There’s nothing like a buried, rust encrusted iron ball found in a local park to cause a stir, especially among history buffs. And there are no amateur historians more engaging— and engaged — in their work than those in the ranks of local metal detectors. When they are not scouting loose change from our beaches, they can be found in our parks, our wooded buffers and public right-of-ways monitoring their instruments and sometimes detecting relics of our forgotten past.
So it is with this historic find from Avondale Park in a picture submitted by metal detector Tate McNees. McNees has undoubtedly unearthed an historic piece of ammunition – if not a ball bearing—of some kind. But can he attach it to an historic event?
McNees and other devotees of Birmingham history will nod when reminded that on land now Avondale Park Union shots were fired and a casualty recorded during the waning years of the American Civil War. Bhamwiki.com’s Battle of Avondale post has summarized two published references to this sole Birmingham claim to a civil war casualty:
In the 1885 weekly, Iron Age, a story published 20 years after the 1865 incident, the wife of Jefferson County Sheriff Abner Killough was hit by accidental “friendly fire” while at her house on the property that later became Avondale Park. It was here that Union Army officers, as non-aggressors innocently stopping by after watering their horses, were mistaken as marauders by the local 10th Alabama Infantry, which fired—hitting only Ms. Killough.
In the 1893 Birmingham Age Herald account, the Alabama guard is already stationed near the house when it spies and fires upon the Union officers at the spring–“their rifle balls hitting the water like hail”– who promptly returned fire, hitting Ms. Killough.
In both accounts, the exchange goes no further and Ms. Killough recovers.
McNees suggests that the artifact found at the park is a “grape shot,” so named because such iron balls were bundled in grape-like clusters before being fired in a spray of shrapnel by cannon or other artillery.
If this not a piece of grape shot, could it be a “rifle ball” associated with the skirmish, or some other object entirely? Here’s another take on the Killough story.
It’s an interesting find, and thank you Tate McNees for showing it to us.
So begins begins this first letter in a collection of 46 missives sent in 1939-1940 from one Dalton Wilford Pierce, a Gorgas Steam Plant clerk, to his 17-year-old girlfriend in Birmingham.
The letters were donated to the History Center by Anne Greene of Birmingham and chronicle the light-hearted but determined efforts of Mr. Pierce to woo Miss Lottie Peterson. Her responses are not part of the collection, but over 13 months of weekly messages we infer that she graduates from Wheeler’s Business College in Birmingham, where Pierce likely met her, that she moves over the summer from her home in Eastlake to Irvington, New Jersey, finds a job, then returns to Birmingham.
Pierce himself is a power plant resident worker, a clerk who ends many letters with a hidden message written in shorthand. We read that he’s up for the Chief Clerk’s job, a promotion he lands in the summer of 1939. Meanwhile, he gives glimpses of life on the Warrior River—the shock of a steamboat whistle, the nighttime sounds of bullfrogs, passing time pitching horseshoes, and a record 22-inch snowfall in January 1940 that shut down plant communications.
What we know about Gorgas — or any power plant — comes mainly from company archives, newspaper mentions, environmental enforcement, and a few local histories. What these letters provide is the often missing human face of the facility, the resident workers like Pierce, whose lives emanate from the daily routines of their workplace. Here are some excerpts:
“By the way, we did have a little excitement last night, one of the men in Camp went crazy from drink and had to be taken to Jasper in a straight jacket. He got after another man with a screw driver (heck no it wasn’t me) and almost wrecked the Guest House before they got him under control. …It’s kind of hard on a man’s nerves with nothing to do from 5;O’clock until bed time but just sit around and play checkers or listen to a opera conducted by the bull frogs on Warrior River.”
Largely typed, but sometimes written in longhand, the letters are dated approximately one per week. They are two- and sometimes three-pages long, written on company letterhead with the printed footer message, “This paper made in Alabama from Alabama Pine.”
News about the plant is sparse but telling. We learn that the #2 Plant begins operation on Monday, May 16 and 85 men are recruited to the workforce. Life is regimented at the plant: They pitch horseshoes for recreation, have regular checkups by a company doctor, and call mealtimes “chow.”
