Diamonds in the Rough: A History of Alabama's Cahaba Coal Field


Diamonds in the Rough reconstructs the historical moment that defined the Cahaba Coal Field, a mineral-rich area that stretches across sixty-seven miles and four counties of central Alabama.
Combining existing written sources with oral accounts and personal recollections, James Sanders Day’s Diamonds in the Rough describes the numerous coal operations in this ...
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Diamonds in the Rough: A History of Alabama's Cahaba Coal Field

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Diamonds in the Rough reconstructs the historical moment that defined the Cahaba Coal Field, a mineral-rich area that stretches across sixty-seven miles and four counties of central Alabama.
Combining existing written sources with oral accounts and personal recollections, James Sanders Day’s Diamonds in the Rough describes the numerous coal operations in this region—later overshadowed by the rise of the Birmingham district and the larger Warrior Field to the north.
Many of the capitalists are the same: Truman H. Aldrich, Henry F. DeBardeleben, and James W. Sloss, among others; however, the plethora of small independent enterprises, properties of the coal itself, and technological considerations distinguish the Cahaba from other Alabama coal fields. Relatively short-lived, the Cahaba coal-mining operation spanned from discovery in the 1840s through development, boom, and finally bust in the mid-1950s.
Day considers the chronological discovery, mapping, mining, and marketing of the field’s coal as well as the issues of convict leasing, town development, welfare capitalism, and unionism, weaving it all into a rich tapestry. At the heart of the story are the diverse people who lived and worked in the district—whether operator or miner, management or labor, union or nonunion, white or black, immigrant or native—who left a legacy for posterity now captured in Diamonds in the Rough. Largely obscured today by pine trees and kudzu, the mining districts of the Cahaba Coal Field forever influenced the lives of countless individuals and families, and ultimately contributed to the whole fabric of the state of Alabama.
Winner of the 2014 Clinton Jackson Coley Award for Best Work on Alabama Local History from the Alabama Historical Association
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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“Day’s discovery of massive documentation of the earliest geological and economic development of the antebellum Bibb-Shelby County coal industry is a remarkable accomplishment. More important, he has mastered the complex financial and social structures, which are essential for any understanding of the subject. His work on I. T. Tichenor and the complicated coal baron rivalries and alliances of the Reconstruction era are no less important. Day writes as an honest broker, presenting both sides of the complicated management-labor divide without the special pleading either way that accompanies far too much labor history in Alabama. . . . This is rich social, economic, and labor history at its best.”—Wayne Flynt, author of Poor But Proud: Alabama's Poor Whites and Keeping the Faith: Ordinary People, Extraordinary Lives

Diamonds in the Rough will serve as an excellent addition to the literature on southern industrialization. Day has done a great deal of research that he has worked into an accessible, thorough, and very clear history of the Cahaba coal field." –Sean Patrick Adams,author of Old Dominion, Industrial Commonwealth: Coal, Politics, and Economy in Antebellum America

“While concentrating on the Cahaba Coal Field, Diamonds in the Rough focuses on mining practices and labor problems throughout the coal industry in the Birmingham district from the mid-1800s to the 1970s. Not only is Day's book an appealing account, it is an excellence reference and adds to the collective knowledge of the mining industry at a place where it originated just prior to the Civil War. It belongs in the bookshelves of all who love to explore Alabama's industrial beginnings.”–James R. Bennett,author of Tannehill and the Growth of the Alabama Iron Industry and coauthor of Iron and Steel: A Guide to Birmingham Area Industrial Heritage Sites

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780817317942
  • Publisher: University of Alabama Press
  • Publication date: 6/24/2013
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 224
  • Sales rank: 984,610
  • Product dimensions: 6.26 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 0.63 (d)

Meet the Author

James Sanders Day is an assistant vice president for academic affairs and an associate professor of history at the University of Montevallo. A 1979 graduate of the United States Military Academy, Day has taught history at West Point, Marion Military Institute, Judson College, and Auburn University-Montgomery. The author of several journal articles on related topics, this is Day’s first book.

