I could write this review in just a few sentences, barely enough to call a paragraph (but I won’t, as it would take all the fun out of it for me). It would go something like this: A book on as arcane a subject as the development of the coal and iron industry in a little backwater state like Alabama that is still in print over a hundred years after it was first published must be a quite remarkable book. And so it is. Ethel Armes is a gifted writer, dogged researcher and insightful historian. This is simply one of the very best history books I have ever read, and as anyone who regularly reads this blog well knows, I read lots and lots of history books. But I will admit bias. Armes’ wrote the history of the place where I was born and bred, so it resonated with me personally. But still, even accounting as best I can for my personal biases, the book is a gem.
The paperback version of the book is available on Amazon.com for $48.50. It may seem a bit pricey, but don’t be penny-wise and pound foolish. If you hail from Alabama, or are a new transplant (like all the pioneers in the coal and iron industry were), or simply love well-written history, the money will be well spent. I plan to buy the book for my mother-in-law’s husband (he’s her second husband, and not my wife’s father, so I suppose he’s not really a father-in-law, or maybe he is, I really don’t know what to call him, as I’ve never much bothered keeping up with relationship rules as relationship rules can’t seem to keep up with relationship reality), who is an Alabama native and bit of a history buff, and worked as an engineer in the state’s power industry (tangentially related to the subject matter of the book) for most of his life. He is the one who gave me Bill O’Reilly’s Killing Lincoln last year, which I more or less excoriated as not much more than dogmatic drivel in a review published about a year ago. I’d say my sort-of father-in-law will definitely be getting the better end of the deal in the trade.
But it’s not really fair to compare the O’Reilly book with Armes’. Armes was a gifted writer with a keen understanding of the giddy creatures known as human beings and the forces driving them, who took great and humble care to research and capably relate the people and the technologies powering the development of the coal and steel industries in Alabama. O’Reilly on the other hand is a political gadfly and talk show host who coyly disguises his biases and beliefs, except when he thinks an overwhelming majority of people might, or should, agree with him. Thus in Killing Lincoln, the assassination of Lincoln was an unremittingly bad thing in O’Reilly’s version of history, though there were a great many alive at the time who felt just the opposite, and it really isn’t much of a hard sell today to claim that Lincoln’s assassination represents the “evil that can destroy us”. But in The Story of Coal and Iron in Alabama, there are no dogmatically good or evil things, just things that worked and things that failed, and people who sometimes succeeded and sometimes didn’t. Though the history of coal and iron in Alabama is not a morality tale, the development of the coal and iron industries in Alabama surely held moral, i.e., survival, relevance for a great many people (moral considerations, arising as they do, from survival and propagation imperatives), perhaps even more than were personally affected by Lincoln’s assassination. By the time of Lincoln’s assassination, the social die was cast; the Union had been preserved and slavery abolished. The exploitation of Alabama’s mineral wealth was hardly so inevitable, and became particularly uncertain after Wilson’s Union raiders burned to the ground during the waning days of the Confederacy pretty much every standing blast furnace and forge in Alabama.
Ethel Armes was born in 1876 in Washington, D.C., the daughter of a US Army officer who had enlisted from his home state of Massachusetts during the Civil War, and who later rose through the ranks to become a regular Army colonel, serving the balance of his career at several frontier outposts. Ms. Armes and her mother often accompanied the Colonel on extended tours in the western wilderness, so it can be assumed that Armes experienced first-hand something of the rigors faced by the early pioneers in the Alabama coal and iron industry; from hostile natives, to disease, droughts, floods and famine, to economic crashes rendering the output of even the most successfully run enterprise worthless. It must have been on the frontier where she developed her keen eye for identifying and understanding men of action and resolve; men almost fanatically driven to bend nature to their will through their ingenuity and determination.