The letters’ tone and Pierce’s comments resound with the kind of stereotypical innocence we associate with 1950s advertising. Pre-war, Pierce wonders if the United States will get involved in the “scrap across the pond” but mostly avoids mention of the political events that fill the newspapers. He and Lottie smoke Lucky Strike cigarettes, go to dances, drink “malteds” and see movies at the Alabama—including the December 1939 release of Gone with the Wind. Expectedly, their private romantic moments take place in Pierce’s car “Josephine,” which he laments having to trade for a four-door Chevy that summer.
But this is not a 50’s stereotype or the Endless Summer of California. Summer ends very prosaically in Alabama in 1939:
I’ve almost took that one way ticket West since I wrote you last. Have been in bed with Malaria Fever and they even said I did some tall talking while I was out of my head for a few hours. You should have been here you might have heard something interesting.”
And a droughty December plunges the plant in enforced darkness to conserve energy:
On Dec. 18, 1939, Pierce writes on The American Radio Relay League letterhead:
“Dearest Honey Lamb:
Did you ever hear of a Power Plant about to run out of electricity? Well, this place is getting so tight for juice that no lights can be allowed to burn at night unless absolutely necessary. If it don’t rain during the next week it looks like we’ll have to burn candles on Christmas Trees this year. The rivers are lower than they have been in years and if something goes wrong with one of the generators in Gorgas Town it gonna be too bad.”
It is followed by a record snowfall Jan. 24 & 25, 1940, reported in the papers and which Pierce relates as light-heartedly to his “Dearest Pal:
“…We’ve been having a time at our Radio Station W-4-CCP. It has been the only means of communication from Gorgas and I kinda know how Mr. Byrd (or whatever his name is) feels at the South Pole.”
The letters are no less fun to read because this very young couple didn’t marry and remain together through old age. The final letter in the collection is a February 1940 commercial Valentine’s Day card with
no message, just a signature. We know that Pierce and his Dimples did live into old age, however. Ms. Green says Wilford’s name is sewn into a family quilt, signifying his importance as a family friend at one time. Both are deceased. Lottie died in 1992.
The history of the Alabama Power Company has run a parallel existence. Suffice it to say, the company was founded in 1906 and was delivering power to Birmingham via the Lay Dam in 1914.* Beside generating electricity and industrial development for the state, the company generated an unmatched century of government, civil and environmental activity. For Gorgas, a coal-burning plant built around 1918 and expanded with U.S. government war funds, retirement will begin this year in reaction to EPA limits on mercury and greenhouse gas emissions.
*A centennial exhibit of Lay Dam’s history is open at the Alabama Power Company main office M-F, 9 a.m.-4 p.m. through Nov. 7, 2014. Come through the main entrance at 600 18th Street North, and bring photo id.
Louis Pizitz, a Russian immigrant who gave up rabbinical studies for retail, built and stood at the helm of Birmingham’s leading department store chain throughout much of the last century. The business passed to his son Isidore and eventually, in 1987, was sold to McRae’s, which summarily closed the flagship building on 19th Street North and Second Avenue. The historic structure with the decorative terra cotta facade was purchased in 2000 by Bayer Properties and is slated for a $59 million redevelopment into apartments and first-floor shops.
Twenty six years later, a mini-trove of Pizitz items left behind during the McRae’s closure was donated to the Birmingham History Center. The donor was a contractor hired to clear out the building’s contents; the donated material was removed from a single office. Here are pictures of just a few items donated, followed by a summary list of the other objects and papers.
Other donated objects include:
1) Photographs and picture postcards of an unidentified Pizitz family member;
2) Newspaper advertising sections from the Birmingham News, Birmingham Post and Birmingham Age Herald for the years 1928, 1929, 1934, 1935, 1936, 1950, and 1969;
3) A 1975 “key to the city” of Homewood to Louis Pizitz son, and business successor Isidore Pizitz;
4) Deeds and mortgages on Georgia property and residential property in Mt. Brook;
5) Pizitz annual reports and several Christmas catalogs from late 1960s;
6) A copy of a 1970s (?)-era spoof of a Pizitz catalog with mixed race models and entitled Christmas with Contrast;
7) A folder documenting Louis Pizitz research into, and rejection of, a nomination to place the building on the National Register of Historic Places.