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A History of Alabama's Cahaba Coal Field

By James Sanders Day


Copyright © 2013 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8173-1794-2




The discovery of coal along Alabama's Cahaba River is legendary. Named by Professor Michael Tuomey, the first state geologist, the Cahaba coal field includes the site of the first systematic extraction of coal in Alabama. However, initial discoveries may be traced back to 1815 when several veterans of the Battle of New Orleans made their way across the Mississippi Territory and into the area that would become central Alabama.

These early settlers, led by Major Jonathan Mahan, numbered eighteen when they arrived at the head of the Little Cahaba River. Finding an Indian camp situated at this confluence of present-day Mayberry, Mahan, and Shoal Creeks, two-thirds of the party settled down with Indian wives. Six others continued northward, but later returned to create the settlement of Brierfield, where they staked their claims along the waterway they dubbed Mahan Creek. According to Ethel Armes, historian of Alabama's coal and iron industries, the Mahans "built the first flat and keel boats ever floated on [the] Cahaba River to carry coal." She also gives credit to the Mahans by contending that the discovery and extraction of coal in the Cahaba field "is directly traceable to this little group of pioneer settlers and those following them."

Another personal account related by Armes gives credit for the initial discovery of coal to two young boys on a hunting expedition. According to Mrs. Frank Fitch, her father, Jonathan Newton Smith, and Pleasant Fancher set up camp near the Big Cahaba River sometime in the early 1820s. Using stones and logs for their campfire, they cooked supper and then drifted off to sleep. At some point during the night, Smith awakened to find the "stones" on fire. Scared out of their wits, the boys raced home in the dark, but they later realized that they must have used lumps of coal inadvertently. At any rate, the stream that flowed into Dailey Creek became known as Coal Branch.

These traditional versions complement Truman Aldrich's more historical account that claims that numerous citizens of Bibb and Shelby Counties had collected coal from the region as early as 1836. Gathered along exposed drifts or from open pits, small amounts of coal—known in the vernacular as "cornfield diggings"—provided heat for family dwellings and fuel for blacksmith shops. In fact, the Fancher Pit and Wood's Pit bore the names of families who settled near the coal outcroppings. Aldrich also noted efforts by D. H. Carter, a resident of Montevallo in 1852, who mined some coal from the Lemley Seam, hauled his loads to the Alabama & Tennessee Rivers (A&TR) Railroad, and shipped the coal to Montgomery where it was sold to blacksmiths for $6 per ton. One year later, a group of Montgomery citizens formed a company and attempted to float barges of coal down the Cahaba River only to have all but one destroyed on the shoals at Centreville.

Shortly thereafter, Colonel Daniel E. Watrous, president of the newly formed Alabama Coal Mining Company (ACMC), commissioned a study by State Geologist Tuomey to evaluate 4,800 acres of coal lands controlled by the company. Having established a creditable reputation as state geologist of South Carolina, Tuomey came to Alabama in 1847 at the invitation of the faculty at the University of Alabama. He began work in May as the chair of geology, mineralogy, and agricultural chemistry, and he organized the first systematic geological survey of Alabama two months later. In January 1848, the general assembly adopted a resolution appointing Tuomey as state geologist and commissioning the Geological Survey of Alabama.

Submitted in October 1855, Tuomey's report confirmed speculations that the Cahaba region contained vast amounts of accessible and valuable coal. Tuomey's letter also identified the more prominent coal beds within the company's holdings. The Watrous Bed consisted of a five-foot seam that outcropped along the southern boundary of the company's lands. The Pushmattahaw Beds contained five or six seams, but Tuomey recommended mining the two most prominent ones, namely a seam containing thirty inches of coal and the other with a thickness of 4.5 feet. Due to the length of these beds (approximately 1.5 miles), he estimated the available coal at just less than one million tons. The Level Beds consisted of the aforementioned Fancher and Wood's Pits where numerous coal seams measured between two and three feet in thickness. Farther to the north, the Tustinuggee Beds contained numerous seams, the three most promising consisting of coal measures of 7 feet, 17 inches, and 4.5 feet, respectively. At this point, Tuomey identified a characteristic of the Cahaba field that would consistently challenge everyone who attempted to extract coal: "As the field has never been proved by boring, and the whole being one unbroken forest, it becomes very difficult, especially where rocks are undulating or slightly inclined, to determine the number of beds superimposed upon each other."