Ms. Armes was a graduate of Columbia College, now known as George Washington University, and held a series of jobs writing feature articles for various newspapers, including the Washington Post and Chicago Chronicle, before coming to Alabama to join the staff of the Birmingham Age-Herald in 1905. The Birmingham Chamber of Commerce commissioned her to write what became The Story of Coal and Iron in Alabama in 1907. Like many of the coal and iron pioneers of whom she wrote, Ms. Armes spent only a brief passage in the state, about fifteen years in her case, but through her research for the book project, and her keen and insightful wit, she perhaps understood the state as well as anyone who has written about it ever has or ever will.
Alabama geology and geography
Reading The Story of Coal and Iron in Alabama without at least some rudimentary knowledge of Alabama’s history and geography would probably make the plot tedious and a bit difficult to follow (though Armes’ telling of it would still be sublime). I was born and bred in the heart of Alabama’s mineral region, so know firsthand a great many of the places to which Armes refers. But a non-native, or someone without much knowledge of Alabama’s history or geography, should keep a topographic map of the state, i.e., one which indicates geologic features (along with the ordinary political ones), handy while reading. Get one with state park and historic notations, and virtually every last antebellum site, and a great many post-bellum sites mentioned by Armes will be indicated for the visualization. For the northeast and north central one-third or so of the state, the story of coal and iron is its history, and seemingly every historically prominent forge or mine or furnace works that ever existed there is now a state park or historical site.
Alabama was carved out of the Mississippi Territory and granted statehood in 1819, becoming the 21st state admitted to the Union, mainly on the strength of its southern and southwestern quarters, in which had arisen some measure of plantation agriculture. The mineral wealth of its northeast and north central quarters had only barely been realized by the time of statehood, and had not been exploited much at all.
Upon examining a map of Alabama, the state appears as an upright rectangle, a left foot perhaps, with all appendages but the big toe lopped off, and seems to teeters a bit unbalanced on its lone toe as it tests the waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Mobile Bay could be imagined as the toenail on its Gulf-dipping toe. The foot is a little over two hundred miles wide at its widest point, and about three hundred miles long at its most lengthy (if the toe is excluded). The mineral region drapes across the state like a hundred mile-wide sash, from the northeast corner of the state, centered around where the Tennessee River makes its entrance, southwesterly to the upper edge of the Black Belt region, the limits of which run from Tuscaloosa in the West, to Selma in nearly the dead center of the state, to Montgomery, just east of center.
If geological forces moved the earth at humanly perceptible speeds, it would be easy to see how this area became Alabama’s mineral region (and why the Black Belt of deep, dark, rich soil borders it). The great Appalachian mountain range peters out in north and central Alabama, the last vestiges of its ancient peaks dwindling to meager ridge lines as it crosses the upper third of the state, northeast to southwest. Taken in aggregate, the Appalachians look like the edge of a cold front sweeping, like so many weather systems do, across the country in southeastwardly direction. The ridgelines dipping into Alabama appear to be the remnants of gradually dissipating storms, of the Appalachian system’s weak outer bands. Imagined from the idea that north and central Alabama is where the southeastwardly sweeping system that is the Appalachian Mountains lose their energy and dissipate, it is hardly surprising that a great measure of the mountains’ mineral wealth precipitated out of solution there. The Appalachian Mountains deposited minerals in Alabama like the ocean deposits flotsam and jetsam into the nooks and crannies of protected harbors. The heavier stuff—the iron ore, coal and limestone needed for making steel—stayed nearer to its origins, in the Appalachian foothills, which comprise Alabama’s mineral region. The lighter stuff, the stuff making up the soil of the Black Belt, dribbled further down, to the flattening land that had just escaped the fury of the Appalachian storm.
Early prospecting and development
Having fixed our place in Alabama’s mineral region, we must properly fix ourselves in time, beginning the story by turning the clock back about two hundred years (a blink in the geological, or even historical, eye) to a time when there existed little more than the occasional blacksmith’s shop in Alabama. The ridges and valleys of the mineral region were covered then in dense hardwood forests. Water plentifully fell from the sky, to the tune of over fifty-five inches or so per year on average, but it quickly drained to the sea. There wasn’t a significant natural lake or pond to be found. Rivers and streams, some navigable, most not, flowed through every valley, each in turn was fed by countless clear mountain stream and creek tributaries (the abundance of which was reflected in the name “Creeks” given to one of the more prominent of Native American nations populating the area).
