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.
A capacity crowd of about 700 filled Morgan Auditorium at the University of Alabama. It was Monday evening, February 19, 1968. After watching about an hour of a seemingly pointless and confusing movie, three people appeared on stage.
On a warm spring morning, black smoke from the stacks of a riverboat wafted above the edge of River Hill. Teams of sturdy draft horses pulling heavily laden drays and wagons climbed the nearly 100-foot ascent up Market Street (now known as Greensboro Avenue) on their way to Tuscaloosa stores and warehouses. Below at the city wharf, stevedores moved rapidly to simultaneously load and unload a steamer about to embark on the two-day downstream voyage to the port city of Mobile. Crates and barrels of cargo were off-loaded, while hundreds of cotton bales were stacked onboard to begin their journey to distant destinations such as New England, Liverpool, or Le Harve.
If 19th century Tuscaloosans could be transported through time to a modern drug store, they might be disoriented. But after scanning the shelves of their new environment, some familiar names would appear—Vicks VapoRub, Milk of Magnesia, Geritol, Lydia E. Pinkham’s Vegetable Compound, and others. All are survivors from the flamboyant, and unregulated, age of patent medicines.
It was a late spring Saturday of fine weather and with topgallants flying, the Ship Tuscaloosa left the Pacific Ocean. She was sailing east, thirty nautical miles* beyond Cape Horn as she cleared the dangerous Drake Passage between the tip of South America and Antarctica. Soon, Captain James Goodrich would steer her north into the South Atlantic, bound for their home port of New Bedford, Massachusetts. Captain Goodrich recorded the date—November 8, 1834.
The Tuscaloosa was a wooden sailing vessel, rated for 284 tons of cargo. During her 1834-35 voyage, she plied the California coastal trade and returned with 220 tons (4400 quintals or hundredweights) of pearl shells, almost 13 tons of copper, cow hides and horns, and silver and gold bullion. These items would provide raw materials for the industries of New England and other areas. The shells could become mother-of-pearl buttons, inlay, jewelry, dinnerware handles, and firearm grips. The hides were destined to become shoes and countless other leather items. The horns could also be fashioned into buttons or used as containers for gunpowder. The copper might become cookware, and the precious metals used for plating and jewelry, or exchanged at the US Mint for coinage.
When manned by an experienced crew, vessels such as the Tuscaloosa were capable of long duration voyages to almost any of the world’s seas and oceans. In early January 1835, two months after rounding Cape Horn, Tuscaloosa was about 400 miles south of Bermuda where she was hailed by Captain Elihu Coffin of the whaler Mary Mitchell. Coffin was steering her for Nantucket after a 43-month cruise that began in 1831.
Initially, the Tuscaloosa was part of a large fleet of cargo, passenger, and whaling vessels operated by Grinnell, Minturn & Co. In later years, this company’s fleet would include the famous Flying Cloud and other clipper ships that offered passage and cargo service to Europe, the California Gold Rush, and the Orient.
On subsequent voyages, the Tuscaloosa was operated by Howland & Hussey Co. as a whaler in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. In 1840, she returned with 1868 barrels of whale oil, and in 1844, she landed 1663 barrels of sperm whale oil. Both oils were burned for illumination. Whale oil was smoky and gave off an odor, but the more valuable sperm oil (from cavities in the heads of sperm whales) burned cleaner. It was used as a fine lubricant (especially for clocks and watches) and was made into cosmetics and other products. If commodity prices and shipbuilding costs are adjusted for inflation to the 21st century, Tuscaloosa’s cargoes would have fetched almost $500,000 in 1840 and nearly $1.3 million in 1844—quite good returns from a vessel that likely cost less than $500,000 to build.
During her years of service, the Tuscaloosa sailed vast distances over the world’s oceans. Why she was named for a relatively small inland city, county, or river far from her home port is a mystery. Perhaps the name was noticed on early maps or there were family connections, since a number of early Tuscaloosans came from New England. Whatever the case, it is possible that some of the products made from the raw materials transported by the Ship Tuscaloosa eventually found their way to her namesake city.
Suggested additional reading and viewing:
Two Years Before the Mast by Richard Henry Dana, Jr.
Two Years Before the Mast (film), directed by John Farrow (1946).
Moby Dick by Herman Melville.
*A nautical mile is a unit of distance used by navigators. It represents the distance between minutes of latitude. One nautical mile equals about 1.15 statute or land miles. Thirty nautical miles is approximately 34.5 statute miles.
A group of Spaniards were led before the great Chief Tascalusa (Tuscaloosa) at an Indian town somewhere in what is now central Alabama. He sat on cushions, while nearby stood an elite warrior “holding a sort of fan of deerskin which kept the sun from him, round and the size of a shield, quartered with black and white, with a cross made in the middle ... It was set on a small and very long staff. This was the device he bore in his wars.” This scene was described by a DeSoto Expedition chronicler known as “A Gentleman of Elvas.” It was Sunday, October 10, 1540.
Tuscaloosa is one of America’s most unique names. Except for an east Texas ghost town, no other city, town, or county bears the name of the famous chief. However, it does show up in widely scattered parts of the country as a street name. Streets named for Tuscaloosa have various designations. Some are thoroughfares such as roads, streets, or avenues. Others may be short and local such as ways, traces, or lanes.
It was Friday, August 14, 1936. Photographer Alex Bush motioned for a young man in overalls to stand next to the door of a dilapidated brick cottage behind an old house in Tuscaloosa. Bush released the shudder of his 5x7 inch sheet film camera* and recorded for the Library of Congress the image of a building that is no longer standing.
Thomas Maxwell entered the Independent Monitor office and revealed a “stone idol” to publisher Marmaduke Slade. The representation of a human with a flattened head stood 10-inches tall. Slade described this object in the July 13, 1842, issue of his early Tuscaloosa newspaper and expressed doubt about their use by “the red men of our forest.” Four years later, he reported a large “curiously wrought earthen vase” containing bones and a human skull. These artifacts came from the nearby village of Carthage.
It was March 1851. A mustachioed Frenchman lit a candle in the still air beneath the dome of the Pantheon, a former cathedral that was being used as a mausoleum in Paris. A polished brass sphere tethered by a 220-foot steel wire had been pulled to one side of its resting point and was released, as the flame severed a single silk thread. Every 16 seconds, the shining orb swung back and forth above the marble floor. But it was apparent something was different. With each completed oscillation, the pendulum’s path moved slightly to the left of the original release point.
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.