As much interest as there is in the Pizitz name and building, the road to redeveloping the iconic building has been a rocky one. The plans for office and retail hit a major snag with the Great Recession, and the first office tenant to commit, in 2010–law firm Baker Donelson–backed out later that year. The city of Birmingham is now assisting Bayer with $1.9 million in streets improvements and facilitating efforts to land a federal HUD loan and tax exemptions. Construction hasn’t begun.
For more information on the Pizitz building and the history of its prominent entrepreneurial family, read bhamwiki’s account at http://www.bhamwiki.com/w/Louis_Pizitz.
For questions or comments on the donation, write firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Cane Creek rail line was an 28+-mile branch of the old Louisville & Nashville Railroad that forked off the main line just north of Birmingham and ran west to the Warrior River through the rugged coal hills of Jefferson County. On the way, it served nearly 30 separate coal mines owned by the Pratt Coal and Coke Co., opened through violent extraction of rock. To keep the rails on the same grade as the coal seam, nearly all its length lay through dynamited rock cuts across 30 separate train trestles.
Fifteen of those trestles were more than 75 feet in the air. But one of them–the #10–was 672 feet long, gently curved and, at the time, the highest wooden train trestle in the United States, at 116 feet.
Many of those facts are already familiar to long-time residents in North Jefferson County. But many have only recently been uncovered, including the identity of trestle builder Joshua L. Mitchell, whose picture with his large and growing family accompanied a 1904 Atlanta Constitution article about the Alabama trestle. Joseph Mitchell, 87, a professor emeritus of Troy University, is the trestle builder’s grandson. He found the article in 2008 after a 20-year search of his family heritage. At the same time, J.L.’s great-grandson Robert Lindberg, 64, a Boston-area dentist, was on the same trail of his family’s history. The two had never met–the Mitchell branches long parted by J.L.’s death at age 40 and other family circumstances.
Their reunion in July and continuing work on the trestle’s history will be presented in a Jefferson County Historical Association newsletter later this year. “My first goal is to get J. L Mitchell now and forever proper credit as the trestle builder of this historic landmark and person of note in the building of the coal industry in Alabama Birmingham area,” Bob Lindberg said.
According to his genealogy research, Joshua Mitchell was born in 1866 and grew up in Loganville, Ga. He married his first cousin, Nettie Long, and the couple had seven children with an eighth on the way when the Atlanta Constitution picture was taken in 1904. Beside constructing trestles, Mitchell was a contractor working on convict labor housing at Palos and later the nearby Bessie Mines, opened by the Sloss-Sheffield Iron and Steel Co. The year 1906 was a tragic one for the family. Mitchell’s youngest son fell through the ties of a different Cane branch train trestle, dying in his father’s arms, Bob Lindberg said. Later that same year, at age 40, Mitchell himself died under circumstances prompting an inquest, and which will be detailed in a fully footnoted paper in JCHA’s newsletter.
As with any disappearing national treasure, recognition often comes too late. Such was the fate of the #10 and its task to carry coal out of the wilds of north Jefferson County. The structure survived without fanfare the boom years of mining, the rise and eventual abolition of the convict-lease labor system, and decline of domestic coal mining. Meanwhile, the L&N was absorbed through various mergers by CSX, which decommissioned the line in 1997 and pulled up the rails.
By 2002, the structure was interesting only as a potential barrier to another engineering marvel, the planned Northern Beltline. It lay out in the sticks, literally, and had been overlooked years earlier during an exhaustive study of Birmingham’s historic industrial sites by the U.S. Park Service. Two Birmingham News stories that year prompted a visit by Park Service’s Historical American Engineering Record to correct the oversight. Those photos are publicly available from the Library of Congress archives http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/hh/item/al1317/.
Then in 2003, Jefferson County and CSX agreed to “rail-bank” the 16.5-mile corridor for a future walking trail. Managed by the local Freshwater Land Trust, and with $1 million in public funds still earmarked toward its purchase, a sale is still being negotiated with CSX more than a decade later.
A tragedy would follow a century later with the absolute destruction of the #10 trestle in a May 23, 2006, fire blamed on kids with fireworks. No state fire marshal investigation was conducted, and Lindberg admits his second goal—finding out about the fire’s cause–may never be answered.
