Planning the Alabama Central RR

In 1858, the State of Alabama hired an engineer to locate a new railroad line that would connect north Alabama to the of the state.  The report was submitted in 1859, and is available in the Birmingham Public Library.  As reviewed, it is a hardbound book of about 150 pages.  The following is a review and paraphrase of the report by Birmingham Rails.  It is interesting reading as an engineering report, but more interesting as a window into the politics and economic issues of the time.

Report to the Governor of Alabama on the Alabama Central Railroad, Montgomery, 1859

John T. Milner was commissioned by the State of Alabama on May 8, 1858 with the title of Chief Engineer, for a $10,000 fee, to determine a rail road location from the Tennessee River to some point on the Alabama & Tennessee River Railroad.  The goal of this effort was to provide a connection from the Tennessee River in north Alabama to  the navigable waters of Mobile Bay.  In addition, the goal included the ability to develop the mineral region of the  state, located around Jefferson County, Alabama. 

Previous efforts by Professor Toumey, State Geologist, had documented well the mineral resources of the region where Birmingham would one day be located.  It was also well known that the only way to develop these resources was rail transportation.  Coal was known to be located in the basins of the Cahaba and Warrior Rivers.  In addition, iron ore was known to be located along Red Mountain, from about 25 miles east of Tuscaloosa, running for 100 miles to the area of Gadsden, Alabama. 

There was another railroad already developing in this area, the Northeast and Southwest Railroad, which ran parallel to Red Mountain for most of the distance described above.  This railroad connected to Chattanooga to the Northeast.  Many in Montgomery feared that this rail connection to Tennessee and points beyond would be capable of siphoning the mineral wealth of the region to outside interests.  

Thus the development of a route running south and north could enable the development of the mineral wealth and channel that wealth to the port of Mobile.  In addition, such a route could bring additional commerce from the Midwest to the Gulf ports, through the L&N, which already connected Louisville to Nashville, and on to Decatur on the Tennessee River, in north Alabama.

Milner's charge then was clear to provide an economical route to tap the mineral region, funnel commerce to the Gulf port of Mobile, and to foil any efforts to channel commerce to the northeast through Chattanooga.  The challenge lay in the terrain that existed north of Montgomery, and most of the way to Decatur, on the Tennessee River.


This terrain is a series of high ridges, or mountains, and valleys, running generally from the southwest to the northeast.  Thus, the Northeast and Southwest Railroad which penetrated the area that became Birmingham was also constrained by the same mountains and valley.  The NE and SW had a smooth path, relatively speaking, to Chattanooga, but could not easily go to either side of the valley it followed.

Milner's vision was to plan a rail route that tackled the mountains, passed through the heart of the mineral district, and used the valleys as an easy route to develop spur lines to the mineral valleys.  In doing this he would also be able to reach the Tennessee River and open the area to the Midwest markets. 

Milner further understood that the existing rail line north of Montgomery could be utilized from a point at Montevallo, Alabama to start for Decatur, 120 miles to the north.  Thus the initial plan, which was a challenge, did seek to make practical use of the railroads already in place.

Milner also believed that one railroad could not easily exploit both the coal resources and the iron resources.  He seems to have been willing to concede that the NE & SW would have the iron market, and the proposed line from Montevallo to Decatur would have the coal market.

What were the stakes of this challenge?  Initial foot and horseback surveys carefully conducted by Toumey and others, indicated that the coal fields in the Warrior basin covered 5000 square miles, while those of the Cahaba basin covered 500 square miles.  And as noted, the iron resources would be accessed on an outcrop identified over a length of 100 miles.

Milner states in his report that initially the mountains and valleys seemed too much of a challenge.  Remember modern highways may accommodate a grade (vertical rise per run of length) of 6 or even 8%  (6 feet of rise per 100 feet of run).  Local streets may be much steeper than that.  A railroad, on the other hand, considers a grade of 1% to be steep, and 2% to be extreme.  The mountains and valleys in question involved grade changes of over 500 feet time and time again.  However, Milner continued to travel the area on horseback, taking notes and performing some instrument surveys.  He says that after a couple of month of this evaluation, he began to see potential routes.

Having already set a starting point on the existing railroad at Montevallo, Milner targeted two sites on the Tennessee River:  Decatur and Beard's Bluff (Guntersville).  He fashioned 4 possible routes to Decatur and 2 possible routes to Beard's Bluff.  Throughout this planning he kept in mind a goal to pass through the heart of the coal region near "Old Warrior Town" in north Jefferson County.

