miles of branches (not including spurs and sidings).

In 1886, the Georgia Pacific investors bought the Sloss City Furnaces. By 1887, they decided to build more furnaces in North Birmingham which was outside of the one square mile Birmingham city limits. Other furnaces were being built all over the Birmingham Mineral District creating a huge ever increasing demand for more metallurgical coal from northwest Jefferson County’s Warrior Coal Field. By 1900, TCI alone had thirty coal mines in northwest Jefferson County. The L&N drove a branch west from what is now Fultondale to serve those mines. Called the Cain Creek Branch, it snaked through forty miles of the hilly creek cut territory sometimes paralleling the Georgia Pacific branch. Apparently, through the years (as was the case with a lot of words and names in years past when communication was more verbal than written) as well as more recently, the name "Cain" started being spelled "Cane" in reference to this L&N branch.

TCI alone had an average daily output of 19,000 tons of coal going to its 3,722 coke ovens which had a daily capacity of 6,000 tons. It owned more than 400,000 acres of mineral lands which also included four large quarries yielding 100 rail cars of limestone and dolomite per day. In 1899 one year’s output of pig iron, coal, coke, iron ore and limestone (flux) totaled 7,809,927 tons.

The Birmingham Age-Herald wrote, “To haul this gigantic output of raw material and finished product would require over three hundred thousand railroad cars, making a train over 1,500 miles long.”

Sources: "Sloss Furnaces and the Rise of the Birmingham District" by W. David Lewis; "John Turner Milner" by Alice McSpadden Williams; James Lowery, Project Coordinator for the Historic Birmingham Mineral Railroad Signs Project.

Northwest Jefferson County Coal Mines map

Northwest Jefferson County Coal Mines map


Recent History Center Acquisitions

Private Motheral Bonner

World War II Scrapbook

A beautiful beige scrapbook recently donated to the Birmingham History Center documents the military life of Private Motheral Bonner. He was thirty two years old when he enlisted on the tenth of April, 1944, for whatever the duration of the war might be plus an additional six months. Inside the scrapbook is a certificate announcing Bonner’s completion of an eight-week medical technician course in El Paso, Texas, on the tenth of October, 1944. Bonner was assigned to the 28th Medical Regiment which served the 68th Station Hospital in Paris in 1945.

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Coca Cola cooler from the collection

This 1950s vintage lead-lined, raised-letter Coca Cola cooler was recently donated by Garland Smith.

Vote With Your Smokes

Vote With Your Smokes

This unique political campaign gimmick was promoted by a special-blend gourmet New York tobacco company. They claimed to have picked the winner in several Presidential elections in a row based on which candidate sold the most cigarette packages.

USS England

USS England.

Six Subs Sunk in Twelve Days
Birmingham’s John A. Williamson

—by: Tom Badham


orld War II started for Ensign John A. Williamson, U.S. Naval Reserve in September, 1941, three months before the December 7th Pearl Harbor attack. His destroyer guarded the slow, plodding merchantman convoys from the United States to England against German submarine wolf packs.

Lt. Comdr. John A. Williamson, 1945.

Lt. Comdr. John A.
Williamson, 1945.

Born in Fairfield on February 5, 1918, the son of an electrician working in west Birmingham, Williamson was recognized as a bright child and was skipped over several elementary school grades. Graduating from Ensley High School at seventeen, he entered Birmingham- Southern College on a scholarship, graduating four years later with a degree in Mathematics.

In June, 1940, after Germany invaded Poland, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy’s V-7 program which trained college graduates to become Naval Reserve Officers, if they passed the courses and were selected for training.

Since sub-chasers, called Destroyer Escorts, were smaller, cheaper and easier to build than fleet destroyers, the Navy decided to build a great many of them for convoy protection and coastal patrol duties. Their job was to seek out, attack and sink enemy submarines as well as having some anti-aircraft capabilities.

Due to his math skills and excellent service record in destroyers in the North Atlantic, he was picked to be chief instructor at the Sub-chaser Training Center located at Miami, Florida.