“Did they catch and identify the boys?” he asks. “Did they admit to setting fire that Tuesday? Eight years later, do they regret what they had done? I could care less about any punishing of anyone. I just would like to know the whole story.”
Plans still chugging along
Lindberg’s and Mitchell’s research has helped correct several factual errors in the record (the trestle was completed in 1904, not 1914 as newspaper and CSX records showed). Also, the Library of Congress mis-dated the 2002 photographs and listed them the keyword “King” instead of “Cane” or “Cain” branch of the L&N Railroad. These are being corrected.
Finally, he feels satisfied that the old L&N line may still be used for hikers to travel and learn about the rough-and-tumble history of North Jefferson County. The Freshwater Land Trust has been quietly negotiating the purchase of the property, which has been rail-banked — or reserved– under the city of Fultondale, the proposed trailhead.
Lindberg is hopeful about the plan.
“I would like to see that the Fresh Water Land Trust recognizes what was lost and makes every effort to hold onto the ROW and even rebuild a ‘trestle’ structure of some kind,” he said. “Retelling of the story of the building of the trestle hopefully will help people of Birmingham and Jefferson County better appreciate what they had and what was lost and what should be remembered, on a personal level.”
Author’s note — I took some interest in this story after Robert Lindberg contacted the Birmingham History Center about it in August. I was the author of two of the Birmingham News articles listed above. Mr. Mitchell’s research also turned up a 1951 News story about the trestle. The last one published chronicled the devastating 2006 fire –Liz Ellaby
Much (really, all) of the rock-solid historical information you’ll be absorbing at the History Center’s quiz show, Can You Repeat That? has been mined from the website bhamwiki.com and then painstakingly tested for accuracy by the History Center and double-verified by bhamwiki’s publisher, Birmingham infomaniac John Morse (pictured here).
There is very little information of significance about Birmingham that has escaped mention in Morse’s online encyclopedia. But our dogged pursuit of historic truth requires that we admit that possibility. If you can tell us a significant fact or story of about Birmingham that has not yet appeared in bhamwiki.com, send your reply to email@example.com for a chance at a discounted* ticket to Can You Repeat That? at the Virginia Samford Theatre Aug. 7!
But maybe you aren’t aware of the show? Can You Repeat That? is the premiere of our first ever Birmingham history game show, featuring a dozen celebrity panelists, Mayor William Bell, and offering audience members chances to play along for some really great prizes. Tickets are $25 and available online at http://www.birminghamhistorycenter.org.
Disclaimer – Discounts for stumping John Morse start at 20%.
What’s a 50th anniversary without witnesses to the original event, without the stirring personal narratives to remind us that, yes, that really happened? Such was the situation at the approach of Feb. 9, 2014, when reporters everywhere sought personal memories from those who watched the Beatles’ live debut 50 years earlier on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Here in Alabama, tributes and retrospectives were everywhere, with al.com’s digital news running an “Alabama Perspective” of the Beatles’ influence on musicians across the state. But what about Alabama’s largest city? Strangely absent from al.com’s or any news feature were witnesses from Birmingham. Wasn’t there anyone in Birmingham on that day in 1964 who can remember the TV moment when Ed Sullivan gestured to the band’s wildly anticipated performance and announced: “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Beatles?”
The answer, if history tells us anything, is no.
“Unless they had a house with a very tall antenna. I mean incredibly tall,” those people don’t exist, said broadcaster and historian Russell Wells. Wells, a Birmingham native and public radio operations manager now working in Louisville, said the nearest CBS affiliates to Birmingham were broadcasting in UHF from Huntsville and Montgomery. To pull a VHF signal from neighboring states, he said, “would have been the stuff of Ripley.
In fact, idiosyncracies of the Magic City’s TV business from 1961-1966 were to blame for creating a virtual black hole for the nation’s dominant network, CBS, the home of The Ed Sullivan Show. Which is why, if friends claim to have actually witnessed the Fab Four’s performance from their Birmingham living rooms, you can say–
Oh No You Didn’t!