These lines are described in the report as follows:


1. An "air line" from Montevallo to Decatur

2. A second line from Montevallo with (?) four alternates:


a. Along and near the stage road to Graces Gap toward Old Warrior Town

b. Near Hawkins Mill on Village Creek

c. Cross the Locust Fork of the Warrior River below the Elyton to Jasper Road

d. Pass near Democrat, Alabama, on the Mulberry Fork of the Locust River, two miles below Hanby's Mill.

e. Then two lines:


i. One by Stout's Post Office, along the old Stout's Road to a gap in Sand Mountain (S21, T9, R3W)

ii. Up Ross Creek, joining the first survey at Holmes Gap

f. Holmes Gap was determined to be the best route, and then follow Flint Creek to Decatur.  This route came off of Sand Mountain at Wilhoite's Cove.

Having evaluated these routes, and knowing that time was limited - he started in May, 1858 and finished in 1859 - Milner did what most good engineers would have done at this point.  He ignored the obvious and easy, based on what he had learned and focused on the control points.  That is, find the hardest parts for the problem, knowing that if you solve them, the rest can be solved.  These control points he found to be:

Shades Mountain

The Warrior River branches and the mountains between them

Sand Mountain

For the first, Shades Mountain, he first focused on a "water gap", a place where a natural water course (creek or river) has made a gap over time.  In this case, Milner seems to have expected that Shades Creek would provide such a gap.  However, investigation in the field showed that the gap could not be reached easily considering grade and distance and so was impractical.

Then he focused on Brock's Gap, located 17 miles north of Montevallo, in Shades Mountain, on line 3, noted above, and thence through Jonesboro, and through Betty Clarke's Gap to Village Creek at Connor's Mill.

From here, he intended to cross the Locust Warrior at the mouth of Village Creek

 and thence by Democrat to Warrior (Old Warrior Town).  This too, turned out to be impractical.

Looking at location work already completed, he considered the other routes, with Brock's Gap as a "given".  That is, one had to cross Shades Mountain in order to get north, and Brock's Gap was the only apparent path through Shades Mountain.

[Note that three lines ultimately penetrated Shades Mountain at Brock's Gap.  A fourth line, by the  Southern's Mobile branch penetrates Shades Mountain at a nearby Gap, but then goes quite a long way around to get to Birmingham.]

Line 1:  Followed the Stage Road to Elyton, then across the head of Black Creek, and then follow Black and Turkey Creeks [north Jefferson County], to Locust Warrior at Minter's Ferry.  This line crosses the dividing gap the two Warriors at Reed's Gap, passes by Blount Springs, through Holmes Gap in Sand Mountain and on to Decatur.  Milner discusses this as a "compromise" line to "best fit" the goal of passing through the heart of the Warrior basin coalfield and still be practical.

Line 4:  This line was determined to be too costly, passing 5 miles NE of Blount Springs (Byers Gap to Copperas Gap) and then follows a "beautiful valley" to Hagood's Store, having gone 22 miles [up the valley] from Elyton and thus being too far east for access to the coal fields.  

Comparative Analysis


Milner then summarized all of his location studies with assumptions on cost.

Description Unit


Grading, Masonry, Bridge
121 miles right of way Lump sum $ 20,000

Clear and Grub

Mile $      300
Solid Rock Cubic Yard (CY) $      100
Hard Pan CY $        40
Excavation to Embankment CY $    12
Embankment from Excavation CY $    12
Embankment Borrowed CY $        20
Arch Culvert Masonry CY $      300
Box Culvert Masonry CY $      350

Bridge Culvert Masonry

CY $   1,200
Bridge Abutments CY $      500
Lattice Bridging Linear Feet (LF)

$   3,000

Trestle Bridging LF

$      700

Iron (60# per yard) Ton $        65
Cross Ties Mile $      600
Chairs, Spikes, Frogs, Castings Mile $      500
Laying Track (for 125 Miles) Mile $      500
Depots, Water Stations

2 Depot Buildings

Each $  10,000

10 Depot Buildings

Each $    1,250 

2 Depot Buildings

Each $    2,500

15 Water Stations & Wood Sheds

Each $       200

12 Division Houses

Each $       500

Repair & Division Tools

Lump Sum $    3,000

Machine Shops & Engine Houses

Lump Sum $  75,000
8 Turn Tables Each $       700

18 Locomotives

Each $   8,500

10 Passenger Cars

Each $   2,500

225 Freight Cars

Each $      700

8 Baggage & Mail Cars

Each $   1,500

Abstract of Cost

Grading, Masonry and Bridges

$ 1,264,430.75


$    965,375.00

Depots & Water Stations

$    129,600.00


$    347,500.00

Engineering & Agencies

$    100,000.00
Total $ 2,806,905.70

Having summarized the recommended line, Milner repeated the same detailed cost estimate for each of the six lines, 4 for Decatur and 2 for Beard's Gap.


These are presented in abstract for each line:


Line Length Miles


Total Cost Cost per Mile

Maximum Curvature



121 66' 63 ' $  2,806,905.75 $  23,197.57 5
2 123 66' 66' $  3,120,302.40 $  25,368,31 5
3 123 66' 66' $  3,152,941,45 $  25,633,67 5
4 122 66' 66' $  2,810,179,29 $  22,893.52 5
5 105 66' 53' $  2,193,643.60 $  20,842.22 4
6 111 66' 53' $  2,501,785.97 $  22,437.54 4


These lines are described as follows:


1. Montevallo to Decatur via Elyton, Blount Springs, Holmes Gap

2. Montevallo to Decatur via Elyton, Democrat, Holmes Gap

3. Montevallo to Decatur via Jonesboro, Democrat, Holmes Gap

4. Montevallo to Decatur via Elyton, Hagood's Store, Copperas Gap, Holmes Gap

5. Montevallo to Beard's Gap via Elyton, Hagood's Store, Chapultepec

6. Montevallo to Beard's Gap via Elyton, Blount Springs, Blountsville

Thus it is seen that all of the lines depended upon crossing Shades Mountain at Brock's Gap.  Looking south from Brock's Gap, Milner states that he considered 8 lines "to get off Shades Mountain" towards the Cahaba River.  He further states "the most practicable crosses at Brock's Gap where the stage road crosses the mountain and the Cahaba [River], in Smith's Plantation, and then following the stage road to Montevallo.

Milner, like most engineers, seems to have learned that his estimates had to be conservative.  Bear in mind that the report to the governor would be submitted to the legislature, who were not likely to be technical men, nor were they likely to forget the first estimate provided.  This is a condition that all engineers learn to deal with if they are to be successful.  So, for example, Milner states that he assumed conservatively that all excavation would be one-half solid rock.  Today, the entire route would have been drilled to estimate the amount of rock, but that was not available in a time when a drill in rock was advanced most likely by blows of a sledge hammer.

A significant discussion is presented in this report on the cost of the actual work, the project, versus the total cost if financed with bonds.  After all, bear in mind that Milner was trying to convince a group of politicians, used to an agricultural economy, that it was worth a large amount of public funds to extend a railroad into an area in order to dig holes in the ground and look for minerals.  This was by no means going to be a clear choice to many of the legislators from the southern part of the state, based on an agricultural economy.  Remember the Civil war was yet two years in the future, and folks tend to cling to what they know best.

So, Milner tried to stick to the hard number facts and not the vagaries of finance and politics with inherent costs and delays, which in turn would mean more cost.  As a part of seeking to convince the politicians of the merits of the project, Milner presented a long set if arguments and data showing the value of the project the sources of potential revenue.

First among these was coal.  Milner was a visionary, and he perceived what today we might call a "megatrend".   That is, the increasing demand for coal and iron in the economy.  He showed with figures that the value of coal mined in the U.S. in recent years was greater than the value of the gold mined in California in the same time.  Remember, the California gold rush had started 10 years before this report was rendered to the State.  He goes on to say that at the present rate of market growth, coal would be a more valuable commodity, in total than gold, in the U.S.

To convince his readers, Milner points out that Great Britain, the cradle of the industrial revolution had less then 12,000 square miles of coalfields, had 30,000,000 population, and had produced 68,000,000 tons of coal in a recent year.  

In the U.S. Milner predicted that a comparable market was defined as greater than 133,000 square miles of coal fields, a population already at 50,000,000, and inferred coal demand and production of 750,000,000 tons per year.  He went on to show the growth in coal production of Maryland and Ohio, in order to show that the market for coal from Alabama (with rail access) could grow as these and other states had grown.

Additional market value for the railroad venture would be driven by demand for steam coal for ships and the growth of the trade in the Gulf of Mexico and its ports, such as Mobile.  As the trade increased, the value and need for steam coal would increase, in addition to the demand and value of goods shipped by rail to the Gulf ports.

Milner provided detailed data and arguments based on coal demand, shipping activity, port location, port depth for draft vessels, and the cotton market.  Remember that Alabama had made much of the cotton market in the world, and that Great Britain had become a cloth manufacturer consuming much cotton from the southern states.

