Skip to content

Letters from Gorgas–46 sweetheart letters give a glimpse to Alabama’s pre-war life and times

October 7, 2014

PIERCELETTER1“My dearest little ray of sunshine:”

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.

Alabama Chamber of Commerce image. Thanks to Alabama Department of Archives and History

Alabama Chamber of Commerce image of the Gorgas power plant on the Warrior River. Thanks to Alabama Department of Archives and History

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.”

PIERCENVELOPECROPMany are sent with an extra 10-cent “Special Delivery” stamp. Special short-hand messages abound at the end of letters and sometimes on the envelope.

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.”

News of the January 1940 snowfall overshadows the Nazis' moves. The ice and below-zero temperatures form ice thick enough for skating on the Black Warrior.

News of the January 1940 snowfall overshadows the Nazis’ moves. Below-zero temperatures form ice thick enough for skating on the Black Warrior.

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:

“9/7/39

Dearest Dimples:

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:

"Lights out" was ordered even at the power plant when the river was low.

“Lights out” was ordered even at the power plant when the river was low.

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

One of Pierce's shorthand messages to Lottie. Can anyone translate?

One of Pierce’s shorthand messages to Lottie. Can anyone translate?

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.

Quite a cache — Pizitz family items donated from flagship building

September 26, 2014
This rendering of a rejuvenated Pizitz Department Store building on 19th Street North and Second Avenue in Birmingham is the latest offered by developers Bayer Properties.

This rendering of a rejuvenated Pizitz Department Store building on 19th Street North and Second Avenue in Birmingham is the latest offered by developers Bayer Properties. Credit to KPS Group.

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.

Recordings labeled "Louis Pizitz," "Pizitz Opening" and "Legend of Louis Pizitz" in 10-inch (78s) and 12-inch formats. We haven't listened yet to what is recorded here.

Recordings labeled “Louis Pizitz,” “Pizitz Opening” and “Legend of Louis Pizitz” in 10-inch (78s) and 12-inch formats. We haven’t listened yet to what is recorded here.

This oil portrait of Louis Pizitz, signed N. R. Brewer, was donated Sept. 20 by a family member of the contractor who cleared out a Pizitz building office in the 1980s.

This oil portrait of Louis Pizitz, signed N. R. Brewer, was donated Sept. 20 by a family member of the contractor who cleared out a Pizitz building office in the 1980s.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An unidentified photograph of a young Louis Pizitz?

An unidentified photograph of a young Louis Pizitz?

 

One of several unidentified photographs donated with Pizitz memorabilia and artifacts this month.

One of several unidentified photographs donated with Pizitz memorabilia and artifacts this month.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This ad insert from Sept. 30, 1934. combined Birmingham News & Age-Herald Sunday edition announced the "revival of business and better times" in the midst of the depression. Silk undies sold for $1.78 and a pair of women's gold or silver evening slippers for $2.50.

This ad insert from Sept. 30, 1934 combined Birmingham News & Age-Herald Sunday edition announced the “revival of business and better times” in the midst of the depression. Silk undies sold for $1.78 and a pair of women’s gold or silver evening slippers for $2.50.

1969 was an, ahem, unusual year for men's fashion. This page taken from a Pizitz Christmas catalog that year.

1969 was an, ahem, unusual year for men’s fashion. This page taken from a Pizitz Christmas catalog that year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 bjhm@bham.rr.com.

 

Two lines converge–genealogists find family ties across historic trestle

September 12, 2014

 

This Bing Maps aerial view shows the #10 trestle in its proper magnificence, according to a descendant of trestle builder J. L. Mitchell.

This Bing Maps aerial view shows the #10 trestle in its proper magnificence, according to a descendant of trestle builder J. L. Mitchell.

Joshua Mitchell, wife Nettie and seven children pose near the #10 trestle for this 1904 Atlanta Constitution article.

Trestle builder Joshua Mitchell, wife Nettie and seven children pose near the #10 trestle for this 1904 Atlanta Constitution article. Click image to enlarge.

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.

 Joshua L. Mitchell is the listed builder of the #10 trestle near Brookside. Both met tragic ends.

Joshua L. Mitchell is the listed builder of the #10 trestle near Brookside.

The builder

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.

The trestle

Local photographer Ben Tate took this picture of the #10 span. His and other pictures can be found by searching photos at bridgehunter.com and panoramio.com

Local photographer Ben Tate took this picture of the #10 span. His and other pictures can be found by searching at bridgehunter.com and panoramio.com. Click image to enlarge.

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.

 

 

 

Trestleruins

These foundation stones are all that remains of the trestle following a 2006 fire. Photo by Ben Tate.

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.

 

 

The trestle fire started late on May 23, 2006, and burned throughout the night, the nearest water sources beyond reach of firefighters. [Photo by Eric McFerrin.] Click image to enlarge.

 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

Hope lingers to build the ambitious 36-mile trail paralleling the route of Five Mile Creek through Jefferson County. Approximately half its length would follow the old CSX railbed--minus the historic trestle--project, and involve a host of private and government partners. The Freshwater Land Trust has been negotiating the purchase of the railroad property since 2013.