The sub-chasers were equipped with the new sonar and radar sets that few sailors were really trained in effectively using. They also had a new weapon designed to attack subs as well as carrying depth charges. The "hedgehog" was mounted on the bow deck. This forward firing spigot mortar could rocket fire twenty-four "hedgehogs" at once in a semi-elliptical pattern 270 yards ahead of the ship. Each hedgehog was filled with twenty-four pounds of TNT and would only explode when it came in contact with the submarine’s hull.

Unlike depth charges, this meant the DE could listen with sonar for the sub undisturbed by useless explosions in the water. A Hedgehog blast would blow a two to three foot hole in the hull. It was a new deadly game of technological hide-and-seek for inexperienced navy crews.

Williamson also developed a maneuver which became known Navy wide, then eventually world wide, as the Williamson Turn while at the school. The maneuver allowed a ship to accurately turn to back track its wake to find an overboard sailor.

In 1943 as a senior lieutenant, he received orders making him executive officer of the brand new Destroyer Escort USS England (DE 635), which was being finished at San Francisco. By March, 1944, the England was assigned to Destroyer Escort Division 39 in the South Pacific based in the Solomon Islands.

On May 18th, the England along with DE’s George and Raby with Commander Hamilton Hains acting as Tactical Command Officer of Escort Division 39 were ordered to the coordinates where Navy code breakers believed the large Japanese supply submarine I‑16 was located.

By noon of the next day the three DE’s were northwest of Bougainville steaming in a line abreast 4,000 yards apart with sonars actively sweeping the ocean. An hour and a half later England’s sonar man reported "Contact!" George and Raby stood by while England pursued the now wildly maneuvering I‑16.

The first volley of Hedgehogs missed, but the second caused an underwater explosion. The sub had been hit, but not fatally. The England’s captain, Lt. Commander Walton B. Pendleton, then turned over command to the best trained sub hunter on the ship, Lt. Williamson. After a second Hedgehog firing, five or six rapid underwater explosions were heard, indicating hits on the sub. Two minutes later a giant underwater blast lifted the England’s fantail out of the water knocking sailors to their knees. Many thought the ship had been torpedoed!



A massive oil slick and debris came to the surface and a dozen feeding frenzied sharks were seen. When a 75 pound rubberized bag of rice floated up, the commander of the division was convinced England had killed the massive Japanese supply submarine.

Also in the area, which covered thousands of square miles of ocean, were seven Ro class subs being used as forward pickets. American radio code breakers discovered their location as part of a complicated Japanese attack plan designed to destroy the U.S. carrier group in the South and Southwest Pacific areas.

Orders from Admiral Halsey’s Third Fleet arrived, "Seven Japanese submarines are believed to be preparing to form a scouting line in a position between Manus and Truk. Subs 30 miles apart on line. Seek out–attack–and destroy." Commander Hains decided on a simple attack plan. Find the northernmost sub, sink it and then swing southwest to attack the remaining boats, one after the other. At night the subs would come to the surface to recharge their batteries and replenish their air. That’s when the DE’s radar could detect them.

Williamson Turn

Williamson Turn

With the three DE’s acting as an organized search team, they found, tracked and sank five of those subs for a total of six subs sunk in twelve days. To the disgust of the crews of the George and Raby, it was always the England with Williamson at the helm who maneuvered his ship successfully for hits on the subs

For their outstanding combat performance the England’s crew was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation, one of only three Presidential Unit Citations given to Destroyer Escort crews in World War II. Her captain received the Navy Cross and promotion to full Commander. With that promotion he was given a new assignment as commander of a Destroyer Escort Division Lieutenant John Williamson was promoted to Lieutenant Commander, awarded the Legion of Merit for combat, the Silver Star for combat, and made Captain of the England on which he served through the end of the war.

Although offered a regular commission in the Navy, Williamson returned to Birmingham and began a successful career selling automobiles. He later owned several dealerships and became an expert in the field of training automobile sales forces and the use of computers in car sales and inventory. He ran several successful investment companies. During all this he remained in the Naval Reserve retiring with the rank of full Captain. He also donated to many local and state philanthropic and charitable activities in which his part remained anonymous.

Sources: "Antisubmarine Warrior in the Pacific"
by John A. Williamson, Wikipedia.




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