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Black and white panoramic photo of Tenn. Coal Iron & R.R. Co.'s furnaces at Ensley, Birmingham, Ala.
"Tenn. Coal Iron & R.R. Co.'s furnaces at Ensley, Birmingham, Ala" by Haines Photo Co., 1909. Prints & Photographs Division.

Tracing the Alabama Coal Fields

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At the southern end of the Appalachian Highlands sits the Warrior, Cahaba, and Coosa coal fields, situated in an area natively occupied by the Cherokee and Muskogean-speaking tribes in present-day Alabama. In 1819 the state of Alabama was admitted to the Union out of Mississippi Territory, and the map below, produced by John Melish in 1820, details what was known about the area around the time of the state’s founding. Cherokee lands were demarcated to the east, with Chickasaw lands to the west. Towards the center of the state is Black Warrior Town, a Creek settlement marked on the map as “burnt.” South down the Warrior River sat the Jones Valley, marked as containing “4,000 inhabitants.” The Jones Valley is bounded in the north by Red Mountain, so named because of the exposed red seams of hematite iron ore.

Early color map of Alabama, with regions and settlement labeled
“Map of Alabama” by John Melish, 1820. Geography & Map Division.

Reports of American settlers’ first discovery of the coal fields vary, though most accounts trace knowledge of coal being in the area to the early 1800s. By 1856, underground mining was being conducted in the Cahaba field and geologists discovered that the Jones Valley was rich with coal and iron ore. This was of immediate economic interest, but was only viable as an industry if railroads could transport coal from this undeveloped area into urban areas. Ultimately, in 1854 the Alabama Central Railroad was chartered. Disrupted by the American Civil War, the project later reorganized as the South and North Railroad, with earnest construction beginning in 1869. The 1850s map below shows Alabama’s first railroads alongside coal and iron deposits, with distances calculated for travel on the NE & SW Alabama Railroad from Washington, DC to New Orleans and stops in-between.

Map of the United States, showing coal fields in Alabama and railroad routes
“Map showing the N.E. & S.W. Alabama R.R. with its connections also the principal routes between New York and New Orleans,” by Hoyer & Ludwig and North East and South West Alabama Railroad, 185-. Geography & Map Division.

During the American Civil War, coal from the Cahaba field was sent to power the Confederate Army through use of the Alabama and Tennessee Rivers Railroad and steamships. By 1872, a rail line to Decatur, Georgia was established by the Louisville and Nashville Railroad. This coincided with the incorporation of Birmingham in 1871, a city to be built and centered in the Jones Valley.

In 1878, the Pratt Coal and Coke Company was established and built the Birmingham & Pratt Mines Railroad. Together, the mines and the railroad powered a growing Birmingham iron industry. Some of Pratt’s founders left to form the Sloss Furnace Company and the Cahaba Coal Mining Company, expanding the number of mining operations in the area. The growing industry needed a reliable labor base in order to continue its expansion. In 1883, the Alabama legislature leased the majority of the state’s prisoners as laborers for the exclusive use of Pratt Coal and Iron Company, Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company (TCI), and Sloss Iron and Steel Company. By 1876, according to the Encyclopedia of Alabama, three-fourths of state inmates were involved in convict labor. Convict laborers were estimated to be more than 90% Black, with Black Americans making up nearly half of the total mining workforce by 1890.

Just fourteen years after Birmingham’s incorporation, Norris, Welldge, & Co. published a panoramic map of Birmingham. Published in 1885, it celebrates the growing industrial base of the city: Birmingham Iron Works, Iron City Foundry Machine Works, Mary Pratt Furnace, and Sloss Furnace Plant all feature prominently. Both the mining and railroad industries continued to grow in the area throughout the rest of the 19th century.

Black and white aerial view drawing of Birmingham showing buildings and city streets
“Birmingham, Alabama” by Norris, Wellge & Co., 1885. Geography & Map Division.

As production demands boomed, the mining industry increasingly relied on the use of convict labor. In 1886, TCI purchased Pratt Coal and Iron. Just two years later in 1888, TCI signed a contract with the state of Alabama to receive the labor of all able prisoners for a ten year period, with TCI sending payment to the state for the work of each prisoner. Manual labor in the mines was difficult and dangerous, with high death rates. In addition to convict labor, child labor was also an issue. Laborers in the mines began organizing for better working conditions in interracial coalitions through the Knights of Labor and the Greenback-Labor Party.

Black and white photograph of coal workers standing in a line, mostly children
“Shorpy Higginbotham, a “greaser” on the tipple at Bessie Mine, of the Sloss-Sheffield Steel and Iron Co. Said he was 14 years old, but it is doubtful. Carries two heavy pails of grease, and is often in danger of being run over by the coal cars. Location: Bessie Mine, Alabama” by Lewis Wickes Hine, 1910. Prints & Photographs Division.

Miners went on strike in 1890 for safety protocols, health care, and standard working times. Strikes continued in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, but were largely unsuccessful. Mining companies deployed company towns as a strategy toward interrupting these organizing efforts: building entire small towns with schools, churches, and other infrastructure, to provide a slightly better quality of life while maintaining a large element of control. 

Black and white geologic map
“Revised map of part of the Cahaba coal fields,” Squire & Brewer and the Geological Survey of Alabama, 1905. Geography & Map Division.

The Cahaba coal field was surveyed by Joseph Squire in 1890, with a revised map published in 1905 in partnership with the Geological Survey of Alabama. This section of the coal fields is south of Birmingham, near Montevallo, Alabama. The survey maps the seams of the coal field and provides an illustration of how a vertical section was composed.

In 1911, a mine explosion at the Banner Mine operated by the Pratt Consolidated Coal Company killed 128 laborers, 125 of whom were convict laborers, almost all of them Black. The backlash to the incident sparked a bill to end convict labor, which passed the Alabama House of Representatives in 1911, but did not pass the Alabama Senate. Convict labor was not abolished until 1928 in Alabama, the last state in the country to do so.

Aerial photo of the Pratt Mines and Convict Cemetery
“Pratt Coal & Coke Company, Pratt Mines, Convict Cemetery, Bounded by First Street, Avenue G, Third Place & Birmingham Southern Railroad, Birmingham, Jefferson County, AL” by Historic American Engineering Record, 1968. Prints & Photographs Division.

The image above shows the site of mine operated by the Pratt Coal & Coke Company, taken in 1968 by the Historic American Engineering Record. On the west side of the photo are Pratt mining slopes, convict camps, and coking operations. To the west of the tailings pile in the top left is the convict cemetery. As recorded in the documentation of this photo, the cemetery was described as being “primarily known to neighborhood residents and to those residents who once lived in the neighborhood. An iron fence surrounds a single grave. Clearing of the site would be necessary to accurately access the full extent of the graveyard.”

For further reading, see the Encyclopedia of Alabama.

Comments (3)

  1. As an Alabama native, I really enjoyed reading about the history of the coal industry and how it formed towns. I tour the abandoned Sloss Furnace in Birmingham regularly, but did not know much about the forced labor of prisoners.

  2. Hi Meagan,
    Great article and topic!
    Best,
    Charles Travis

  3. This is a terrific article about a subject I knew no more about than the iron and steel production area in northern Alabama. In the photo of 18 c. 1900 steelworkers, at least 10 appear younger than 16 years of age. Thank you for the publication.

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