On Top of Red Mountain–
Contrary to what may be imagined, the situation had nothing to do with “teeming anti-Beatle sentiment” in Birmingham, or a reaction against CBS’s 1961 Freedom Riders documentary, Who Speaks for Birmingham?
The real reason, said Wells, is that Birmingham entered the 1960s with only two local TV stations–WBRC-6 and WAPI-13—which had to juggle programming from all three national networks. In 1961, Channel 6 took the unusual step of aligning itself with the weakest network of the three, ABC, and dropping all but a few CBS daytime soap operas. This left Channel 13 with a dual affiliation to both NBC and CBS, a position the station held even after the December 1965 entrée of Channel 42. (To his knowledge, Wells knows of only one other instance where one station had first pick of both the “Peacock and the Eye,” in Raleigh/Durham North Carolina.)
Only in 1970 did Channel 13 choose to affiliate exclusively with NBC, apparently moved by fears of FCC involvement. “Therefore, between September 1961 and December 1965, it was a sad inevitability that a number of network programs would not be seen in Birmingham,” Wells said. And falling into that category was the Sullivan show.
A glance at Birmingham’s TV listings for that date, published in the “The Tuscaloosa News” bears that out. Kids i Birmingham households with no high antenna were watching either the second half of Disney’s Wonderful World of Color at 7 p.m. or the one-season sitcom Grindle, starring Imogene Coca.
Or maybe doing homework.
If there were teenager complaints in the lead-up or aftermath of that first show (The Beatles were signed for three consecutive Sundays in February) there’s no recorded history of it. In retrospect, that’s hard to believe. But Wells said adults at the time weren’t concerned with teen fads and the phenomenon barely registered on the radars of those making decisions, at home or on Red Mountain.
It is also speculation that provides a reason why Birmingham’s top local station, Channel 13, decided against affiliating with the nation’s dominant network. In an aside relevant to Birmingham today, Wells said that station owners Newhouse Broadcasting (now Advance Media, owners of the Birmingham News, sister papers and al.com) were said to have “loathed CBS chairman and founder William Paley. So NBC it was,” he said.
And the fate of Ed Sullivan in Birmingham? The popular variety show returned to the Birmingham airways in 1966 after Channel 42 signed on. However, the station barely got signal as far as Warrior, Wells jokes, and its arrival came four months too late to air the Beatles’ final (taped) performance on Ed Sullivan in September 1965.
Wells said a curious legacy of the 1960s lasted into the 1990s when Channel 13 slipped in a syndicated show at 10 p.m. and delayed The Tonight Show one hour– a juggling trick it learned from its dual-affiliation days. The benefit? The station got to keep 100% of the commercial revenue!
Russell Wells is the creator and webmaster of birminghamrewound.com with collaborator Tim Hollis. Active in broadcasting since the 11th grade, in 1982, he has worked for the last 24 years at public radio stations in Montgomery, Troy, Savannah, and now Louisville. He frequently returns to Birmingham to visit an aunt living in East Birmingham.
Please save this date: Thursday, Aug. 7, at 7:30 p.m., and join the Birmingham History Center and its community partners in a live game show on stage at the Virginia Samford Theatre.
A dozen of Birmingham’s best known, or should we say “best knowing,” figures from politics, media, academia, and culture have agreed to play “Can You Repeat That?” the game where history repeats itself in the form of questions, bluffs, riddles, and puzzles, all having to do with the Magic City’s varied history.
Here are the 12 Birmingham leaders who have agreed to go the four rounds with us. Pound for pound, we think they are equally ranked:
John Archibald, Kyle Whitmire, Frank Stitt, Laura Kate Whitney, James Spann, comedian Chris Davis, Glenny Brock, Richard Arrington, Jay Roberson, and from two major Birmingham universities, Randy Law of Birmingham-Southern College, and Pam King of UAB.
You can play along, beginning now
One of the game rounds will be based on guessing the top answers to survey questions about Birmingham. This is where our readers can help. Please click on the orange banner to take our survey and share it with your friends. Then come to the show August 7 and see how well our contestants perform.
The show is being generously assisted by the Virginia Samford Theatre, museum supporters, and the abundant knowledge and expertise of bhamwiki.com publisher John Morse.