Nevertheless, Tuomey estimated that the total amount of available coal in the three major beds exceeded eight million tons. Recognizing the railroad as the only reliable and reasonably priced means of transportation, he predicted significant savings as soon as the company completed a number of branch lines, thereby connecting the mines with the main railroad. Further advocating the use of Cahaba coal in the manufacture of gas, he named Selma, Mobile, and New Orleans as potential markets. In conclusion, Tuomey expressed his appreciation "in viewing this first, really business like attempt, to open and unfold the riches of one of our great mineral deposits."

Basing his historical summary on Tuomey's report, Aldrich asserted that "the first systematic attempt at the mining and shipping of coal, was made [by the ACMC] in the Cahaba coal field near its southwestern extremity, above Pratt's Ferry and on the right bank of the Cahaba river." Ethel Armes confirmed this account when she recorded that "the first regular systematic underground mining in the state [of Alabama] had been done in the Cahaba field in 1856, at a point in Shelby County, one mile west of ... Montevallo." Later in his account, Aldrich identified William Phineas Browne of Montevallo as "the owner of a considerable tract of land adjoining the lands of the Old Alabama Mining Company." Aldrich reported accurately that Browne opened several mining pits along the same Montevallo vein tapped by the ACMC, but he established the period from 1856 to 1863 as the time frame for Browne's endeavors. On the contrary, Browne's records indicate that he moved to the Montevallo area in 1847 and began mining coal as early as 1849. Moreover, Armes counted two hundred men involved in the coal trade in Shelby County in 1850.

Developing transportation networks and promoting coal sales throughout central and south Alabama, Browne pioneered the development of coal mining in the Cahaba region. His efforts followed in the wake of other extraction enterprises along the Appalachian chain. Southern commercial coal mining had begun in the Richmond Basin in the 1760s, and Virginia and Pennsylvania dominated the industry in the early nineteenth century. Coal mining commenced in Kentucky during the 1830s, and Tennessee and Alabama followed suit by mid-century. As Sean Patrick Adams opines, "there is a high correlation between industrial development and the presence of coal mining." By 1853, the year in which the ACMC first organized, Browne had established a business partnership and was well on his way to extracting, transporting, and selling coal. Certainly, the ACMC would constitute his primary competition, but credit for the first systematic mining in the state of Alabama must go to Browne, a native of Vermont who came to Alabama in the 1830s.

Born in Waltham, Vermont, on July 9, 1804, the son of Phineas Browne and his second wife, Elizabeth Backus, William Phineas left home at age seventeen to seek his fortune. He worked for one year as a business clerk in Manhattan before joining his cousin, John B. Ives, on a canal construction project near Lebanon, Pennsylvania. Following this work on the Union Canal, Browne returned to Vermont to study law, passing the bar in 1829. After practicing law for two years, he rejoined Ives on another canal project near Muscle Shoals, Alabama. As Browne biographer Virginia Estella Knapp records, William Phineas embarked on "a period of business enterprises which were of several kinds—canal construction, mail steamer service, mercantile business, and real estate."

From 1831 to 1849, Browne experienced many challenges, such as cash flow and labor shortages, that prepared him for a career in the coal business. After three years of canal construction in north Alabama and New Orleans, he joined a steamship company operating out of Mobile. However, numerous accidents, explosions, and other mishaps crippled the small fleet of steam ships, and the partners sold out in December 1835. Browne invested his proceeds in a general merchandise store in Liverpool, Mississippi, a small town on the Yazoo River. Marketing cotton and selling supplies constituted the primary money-making activities, but court actions forced Browne to sell at a loss early in 1836. In addition to his retail pursuits, Browne invested in Mobile real estate, speculating in properties, bank bills, and credit over the next four years. Knapp quotes Browne: "In January, 1837, I was worth by every estimate that could be made based upon the current value of my property over $200,000." Hard economic times descended in 1837, however, and Browne struggled to minimize his losses. He remained solvent for a time, but protracted litigation cost him his fortune.