The mineral region was sparsely populated with native tribes and nations at the time, by then mostly the Cherokee, who were mainly allied with the federal government against the Creeks, particular factions of which were occasionally hostile to pioneering settlers (the Red Sticks, for example), but who presented no significant obstacle after Colonel (later General, and then President) Jackson’s victory at Horseshoe Bend in 1814.
Upon arrival in Alabama’s mineral region a bit less than two centuries ago, the prospecting pioneer had a number of challenges to overcome to make a go of mining coal or iron ore. For starters, he had no motive power, other than horses and mules and water. Obviously, there was no electricity. Nor steam. The ability to do work—to lift things and put them down–came solely from muscle power, man or beast, or the energy of the sun stored in the evaporation and elevation of water droplets. Since horses and mules and man all need water, and the elevation drops along the rivers, streams and creeks of the region were sufficient to be harnessed as power sources, all of the original coal mines, forges and blast furnaces were located alongside running water, not generally the major rivers, but the streams and creeks feeding into them which were robust enough to flow year ‘round. The reason for avoiding the main rivers presumably included the propensity and magnitude of flooding along main river channels, the lazier flow of water making it harder to harness for power, and the competition with planters for the river bottom lands which were ideal for agriculture.
The prospector needed to provide his own food supply. There were no corner groceries, or much in the way of trading opportunities whatsoever. He therefore had to laboriously clear enough land to grow crops sufficient to feed himself, his draft animals, and his workers. This wasn’t quite as bad as it seems. Clearing land of its forests was a part of any blast furnace or forge operation of the time, as the abundant forests initially provided the fuel (charcoal) for the forge and furnaces. Forest clearing killed two birds with one stone—providing fuel for the furnaces with the felled trees, and for the humans and animals that worked it with the land cleared for agriculture.
(It is often observed, as an explanation for the growth of the coal and iron industry in Alabama, that Alabama’s mineral region is one of the few places where all three ingredients—iron ore, coal and limestone–for the making of iron and steel can be found in close proximity and abundance. Which is true, but the observation leaves off two ingredients which were critical to the industry at its inception—abundantly flowing water, and vast tracts of forest suitable for cutting and curing into charcoal. All the early blast furnaces and forges were charcoal fueled, and all the early bellows and hammers were water powered.)
If everything went well, and the prospector got his furnace in “blast” and started producing iron, there still was the problem of selling it—to whom and for how much and where. All the pig iron in the world is useless without which it can be sold at a price exceeding its cost of manufacture. Until settlement of the wilderness had reached a critical mass, pig iron (iron that had not been forged into a useful implement of some sort) was of little value locally, requiring transport over non-existent rails and roads, or down treacherous rivers and streams. It took a hardy determination to make a go of exploiting Alabama’s minerals in the early days.
A bit of historical context for the challenges faced by nineteenth century coal and iron pioneers
Today’s pioneering heroes staked their claims in a digital domain. They are the internet and computer giants like Jobs and Gates and Brin and Ellison and Zuckerberg, guys who found ways to shuffle around information and connections in a manner that would make themselves rich (you didn’t really think they did it for the good of mankind, did you?). The computer and internet pioneers worked from cushy Ivy League dorm rooms, or in parent’s garages, applying their formidable brain power to the impetus of gaining power, prestige and wealth by facilitating and controlling information flow, but risked nothing of the continuation of their physical existence in the process. They toiled in relative safety and security along the way to technological “revolutions” carefully metered to benefit them. The coal and iron pioneers risked life and limb every single day. They had to apply their every sinew of physical strength and mental aptitude to the challenges they faced. One slip, or just a turn of bad luck, and all was permanently lost. Safety nets, social or otherwise, did not exist. There was no garage to incubate their ideas. There was no steady and readily obtainable food supply to nourish them. For the coal and iron pioneers, failing at any of the myriad challenges they daily faced almost certainly meant death.
