City Built on Rails

City Built on Rails

While many cities were built next to bodies of water, Birmingham, Alabama was built alongside the railroad. From the remaining railroad tracks to Railroad Park in downtown Birmingham, the legacy of the railroad is still seen throughout the city today.

Birmingham railroad expert and founder of Birmingham Rails John Stewart discussed the history and impact of railroads in the city of Birmingham with The Local.

Local: How did the railroad industry become such an essential aspect of the city of Birmingham?

Early 1800’s geological knowledge indicated that Alabama was very rich in coal, limestone and iron ore – the three ingredients to make iron. These materials are heavy and bulky, therefore, hard to handle in quantity. By about 1850 it was clear that north central Alabama was unique in having all three of these materials in very close proximity – but even so, it was clear that the “new” railroads would have to be extended into the area to be able to exploit these natural resources.

Railroad “fever” was spreading throughout the country. Alabama had limited railroads in place when the Civil War started in 1861, but the railroad north from Montgomery hadn’t been built. Small iron furnaces were in the area, such as Tannehill, Brierfield, Shelby, Irondale, future Oxmoor and others in the area that would become Birmingham, which didn’t exist yet. But still, raw materials had to be moved by cart and wagons and charcoal was used for fuel, cutting trees in the vicinity of each furnace.

Local: What did the railroad system look like in Birmingham when it was built?

By 1872, the Montgomery to Decatur line was completed, called the South and North Alabama railroad, and formed a line from Montgomery to Nashville, linking to the Louisville and Nashville railroad which had stepped in and provided capital to finish the S&NA, and leasing the existing line from Decatur to Nashville, assembled by James Sloss (Sloss Furnace). Where the railroads crossed at Birmingham, they ran side by side for about a mile. Before too many years this area was anchored by Alice furnace at one end and Sloss Furnace at the other.

Local: How is the influence of the railroad industry still seen today in Birmingham?

As you likely know, Birmingham’s heavy iron and steel industry has changed dramatically and generally decreased from it’s heyday of the World War II era.

Nevertheless, during the period from 1880 to 1910 every railroad that could access Birmingham extended tracks to the growing industrial city, called the Magic City due to its phenomenal growth. These RR’s helped Birmingham develop as a manufacturing center as well as a trade center. As the trucking industry made inroads into the RR freight business, Birmingham maintained its rail connections and the railroads acquired and merged themselves. Today Birmingham is a rail hub for 3 of the 5 major US railroads, CSX, NS and BNSF.  Birmingham is also an interstate hub of I-65, I-59/20 and I-22. 

Local: Why are you interested in learning about railroads?

I grew up in an era, 1950s, when most boys had model train sets and the railroads were still a large part of many communities large and small. Many families had members who worked for a railroad or knew someone who did. In my family, my father worked in the sand and gravel industry and I grew up fascinated by the machinery and handling of bulk natural resources.  Sand and gravel in the southeast, Nashville where I grew up, were moved on the river in barges, but most kids don’t have “barge layouts”, rather we had “train layouts.”

My family came from Pittsburgh, which as you know was the main iron and steel center. So, I was exposed to that when we would visit relatives in Pittsburgh.

Local: Why are you so passionate about educating others on the history of the railroad in Birmingham?

When I moved to Birmingham in 1992, I started researching local railroads, so that I could build a Birmingham train layout. I was quickly fascinated by all the railroad history as well as the history of heavy industry and the fact that they grew up hand in hand together, each depending on the other.

As my research grew and my model railroad started I started a website to share what I was learning, since I thought it would be of interest to other model railroaders and others interested in industrial history of technology.