Hope lingers to build the ambitious 36-mile trail paralleling the route of Five Mile Creek through Jefferson County. Approximately half its length would follow the old CSX rail bed–minus the historic trestle–project, and involve a host of private and government partners. The Freshwater Land Trust has been negotiating the purchase of the railroad property since 2013. Click image to enlarge.

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.

Robert Lindberg

Robert Lindberg

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

Tell us something we DON’T know (and win)

July 31, 2014

John Morse, publisher & contributor, bhamwiki.com

John Morse, publisher & contributor, bhamwiki.com

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 bjhm@bham.rr.com for a chance at a discounted* ticket to Can You Repeat That? at the Virginia Samford Theatre Aug. 7!

Can_You_Repeat_InstagramBut 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%.

Feb. 9, 1964 – The Beatles debut, and how Birmingham managed to miss it.

June 19, 2014
The Beatles American TV debut came on Feb. 9, 1964 on The Ed Sullivan Show. Not in Birmingham, though.

The Beatles’ American TV debut came on Feb. 9, 1964 on The Ed Sullivan Show. Not in Birmingham, though.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

The Ed Sullivan Show wasn't a choice for Birmingham viewers in 1964. At 7 p.m. CST when the nation was preparing to see the Beatles debut, Birmingham viewers had a choice between Grindl or Disney's Wonderful World of Color.

The Ed Sullivan Show wasn’t a choice for Birmingham viewers in 1964. On Feb. 9, at 7 p.m. CST, when the nation was preparing to watch the Beatles first performance,  Birmingham viewers could watch Grindl or Disney’s Wonderful World of Color.

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.  

 

“Can You Repeat That?” The History Center lays down a challenge

June 10, 2014

GAMESHOWIMAGEPlease 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.

bhamwiki logoThe show is being generously assisted by the Virginia Samford Theatre, museum supporters, and the abundant knowledge and expertise of bhamwiki.com publisher John Morse.

 

Whales, Franklin and Daylight Savings Time

March 6, 2014
by

The small tea-pot shaped lamp (pictured) is one of several coal miner’s lamps in the collection of the Birmingham History Center.  It is different than all the rest, however.  It uses a different type of fuel – whale oil, to be specific, spermaceti.  It is found in the head of sperm whales (a large whale could yield as much as 500 gallons).  Marine biologists don’t really know why the liquid is found there but speculate that it has something to do with either buoyancy or the whale’s motion-sensing sonar.OldSmokey

The lamp, known as “Old Smokey” because when lit the oil does give off a great deal of smoke, has a hook in the back which attached it to a miner’s helmet or cap.  Young boys were employed to carry buckets of whale oil in the coal mines to refill the miner’s lamps.  Whale oil production reached its peak in the 1850s, at about the same time as Herman Melville’s book, Moby Dick, was published.  Then it was replaced in lamps by petroleum products.

Benjamin Franklin, perhaps the most famous American scientist, philosopher and statesman of the 18th century, was very much concerned with the whale oil industry.  As the American ambassador to France during the Revolutionary War, Franklin headed the American delegation during the talks which led to the Treaty of Paris of 1783 and the winning of American independence.  One particular item on the agenda was to determine the fishing rights in the Atlantic Ocean, specifically the area off the coast of Newfoundland known as the Grand Banks, an area rich in cod fish and whales.  Franklin wanted the U.S. fishing fleet (including whalers) to have the right to fish in this area, a concession which was granted in the treaty.

franklin

Benjamin Franklin, Ambassador to France

However, reports from home indicated that the whale population was declining off the Grand Banks, due to over-harvesting.  Franklin, a native of New England, knew how much the economy of the region depended on this trade.  But the problem was how to reduce the number of whales harvested in order to replenish to supply.  The answer seemed obvious to Franklin . . . use less whale oil.  But how?

The story goes that one day Franklin was out on a balcony overlooked the rooftops of Paris as the sun was going down.  He noticed that as it got darker, people in homes began lighting their whale oil lamps.  If only there was some way to delay the beginning of night – to save time.  That’s right, Benjamin Franklin invented Daylight Savings Time.  Well, sort of, the idea actually goes back to Roman times but it makes for a good story (Franklin did publish a short pamphlet telling the Parisians that they should be getting up earlier each day to take advantage of the sun light, an proposal that did not go over very well).

dst

World War I Poster

In the early 20th century the idea finally began to gather momentum.  An English sportsman named William Willett, upset that the sun was going down during his round of golf, was able to get a bill to the British Parliament in 1908, but it was tabled.  Finally, it was the Germans in 1916 who went to Daylight Savings Time to save coal use during World War I.

In the United States, the Standard Time Act of 1918 put DST into effect for the first time, and it was an on again, off again affair through most of the 20th century.  The energy crisis of the 1970s brought the idea back.  The Uniform Time Act in 1986 began DST on the first Sunday in April to run until the last Sunday in October. This was modified by the Energy Policy Act of 2005, under President George W. Bush, to our present state of affairs, starting DST on the second Sunday of March through the first Sunday in November.

So when you change your clocks ahead one hour at 2 AM on March 9th this year, think of Benjamin Franklin and his attempt to save the whales back in 1783.  Then, of course, go back to sleep.

 

 

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 100 other followers

%d bloggers like this: