Tales of Tuscaloosa: “The Magic City” (May 17, 1871)

16 May 2017
Notice of the initial sale of lots in downtown Birmingham, from The Independent Monitor, Tuscaloosa, May 17, 1871. Notice of the initial sale of lots in downtown Birmingham, from The Independent Monitor, Tuscaloosa, May 17, 1871. Jim Ezell

About 50 miles northeast of Tuscaloosa lies Jones Valley in Jefferson County. In Alabama’s early days it was one of the most isolated parts of the state and wild animals such as bears, wolves, and mountain lions still roamed. Hemmed in by rugged mountain ridges and lacking river access, the valley was sparsely populated. But in the last half of the 19th century, a tidal wave of change swept all before it. Where there once had been brilliant night skies, the hillsides and heavens were bathed in an unearthly red and orange glow, and the air hung heavy with fumes and acrid smoke. To some, it was as if the very gates of the underworld had flung open.

The new city of Birmingham and surrounding communities were made possible by a fortuitous confluence of abundant raw materials for iron and steel production and railroads connected to distant markets. Where there were forests, scattered farms, and small settlements; railroads, quarries, coal and iron ore mines, coke ovens, furnaces, steel mills and an urban landscape seemed to supernaturally spring from the earth. Thus the “Magic City” was born.

Two Tuscaloosans were instrumental to the founding and development of Birmingham. Prof. Michael Toumey and Dr. Eugene Allen Smith were Alabama’s first two State Geologists. In the 1840s Toumey, a native of Ireland, produced the first report of the mineral resources of Alabama and Jefferson County in particular. Smith, a graduate of the University of Alabama and Heidelberg University in Germany, spent many decades exploring and mapping the resources of the Birmingham area. Their work established the Alabama Geological Survey as one the premier agencies of its kind in the United States.

Other Tuscaloosans also played major roles in creating the Magic City. The Alabama and Chattanooga Railroad (known later as the AGS and Norfolk Southern) attracted local investment and promotion. Human capital was perhaps more important. Miners and other workmen moved to Birmingham and Jefferson County. Many from farms were attracted to the furnaces and factories in search of a better life. Thomas Baird, a Tuscaloosa mason, was said to have erected the first brick building in Birmingham.

The beginnings of the Alabama iron and steel industry were at places such as Brierfield in Bibb County, the Confederate works at Selma, the Tannehill furnaces in eastern Tuscaloosa County, and the Leach and Avery Foundry in Tuscaloosa. These were important precursors, but they pale in comparison to the later rise of Birmingham industry.

Like most rapidly industrializing areas after the Civil War, Birmingham suffered growing pains. Epidemics threatened the very existence of the new city while prostitution, drug and alcohol abuse, and violence were rampant. In 1883 and 1889, the Warrior Guards, a Tuscaloosa militia unit, was sent to quell rioting lynch mobs.

Of course, Birmingham did not exist in antebellum times. Only rarely was Jefferson County or Elyton, the first county seat, even mentioned in the numerous Tuscaloosa newspapers. It was a remote rural area far removed from the mainstream. However, by the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it was rare for an issue of a Tuscaloosa newspaper not to mention someone with local connections who had died in Birmingham or who was visiting from there. In a few short decades, the “Magic City” became the dominant economic force and population center of the state.  

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Jim Ezell

Local author and historian Jim Ezell is busily writing a collection of historical stories about the Druid City and surrounding areas, in hopes of publishing a book ahead of Tuscaloosa’s bicentennial celebration in 2019. What began as genealogy search in 1992 quickly turned into a much larger project. As Ezell searched through over a century of newspapers on microfilm at the University of Alabama’s Hoole Special Collections Library, he became fascinated by other articles about Tuscaloosa’s rich history.

Ezell was recently named Writer of the Year for 2015 by the Tuscaloosa Writers and Illustrators Guild. 

Druid City Living (DCL) is Tuscaloosa, Alabama's premier community newspaper, covering the great people, places and activities of the area.

 

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