Every age believes itself superior to those that came before, and extends that belief to the recognition of its leaders and heroes as superior to all who preceded them. But was Steve Jobs really a more capable and important man than say, Daniel Pratt? Pratt was a New Hampshire native who left his home at age twenty to head South, carrying nothing but his wits and a Puritan work ethic to hold him. After a few years in Georgia, he had built up a strong business manufacturing cotton gins and other such implements from iron, and in 1838 he decided to relocate his mills and factories down in the piney woods and marshes of Autauga County, Alabama, along a bend in the Alabama River, with the specific object in mind of “build[ing] a village dignifying labor in the South, and to give the laboring class not only an opportunity to make independent living, but to train up workmen who could give dignity to labor…”. What, aside from slaking his thirst for recognition and esteem and power, could be imagined was the purpose and object of Jobs’ professional life? Pratt eventually became heavily involved in the coal and iron industry in the Birmingham District (Prattville, the town Pratt founded in Autauga County, lies about a hundred miles south of Birmingham), helping rebuild, improve and expand what Wilson’s raiders had destroyed. The town that grew up around the Birmingham District’s greatest coal mining operation, Pratt City, also bore his name, as his son-in-law, Henry F. DeBardeleben, was one of its early promoters and named it in his honor (the town was later absorbed into Birmingham’s city limits). While it is difficult to compare iconic people and personalities across the ages, understanding a bit of history should help temper the fervor with which the present age (like all others) indulges its vanity as the pinnacle of progress, ability, sacrifice and intellect of all time. All ages are possessed of greatness. Being the latest does not make one the greatest.
Steve Jobs was, and is, often described as visionary (I pick on Jobs just because he’s conveniently well-known and he’s dead; whatever were his contributions, he is now through with actively adding to them). Jobs’ vision ultimately yielded a phone irritatingly capable of verbally nagging its owners. When John T Milner, riding north on horseback in the 1850’s, crested Red Mountain on the southern edge of Jones Valley near the center of Jefferson County, he envisioned a day would come when the valley would be populated by a mighty city drawing its wealth from the vast seams of red iron ore (the red ore provided the name for the ridgeline upon which his mount stood, but had not yet been exploited). A few years later, in 1871, he founded a city there, calling it Birmingham, after England’s second city and industrial giant. Only a few decades later and Milner’s city would “magically” grow, along with its iron, steel and coal industries, to become the largest city in the state, and would be informally referred to variously as the “Magic City” because of its explosive growth, or the “Pittsburgh of the South” because of its importance nationally to the coal, iron and steel industries. The specter of a nagging phone pales in comparison to Milner’s vision of a thriving city in a peaceful valley. Yet both visions came to pass. Milner’s city thrives, with over a million people in its greater metropolitan area. And a great many of them suffer incessant nagging by computerized voice messages on the phones Jobs envisioned.
A thumbnail sketch of the development of the coal and iron industries in Alabama
Iron generally came first, and the first iron working facilities were usually forges and/or blacksmith shops. Blast furnaces came later; coal mining, later still. The first blast furnace to commence operations opened in the far northwestern corner of the state, on a bend in Cedar Creek, a Tennessee River tributary, in Franklin County in 1818, a year before statehood. The great Warrior Coal Field in western Jefferson, eastern Walker, and eastern Tuscaloosa counties was first mined in 1827. At first, coal “mining” was a matter of scooping coal off of riverbeds during times when the rivers ran low, and floating it downstream to markets when the flow returned. The first blast furnaces in Jefferson County (the eventual site of Birmingham) commenced operations at Oxmoor and Irondale in the early 1860’s. The Civil War brought an immense expansion in the coal and iron industry in Alabama’s mineral region, not least in Selma, where General Gorgas, head of Confederate logistics, located the Confederate Naval Foundry. But it was all destroyed by the end of the war. Everything had then to be rebuilt from scratch.
The focus gradually turned to the Birmingham District after the war. Though the city of Birmingham was incorporated only a few years after the Civil War, the District did not rise to prominence as an iron and steel-making center until the 1880’s, after which growth exploded. By the early 1900’s, its coal, iron and steel industries were thriving, and it was heralded as potentially the future capital of manufacturing for all the world, probably explaining the commissioning of the Armes book by the Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber doubtlessly wanted to chronicle the rise to future greatness of the city and District. But greatness never really came to pass. The city and District became an important center of manufacturing and industry, particularly of iron and steel products, but it never achieved the manufacturing prominence of Pittsburgh or Detroit, perhaps not even of its early rival, Chattanooga, and certainly not of its namesake. Alas, the demand for the products of its mineral wealth played out long before the coal and ore did. The last of the District’s furnaces devoted to smelting pig and foundry iron from local ore shut down in the early 1970’s, shortly after racial strife had earned the city the derisive moniker “Bombingham”, which, being an earned, rather than self-anointed nickname, seems to have stuck rather more prominently than either “Magic City” or “Pittsburgh of the South” in the public consciousness.
What’s left of the iron and steel industry today is mainly pipe manufacturing, either ductile or rolled, or steel machining. Coal mining still carries on in the hinterlands of the District, mainly in the Warrior Coal Field, either deep underground or in strip pits, but employs a very small number of people. Three major automobile manufacturers have located car-building operations in Alabama’s mineral region—Mercedes near Tuscaloosa; Honda near Lincoln in Talladega County, and Hyundai near Montgomery. They didn’t come to take advantage of the minerals, but came because of the generally favorable climate for manufacturers of their sort, including the excellent transportation facilities, abundant water, cheap energy (in the main, because of the abundant water), low taxes, and a dependable, conscientious local workforce. It could readily be imagined that these advantages arose from the generally conducive environment to manufacturing that was established in the area around the turn of the century.
Snippets of personal insights gleaned from The Story of Coal and Iron in Alabama
I realized about halfway through the book that I had somehow managed to negotiate a half-century of living, four-fifths of it in Birmingham, without knowing much of anything about the history of where I was born and bred.
I have always somewhat instinctively understood why the Civil Rights history of Birmingham was verboten in the integrated schools I attended. The episode had cut too close to the quick, and too recently, for things to have had a chance to sufficiently heal. So it wasn’t until I reached adulthood, and left Birmingham and Alabama, that I found out what had happened to those four little girls, and the other atrocities that took place, all while I was just an ignorant little white child growing up on the trashy side of town. I was almost thirty before I heard anyone refer to the city as “Bombingham”, but I know why. I wasn’t taught Birmingham’s Civil Rights history because it was still painfully scabbed over while I was coming up.
But, neither did I get much of anything of Birmingham’s pre-Civil Rights era history, except the general idea that Birmingham owed its existence to the fact that those three ingredients necessary for making steel—iron ore, coal and limestone—were located in abundance close by. And, as I was repeatedly informed, if you wanted to see what all the fuss was over, all you had to do was walk up to the Twentieth Street cut through Red Mountain and you could distinctly see the seam of red ore that had made Birmingham magical. It was all a part of Birmingham mythology by the time I arrived on the scene, but it wasn’t necessarily true, or at least, as Armes’ book made clear, there was much more to it than simply having three ingredients for making steel in close proximity.
My lack of education could hardly have been unique, which is why I would especially recommend Armes’ book to anyone who grew up in Birmingham. Familiarity with the book ought to be required of anyone graduating from a high school in Alabama’s mineral region.
Red mountain was indeed red because of its iron (and still is, as a trip along practically any of the trails at the recently-opened Red Mountain Park will quite durably stain the soles of the shoes a deep red hue.) All the early settlers and natives knew this, but nobody could much figure out what to do with the information (excepting the natives, who used the ore for dying their breeches and making war paint, but not for making iron or steel). Most of the iron ore in Alabama’s mineral region (except Red Mountain in the Birmingham District) was of the “brown” variety, and therefore readily exploitable with existing technology. Red ore, such as was found on Red Mountain, had too much phosphorous, and was therefore too brittle after smelting to be of much use, or was, until processes were discovered through which the impurities could be economically removed. Milner’s dream of a Jones Valley metropolis getting rich because of the red ore in the hills to their south depended, like Jobs’ dream of a phone that could carry on a conversation with its owner, on technological prowess that did not then exist.
Even so, the main reason Birmingham’s ore was so late in being exploited was far less complicated than the technological challenges of high phosphorous ore. Milner’s little town in Jones Valley was too isolated to take much advantage of its natural resources, or was, until a railroad finally pushed through in 1872. Birmingham has no navigable waterways, sitting as it does near the headwaters of three river systems. And even when the Louisville and Nashville arrived, the railroad practically failed for lack of business, until the Pratt coal seam, which was discovered in 1874, finally began producing a few years later. When Birmingham’s first blast furnace came on line about 1880, the table was finally set. Technology had advanced sufficiently to allow exploitation of Birmingham’s red ore; railroads were in place to get the product to market, and the three ingredients necessary for making iron and steel, which had all along been patiently waiting just below the surface of the soil, were still there for the taking.
I recognized a few names in the story, but was more surprised at how many I had never heard of. There is nothing in Birmingham of which I am aware that is named DeBardeleben, but Henry F., Daniel Pratt’s son-in-law, was arguably the father of the steel industry in Birmingham. I knew of the name because my grandfather made his living running a lathe in a DeBardeleben machine shop, but it was called Steward Machine Company. The DeBardeleben clan shows up in the social registers occasionally, but not as much as might be imagined of a so illustrious an ancestor. Perhaps the clan is publicity shy. I actually met a great, great, great (etc.) grandson of Henry F Debardeleben doing a residential real estate closing one day. He had worked for a time at Steward as a manager. Except for his name, he was a rather ordinary fellow.
Pratt City and Prattville, already noted, were named after Daniel Pratt, but John T Milner, the founder of Birmingham so far as Armes is concerned, hasn’t so much as a lamppost named after him. I was completely ignorant of him until reading Armes’ book.
It was somewhat remarkable to me how many of the coal, iron and steel pioneers in Alabama were of Welsh origin. DeBardeleben was Hessian; Pratt’s people were New Hampshire Welsh; there were a great many others who were Welsh, which makes sense, as the mining industry in England was centered in Wales, but I had always figured most Alabamians of UK descent were Irish or Scotch. There were also quite a few South Carolinians, which isn’t so surprising, because of all the states in the Union, Alabama has always resembled South Carolina the most in its stiff-necked opposition to federal imperatives.
Coal and Iron and Race Relations
Armes’ observation that, at least until the railroad came, Alabama was really two places—an industrial North and an agricultural South—each having little in common with the other, is despairingly true even today, long after railroads and interstates. Except that the mineral region was put to work making munitions for the Confederacy, which caused the whole area to blossom, if only briefly, it is hard to see where the rapidly industrializing area had anything in common with the cause of the South at the time of the Civil War. Indeed, there were slave holders in the mineral region, but the slave relationship was generally quite different than it was for planters. Armes relates the story of a pioneer who cross-trained all his slaves to do any job necessary in his forge and blast furnace. Planters needed slaves for basically one reason—their ability to work long hours at manual labor under miserable conditions. But a coal and iron pioneer slave owner who trains slaves to do essentially what he does is inherently, if not expressly, recognizing the slave’s innate humanity and equality.
