Wood-choppers, karsts & steam dummies: The origins of Highland Avenue
In January 1884, the city of Birmingham, and its founders, 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 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, 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 base ball 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 line downtown. 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.