After falling on hard times, Browne returned to the legal profession and opened a small corn mill in the Mobile area. He also became involved in local politics, serving as a Mobile alderman in the early 1840s. Renouncing his affiliation with the Whig Party in 1843, Browne campaigned and won a seat in the legislature as a Democrat in 1845. Serving but one term as the representative from Mobile, he continued to dabble in numerous pursuits. Selling his corn-milling business in 1846, he joined the Alabama Volunteers at the outbreak of the Mexican War. Two years later, he began construction of a small hotel at Point Clear, Alabama, promoting the sea air, swimming, and fishing of Mobile Bay as the primary attractions.

In February 1849, Browne sold his hotel interest and moved from Mobile to Montevallo. This move from the Gulf Coast to central Alabama developed as a result of Browne's marriage to Margaret Elizabeth Warwick Stevens on August 9, 1846. Born in Bibb County on April 7, 1824, Margaret was the daughter of Henry W. and Sarah Sterrett Stevens. Twenty years junior to William Phineas, aged forty-two, she had often remarked that she would wait to marry until she met her ideal mate—"a middle-aged bachelor having a bank account of at least $15,000." After a honeymoon trip to Boston, Massachusetts, and Vergennes, Vermont, William Phineas brought Margaret back to her home near Montevallo while he pursued his business ventures in Mobile. As Knapp reports, "Browne could not get settled during the years from 1847 to 1849. He and Margaret had no permanent home, and he had no particular business connections. They alternated between living with Margaret's people and in his Mobile lodgings. Browne had land in Shelby County west of Montevallo, but nothing of interest held him there."

In the meantime, William Phineas and Margaret had their first child, Claudia. Still, Browne could not seem to focus on one particular pursuit to provide for his family. Trying unsuccessfully to coax Margaret to move to Mobile, he eventually decided to forsake the Point Clear project when she refused to leave Montevallo. As Knapp points out, "although Browne had been married for three years and had the added responsibility of a child, he still remained without a permanent home and without a definite business. It is not to be assumed, however, that he was in strained circumstances." She quotes Browne: "My circumstances for eight or ten years have been gradually improving ... and if my property were disposed of at what I suppose it worth and invested profitably I should be in what is called comfortable circumstances nothing more than $30 to $50,000."

Browne's marriage to Margaret proved fortuitous even though she often appeared frustrated and disappointed. Perhaps, instead of levying criticism, her letters served to inspire him. In January 1849, one month before his departure from Mobile, she wrote: "I feel much concerned, and sometimes distressed, about our situation. We have been married nearly three years, and your pecuniary affairs have grown worse all the time, but you must not give up and despair, my dear Willie, only ... struggle the harder, and I think surely things will change for the better, and all will come right after a while. I fancy in my many imaginations, that at some future time we will be settled, and have a home of our own."

It may be that Margaret was ready to move away from maternal control. Her mother, known as "Aunt Sallie," gained a reputation as a formidable personality in her own right. When her first husband, Robert Sterrett, died, Sallie moved to Shelby County near Montevallo. Marrying four husbands—Sterrett, Henry Stevens (Margaret's father), John Allen, and Richard Wood—Sallie managed her own affairs. One contemporary account by a traveling preacher states that he became "acquainted with her in 1836, when I first went to the university [of Alabama in Tuscaloosa], I was admirably entertained when stopping at her house." Apparently, Aunt Sallie's cooling house was a popular stopping point along the road.

