For much of Tuscaloosa’s early history and indeed the United States, itinerancy was common. There were clock peddlers, opticians, music teachers, dance instructors, and others whose residence in any particular town, city, or state was short-lived. Some, such as plantation owners, farmers, miners, merchants, and craftsmen, perhaps stayed longer, but they still were subject to wanderlust. One special group was the politicians. As people moved west, those with political ambitions often looked for newer, more fertile ground and, in some cases, a fresh start.
It was mid-winter, 1892, and an illness known as lagrippe was exacting a grim toll in the Tuscaloosa area. The term “lagrippe” derives from an old French verb meaning “to seize or grasp” and was then used to describe what is now called influenza, or simply, “flu.”
One of the clichés of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century American life was a city with an Irish police chief, Jewish merchants, Italian and Greek restaurants, and a Chinese laundry. In that sense, Tuscaloosa was the stereotypical city of the times.
In late 1883, Tuscaloosans heard for the first time a sound that signaled profound change. That sound was the ringing of telephones connected to the area’s first telephone exchange. According to the Tuskaloosa Gazette, the exchange was quietly organized “by a few of our local business men to facilitate commercial transactions and in some instances social convenience.”
The history of the telephone is complicated and often confusing. There was a dizzying array of patents, claims, lawsuits, and mergers that lasted for decades. However, two basic patents upheld by United States courts became the foundation for modern telephonic communication. The first was an electric telephone that could send and receive understandable voice messages to another telephone along a wire. The second was a telephone exchange that allowed users to connect to different phones.
Beginning in the 17th century, a number of inventors worked on devices for voice communication over distances further than the range of human hearing. The earliest attempts to create a telephone were by mechanical means (vibrating strings or wires, speaking tubes, etc.) However, by the mid-19th century, several inventors were developing “acoustical telegraphy” or the sending of modulated audio frequencies by electricity over telegraph wires. Alexander Graham Bell, a native of Scotland, was a teacher of the deaf, inventor, engineer, and scientist. While working in Canada and the United States, Bell developed a device that received the first American patent for a telephone in 1876.
On a Sunday in December of 1871, a most singular event occurred. Writing in Tuscaloosa’s The Independent Monitor, Editor Ryland Randolph described it thus...
Preliminary returns arrived from a distant county, and it appeared that Democrat John Erwin had won a seat in the U.S. House to represent the Seventh Congressional District of Alabama. A rowdy group of his supporters, led by John Gorman Barr, rolled a cannon to a hilltop overlooking Tuscaloosa and were set to have “a grand jollification.” But before any salutes could be fired, the official returns for the general election of November 6, 1851, arrived. The hoped-for result was not to be, as Whig candidate Alexander White was victorious. The would-be merrymakers dispersed in disappointment.
The count was two and two. Chicago Cub players jeered the New York batter, and fans cheered for a strikeout. It was the fifth inning of Game 3 of the 1932 World Series at Chicago’s Wrigley Field. The next pitch was hit 440 feet and over the fence.
Mr. and Mrs. Jeff Miller were walking toward the end of Washington Street, now known as Lurleen B. Wallace Boulevard North in downtown Tuscaloosa. It was Friday evening, September 21, 1900. In the darkness, the 68-year-old Mrs. Miller did not see the edge of a gully that had eaten into the street, and she fell to her death. Later, her husband received a settlement from the City of $2500—equal to about $65,000 over a century later.
It was Tuesday evening, and the Tuscaloosa Citizens Cornet Band was playing, when suddenly their practice room filled with fluttering birds. The “affrighted” creatures had been shaken from their roosts in trees outside an open window. All over town people fled outside, fearing their houses would fall.
Nell, a frustrated young writer, struggled with her novel. She was working with multiple versions and felt it was disjointed and episodic. The stress had become more than she could bear. She opened a window and hurled the manuscript, Atticus, into the darkness. The pages fluttered and settled onto the dirty snow. It was the winter of 1958 in New York City.