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Historic Irondale Commissary on the Market

Irondale Furnace Commissary

The old Irondale Furnace Commissary at 4180 Glenbrook Drive.

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n interesting story in the Birmingham News real estate section regarding the old Irondale Furnace commissary has caught our attention.Now refurbished into a home at 4180 Glenbrook Drive, it is believed to be one of the oldest structures in Shades Valley. The original hand-hewed log cabin, thought built between 1820 and 1830, remains a part of a house which has been expanded to two bedrooms, two baths, kitchen and a large living room along with a board-and-batten guest cottage dating to 1860.

The property may have had only five owners, said RealtySouth Realtor Toody Sullivan, including the Cahawba Iron Works whose president, W. S. McElwain, used it as a commissary or company store. He purchased it from William Cummings in 1863. It was briefly occupied by the 4th Iowa Veteran Volunteers, a part of Wilson’s Raid on the Alabama iron industry early in 1865, while the nearby iron furnace was being burnt. The store escaped the torch.

Historical records show that members of the Eastis family lived here for over eighty years until it was purchased by the Edward Beaumonts in 1951. This was the first store in Shades Valley for the settlers to purchase supplies. Before this, it was necessary for residents to make a long trip over Red Mountain down to Elyton, then the county seat.

After the war, a four-room, pine-floored addition was added to the log structure which included an original white coal-burning fireplace. The home sits on a half-acre of prime real estate bordering Montevallo Road.

And, in case, you are interested the property lists for $439,000, an investment of which Mr. McElwain, who was tight with his Confederate dollars, might think very highly.


Looking for a Sugar Daddy (or Momma)

—by: Jerry Desmond
Director, Birmingham History Center

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he Historical Museum Guide for Alabama lists fifty-seven different historical museums and sites in the state on its website. Fifty-six of them operate out of their own property. Only one of them leases space in an office building - can you guess which one? That’s right; it’s the Birmingham History Center. For the past three years, we have been renting 5,000 square feet at the back of the Young and Vann Building.

These years have been good ones. We built a museum that gets outstanding reviews. We’ve added to an impressive collection of local artifacts. This space has been a good first step. But now, like a recent graduate, we are ready to move on. We need a building we can call our own. We are bursting at the seams and we need to expand. But times are tough for non-profits. Capital campaigns do not do well in recessions. We need someone to give us a building.

What could we do with our own building you ask? Here are our three basic needs:

  1. Artifact Storage – we currently only have about 800 square feet for storage. As we are collecting three additional artifacts each week, by this time next year we will have 150 more artifacts (many larger than a bread box) than we have now. We do not know where we are going to put them.
  1. Artifact Storage – we currently only have about 800 square feet for storage. As we are collecting three additional artifacts each week, by this time next year we will have 150 more artifacts (many larger than a bread box) than we have now. We do not know where we are going to put them.

  2. Exhibits – We only have room to show a small percentage of our collection. We are limited by space to a small number of featured stories. We have no space to bring in traveling or temporary exhibits.

So Mr. or Ms. Sugar, our needs are simple. Find us a sturdy building downtown in the historic district; say 15 – 20,000 square feet, near some public parking. It should have some open spaces, not too many windows and a nice mahogany-walled office suite for the executive director (I guess that last one is optional). Buy it for us and take a nice tax deduction. We will name it after you. How does the Birmingham History Center at the John Smith Building sound? Too much? How about the Jane Smith Magic City Exhibit Gallery? It is your chance to be immortal. It is your chance to put us on par with every other history museum in Alabama.

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A TIP OF THE HAT to Tom West for securing for the Birmingham History Center on loan from the Alabama Historical Radio Society a rare Superflex radio made in Birmingham in the 1920s. Their society currently has a display in the lobby of the Alabama Power Building, 600 North 18th Street.


Wood-Choppers, Karsts & Steam Dummies:
The origins of Highland Avenue

—by: John Morse
Birmingham History Center Blog

Henry Caldwell, Willis Milner & John Milner

Henry Caldwell, Willis Milner & John Milner

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n January 1884, the city of Birmingham, and its founder, the Elyton Land Company, were emerging from a long economic recession. The potential of the District’s mineral wealth was just beginning to bear fruit while the young city matured with new public services like a municipal water system. That system’s bonds, a debt which threatened the city’s future, had just been paid off thanks to the civic-minded generosity of Josiah Morris, James Sloss and Henry Caldwell.

Caldwell, in particular, had reason to be optimistic. As president of the Elyton Land Company he controlled the still-unimproved 1,500-acre South Highlands parcel just south of the city limit at 9th Avenue South. He tapped the company’s general manager, his brother-in-law Major Willis Milner, to supervise the planning and construction of roads and utilities. Most important to the success of the suburb would be an attractive park and resort at the terminus of a trolley line which showed the choicest building sites to their best advantage.

In 1884 those lots were still "primeval forest", protected from trespassing "wood-choppers" by armed company agents. Milner and his cousin, John T. Milner, a railroad engineer, prepared a large-scale topographical survey of the entire parcel before setting the route for what would become Highland Avenue.

In order to make the route navigable by horse-drawn carriages and mule-drawn trolleys, the road’s grade was limited to a maximum of 3%, forcing it to wind its way along the contour lines of the map. The 100-foot-wide right-of-way was carefully detailed to maximize the frontage estate lots. Natural depressions in the terrain, the result of dormant sink holes in the area’s limestone karst substrate, were reserved as parks and flood basins. A larger tract, near the eastern end of the boulevard, was selected for "Lakeview Park", with an artificial lake, resort hotel, dance hall, beer garden and other entertainments, including the county’s first baseball diamond (the site, in 1893, of the first ever football game between Alabama and Auburn).

Milner proposed to connect a new trolley service to the meager existing downtown line. The new tracks would cross over the Railroad Reservation and into the South Side at 22nd Street. At 5th Avenue South, the line would split to reach as far as 15th Street to the west before returning to Five Points South. The other branch continued as far east as 29th Street. Those two termini, within the city’s projected street grid, would then be connected by the looping new scenic boulevard of Highland Avenue. The first road construction contracts, signed in 1884, specified a paved road-bed of 25 feet. Road construction coincided with the landscaping of Lakeview Park, whose lake was filled with water piped in from nearby springs. Work was suspended while the company awaited a charter from the state legislature permitting it to construct and operate its proposed public trolley system. Once that was approved, work resumed in early 1885. The completed railway was dedicated on October 1 of that year. The system cost $3,500 per mile over a 7-mile route and earned about $24,000 for the company in each of its first few years.

Soon it became evident that the trolley should be upgraded to steam power, and the 16-pound rails were removed and replaced with 40-pound rail. The resulting steam dummy line, the first in the South, was enormously successful at first, but declined as competing streetcar resorts opened at East Lake, West Lake and Edgewood. Meanwhile the company overextended itself by constructing a belt railroad for the movement of freight and fell into receivership during the financial panic of 1899.

A portion of Highland Avenue was included within the municipal limits of the Town of Highland, incorporated in 1887. The town graded and curbed that section of the thoroughfare. Once Birmingham annexed Highland in 1893, it proceeded to improve the remainder of the boulevard. The streetcar system continued under the auspices of the Birmingham Traction Company.

Lakeview Park Overview

Lakeview Park Overview.



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