Meanwhile, other interested parties began to work their way into the mineral-rich regions of central Alabama. For example, Browne's father-in-law, Richard Wood, reported that a coal digger employed by a Montgomery-based company informed him that he was hired to explore the Cahaba River Basin looking for evidence of coal and iron. Also, Browne received the first in a series of letters from Philip J. Weaver, a Selma merchant and future treasurer of the Selma Gas Company, who expressed interest in developing the coal fields.

Transportation remained a limiting factor, however. John Strong Storrs, who would become president of Browne's foremost competitor, the Alabama Coal Mining Company, wrote that an 1850 railroad bill had left Montevallo out entirely. He stated that "the people [are] not being willing to go 10 miles out of the way at an increased expenditure of 100 thousand dollars for one accommodation." By mid-1850, Weaver sounded more optimistic. He predicted that increased interest in the railroad enterprise would relate directly to a surge of emphasis in the coal lands around Montevallo. Consequently, Weaver and Browne formed a partnership and arranged to purchase many of the more promising areas west of Montevallo.

About one year later, Browne began to correspond with George Oscar Baker. Born in Philadelphia in 1828 and trained as a mechanical and mining engineer, Baker would move to Selma, Alabama, in 1855. Apparently, he had designs as early as 1851 on returning to Alabama to seek his fortune in the coal business. He cautioned Browne to "be very careful not to compromise me with Weaver. I may need his favor should I return to Selma. I would like to have you destroy my letters." At this juncture, Browne left Alabama for an extended trip (approximately two years) to New England. He returned to Alabama in November 1853, prompted by letters from his sister-in-law. Browne learned that new stores and hotels added to Montevallo's growth almost daily. She wrote Margaret that "if Brother William has any thought of ever doing anything with his coal mines now is the time." Baker remained involved, proposing that he contact Weaver and offer $10,000 for his portion of the lands held jointly with Browne. Again, Baker cautioned Browne: "Just keep quiet as possible & I think it will come out all right as now fixed. Don't open any new places for him to see. Nobody sees your letters but myself."

On the other hand, Weaver informed Browne that he had gained no substantive information from any of his contacts within the coal trade. Therefore, he advocated a deliberate and conservative approach to mining operations. Weaver remained guardedly optimistic as the partnership developed in the later months of 1853. He and Browne discussed the expense of labor, free miners as well as slaves. Weaver stated his belief that "half a dozen miners will make it rather more expensive than is necessary to develop the value & extent of our possessions." But acknowledging Browne's expertise in this area, he resolved to "leave this for your determination."

A letter from R. H. Jackson of Greensboro, Alabama, reveals the entrepreneurs' solution to their labor needs. Having received Weaver's request on Browne's behalf to hire a number of his slaves, Jackson replied: "I regret very much that I did not get his letter sooner, as I have hired out several of the Negroes for the next year. However you can hire the balance of them if you wish at the same rate that I hired them at [sic], which is $225 for the men, and $125 for the women, and the same for the Boy Lewis, you paying all expenses. If you conclude to hire them please let me know immediately." Slave labor was not the only option open to Browne. One free laborer presented the following letter of introduction from Thomas B. Scott: "The bearer of this is a sober and industrious man, a very brisk worker, and a pretty fair mechanic and from my idea of your wants, most admirably adapted. I should be very glad you would give him a trial, as I am persuaded you would consider him an acquisition."

Excerpted from DIAMONDS IN THE ROUGH by James Sanders Day. Copyright © 2013 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of THE UNIVERSITY OF ALABAMA PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


List of Illustrations....................     ix     

Acknowledgments....................     xi     

Introduction....................     1     

1. Discovering and Marketing Coal: 1815–1859....................     6     

2. Mining and Mapping Coal: 1859–1883....................     24     

3. Surveying and Developing the Field: 1883–1910....................     47     

4. Coal Towns: 1881–1919....................     66     

5. Convict Leasing: 1872–1927....................     92     

6. Welfare Capitalism: 1915–1933....................     109     

7. Unionism: 1878–1935....................     132     

8. Decline and Demise: 1929–1976....................     149     

Notes....................     161     

Select Bibliography....................     195     

Index....................     203     

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