Had the mineral regions of Alabama been further developed by the time of the war, there is some question (at least to my mind) whether the mineral regions would have seceded, along with the rest of Alabama, to save the Southern, slave-holding way of life. There actually was one rather large, yet sparsely populated county (Winston, in the northwest quarter of the state) in the mineral region that formally opposed secession, wishing to remain a part of the Union. The mineral regions of Alabama might very well have done just as the mineral regions of Virginia did during the war, and calve a new state that was more economically and politically aligned with the North in its rapid industrialization. West Virginia was carved out of the northwest corner of Virginia when Virginia seceded from the Union, as the innate economic differences between the two areas had become by then too great a burden for the politics to bear. West Virginia’s politics followed its economics (like politics everywhere) and it sought admission to the Union as an independent state, which Lincoln granted in 1863. It’s not hard to imagine had Alabama been settled and developed at about the same time as Virginia, instead of some two hundred years later, that her north/south divisions might have been more pronounced by the time of the Civil War, and the industrialized mineral regions might have scoffed at secession.
It might therefore seem ironic that Birmingham would later become a focal point of race relations and the Civil Rights movement. But not really. It was actually because Birmingham had no, or very little, history of antebellum agriculture and slave holding that its race relations became particularly incendiary. Whites and blacks came to Birmingham from the hinterlands with the same expectations. They wanted to make a living in the rapidly expanding industrial economy. And it became quickly obvious that the coal, iron and steel being turned to gold had no concern over the color of the hands working it. Birmingham’s rapid industrialization revealed in quick time, like it had in the North by the time of the Civil War, the lie of racial inequality. Anyone with wits, drive and determination could make a meaningful contribution. The old feudal organization of life represented by the remaining vestiges of antebellum agriculture would eventually be swept away, at least in part by the rolling mills, blast furnaces and coal mines of Birmingham, but not without upheaval as violent as the hammering of iron in a forge.
A significant cohort of Birmingham’s lower class whites resented economic equivalency with blacks, falling back on old notions of racial superiority to make their case that economic spoils should flow their way, regardless of merit. And a significant number of industrialists took advantage, once their organizations reached a critical mass which required hordes of unskilled labor, of social hierarchies formed in antebellum days. In many instances, the employment relationship between Birmingham industrialists and blacks during its heady growth at the beginning of the twentieth century reverted to something not much different than the way things were back on the plantations. Armes did not discuss one of the more nefarious aspects of the employment relationship, the system of inmate leasing instituted between the state government and the northern industrialists (who came to be known as “mules”), but probably because it had only just begun by the time of publication. In many instances, as mass labor became as important to industrialists as it once had been to plantation agriculture, the system of allowing industrial concerns to lease the labor of state inmates effected a more or less complete reversion to the antebellum social organization.
The Pratt Coal Company, for one, became heavily dependent on the state’s supply of cheap inmate labor. A poor black would be picked up for vagrancy and docked thirty days in the coal mines when he couldn’t pay his fine. When his time was up, he’d be let out, only to be immediately rearrested for the same charge of vagrancy, as he didn’t have a job or a place to live. It was slavery in every respect except its name. And by the time the practice really flourished, the Pratt mines, among the balance of Birmingham’s coal, iron and steel businesses, was owned by Tennessee Coal and Iron Company (TCI), which became a division of US Steel Corporation when it was forced to sell out in the panic of 1907, in a deal brokered by J.P. Morgan, the supposed hero of the panic. (Personally, I wonder if Morgan’s heroism during the 1907 panic wasn’t something like the fireman who sets a fire so he can gain honor and prestige and for Morgan—wealth–at having put it out, but that’s a matter for another day.) The point is that there were no clean hands in the return to the South in the early twentieth century of what amounted to slavery. It was economically driven by the need for huge quantities of labor, and the racialist sentiments and social structures were still widely enough remembered and believed that mass industrialization yielded much the same outcome as had mass plantation agriculture decades before.