Furthermore, as rail traffic increased, steam coal for rail locomotives would be a far superior fuel than wood.  Most locomotives in the south at that time burned wood for fuel, and timber for fuel was very plentiful in the south.  But overall, in his discussion, the key point for the proposed railroad was coal and more coal.

Milner and other supporters of this venture, likely including industrialist Daniel Pratt, of Prattville, believed that coal was the real value in the mineral district in Jefferson County.  Iron was valuable as well, but as a secondary interest compared to the value of coal.

Further, they believed that the NE & SW rail line, already in place, would access the iron resources, and the "Central Alabama", Milner's project, would access the coal.  It is interesting to look back and see how the L&N built the Mineral Division 

on Red Mountain and usurped the NE & SW line's proximity to the iron resources.

The cost of iron rail in the marketplace was then between $40 and $60 per ton - Ohio iron rail was much closer to $40.  Milner states that Jefferson County iron rail would be produced at about $43 per ton - when the railroad was built, and when the resources, machinery and labor were available dependent upon the rail access.  It was pointed out that there would be a great savings to build U.S. railroads with domestic rail rather then imported (British) rail.

It is interesting to note in hindsight, that Milner did not seem to foresee the great issue that would emerge between "Bessemer rail" and "basic rail".  In fact, the future rail plant at Ensley, operated by TCI would emerge as a great producer of steel rail by the turn of the century.

Milner went on in his report to state the other resources and value of this railroad project.  He listed lime & marble, timber, and "resort" traffic (Blount Springs, AL was already known as a resort in Milner's time).  In addition, he notes that abundant water power for flour mills in the area would enable large quantities of farm products, such as flour, to be shipped by rail.  In fact, he points out that farm products could equal iron products as potential railroad revenue, based on the performance of the Georgia state railroad already in operation.  Remember that Milner was seeking state funding for his project.

Milner also pointed out the benefits of the Georgia railroad in lifting the pride and spirit of the people of Georgia.  Before the railroad, lack of access to market seemingly had these farmers at the mercy of local buyers.  But with the railroad, access to markets and competition made these farmer's efforts worth more, and raised the hopes and expectations of the people.  Milner was not limited in his sales vision for the project.

After pointing out the benefits seen by other projects, like the Georgia road, Milner pointed out the danger of the rival NE &SW road's potential to steer Alabama's commerce to other markets at Charleston, Savannah and Augusta via Chattanooga.  In other words, the NE &SW could provide these connections as soon as development of the district was opened.

The "Central Alabama" as was called in the report, on the other hand, was a "neutral" group of in- state interests.  The route would not lead directly to interchange with rival ports.  Rather, it would open midwest markets north of Nashville and Louisville, right back into Alabama and its port at Mobile.

Thus the project has significant potential value to the State of Alabama.  It also has a significant cost.  So, what is the value to the state - what is the return on investment if the State sees fit to participate?

Milner answers this by pointing out the net revenue per mile enjoyed by the the Georgia Railroad and Banking system, at over $3,000 per mile.  He then predicts that the Alabama project can return 17% return.  But, if that is too much to believe, then reduce it to 10% assumed return.  Then he indicates that a more conservative approach could still produce an 8 % return, after considering costs more carefully.  Finally, he goes one step further and states that 7 % is a great return based on the most conservative predictions of cost and revenue.

If the rate of return on investment were not good enough, Milner points out that the land along the railroad would increase dramatically in value, and that would generate new tax revenue for the State.  He shows a history of the value of bonds issued by the states for construction of canals, first, and now railroads, and that this is a very sound investment.  He discusses what apparently was a common political debate about the merits of these projects and the use of state funds to construct them.  These are investments by the state for the good of the state, he points out.  This project would protect the State of Alabama from the competition of other roads, and the delivery of commerce to other ports.

He begins his closing arguments by stating that the project to build a railroad to Decatur is an enterprise to "build up Alabama".  The line through the mineral region would access the large mineral reserves already known and documented to exist.  Thus, the Governor should consider the opportunity to lay out a "great state work and consider her (Alabama's) interests before any other."

Finally, Milner even points out that he is so conscious of cost that he is not even going to produce a new map with its associated printing costs.  He is so thrifty that he can use and existing geological map already printed and lay his lines out on that map, saving the state money.  

With this final last detail presented, Milner notes that his work and that of his assistants, John A Milner, N. W. Long, John T. Elmore, and R. B. Harris, is respectfully submitted by John T. Milner, Chief Engineer.


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