But even more than with antebellum agriculture, neo-slavery was doomed from the start. The further development proceeded, the less was the need for raw muscle, and the greater was the premium for initiative and ingenuity. Digging coal, until dynamite and steam, was not much different than hoeing a row or picking cotton. Mechanization and automation gradually alleviated the need for legions of strong backs in the coal mines, and as the iron and steel industry further developed from pig iron and cast products into rolling mills and more sophisticated machining, inherently discriminatory Jim Crow laws, an attitude exemplified by the programs of leased inmate labor, became less and less economically viable. The new opportunities presented by progression along the path of full industrialization required a vibrant and meritocratic work relationship. Fissures in the neo-slavery of the Jim Crow era began appearing around the time of the Second World War, and by the late fifties, the Civil Rights social revolution was in full bloom.
Criticisms and quirks
The history Armes writes is of men, all of whom are of European stock who would be simply categorized as “white” today. But coal and iron development is a story about human beings, not about the minerals, and the human beings who developed coal and iron in Alabama were a) male, and b) of European, mainly British, stock. There is no way she could have written the story any other way. And she tells the tale fairly. She points out the frailties, foibles and failures of the heroes of development as much as their strengths and successes. She is quite subtle when revealing the character traits and attributes that help explain the nature of the men of whom she writes, always careful to leave to the reader any judgments on their moral quality. Thus, in describing Daniel Pratt, she lets one of Pratt’s “negro boys” reveal his character, “Marse Dan’l, he aint no ways satisfied with de way the Lawd done made the earth. But he always digging down the hills and filling up the hollows, dat’s all I knows.” It is at once an indictment and praise, and all through the eyes of someone who had to have known Pratt all too well.
The Story of Coal and Iron in Alabama is consequently not a “great man” history, where at each critical turn, a great and magnanimous man appears like a Superman or Moses to protect the people from danger, or lead them to the Promised Land. It is a story of the plodding, persistent human impulse to improvement, as expressed through the development of minerals fortuitously deposited in an otherwise unremarkable area.
Armes uses anachronistic idioms (for our day), notably “Colonel” , which was used in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in the South to refer to any man of prominence in business or political affairs. “Colonel” Sanders of Kentucky Fried Chicken fame was no more a military colonel than was Daniel Pratt, but both carried the designation, and Armes, to her credit, explains her reasoning for using the honorific.
More interestingly, she uses bred, the past tense and past participle of breed, in a manner we rarely see in use today (but which I have used twice in referring to Birmingham as the place where I was born and bred, just to get in the spirit of things). For Armes, bred is more akin to what we think of today as “raised”. In fact, to drive the point that bred is not often used in such a manner today, a song by the popular artist John Mayer about his upbringing is titled Born and Raised (along with the album containing it), and not “born and bred”.
Armes might explain that a man was “bred” into the iron and steel trade by his father-in-law (as in the case with DeBardeleben and Pratt). But there was no breeding relationship between the father and son-in-law. Breeding is what is inherited; it is that which comprises our nature. Bred, in the way that Armes uses the term does not denote a past breeding, but a nurturing present (though my American Heritage Dictionary, 4th Edition, lists as the fourth definition of breed, to rear or train; bring up).
This is interesting to me for two reasons. First it shows how language usage and understanding naturally evolves over time. But more than that, it shows how two concepts—nature and nurture—over which there is today so much debate as to which one must be attributed primary and secondary causes for behavioral effects, have a long history of confusion. Within the dictionary definition of breed, which is in science simply the sexual or asexual reproduction of a genetic code, is contained the idea that a genetic code is not bred in environmental isolation. It’s almost as if bred in Armes’ idiomatic usage anticipates the very real truth discovered through genetic science that nature tends to nurture itself. So indeed, DeBardeleben might have been bred into the iron and steel trade by his father-in-law, if iron and steel were in his nature. Armes makes the observation of DeBardeleben that he was never a city man, that he was always happiest on the back of a horse prospecting for ore. Perhaps it is time modern genetics caught up to historical usage, and started speaking of a creature being bred into an environment in which it might thrive.
I hope this review will compel folks to read Armes’ magnificent history of the development of Alabama’s mineral region. If the purchase price is too hefty, you could probably find a copy at a good local library, which is where I originally stumbled across the book. In any case, I highly recommend the book to any student of history. The return will be well worth the expense of its undertaking.