Along the "Old Line" of the L&N, north of Birmingham

Bar-B-Que and the Warrior Mineral RR

I moved to Birmingham in 1992 from Nashville and was immediately struck by the clear historical presence of so many railroads.  Being from Nashville, I was sort of an L&N fan, but Nashville was sort of a “one railroad town”.

I learned that Bar-B-Que plays an important role in the day to day life of folks in Alabama, along with church and uh, football.  I did a lot of work in my career for the Highway Department and soon heard about the Top Hat Bar-B-Que in the south end of Blount County.  So, not long after I moved I had a chance to be in that area and stopped in for a late lunch.

The Top Hat wasn’t busy that day, and I got to talking to the “pit man”.  You know that you have to get up pretty early to start a day’s run of butts and shoulders.  Some mornings he told me, he would be working alone, very early.  “It’s the strangest thing”, he said, “but some mornings, real early, I’d swear that I hear an old time steam engine goin’ by – right by, close – you know?  And I hear that old steam whistle just talking…”  He finished up with “I just hears it sometimes, not all times – sure do sound lonesome…”

Sometimes where I live, I can hear the CSX trains on the mainline not so far from my house and I would swear that the diesel horn was a steam whistle…  I understand the Pit Man’s story.

1889 USGS map from USGS Topo View website.


A while back, Marv Clemons, James Lowery and the author took a field trip to the Helena Museum to talk with Ken Penhale about railroad history in the area.  Ken’s people came from the mines in Cornwall to the mines in Helena in the 1870’s.  That goes back to the roots of Birmingham’s industrial and railroad history.  Helena was near the end of track through the end of the Civil War.  Coal mined near Helena, was brought on a spur to the interim mainline of what became the South and North Alabama’s mainline to Birmingham – after the War.


From Helena, the coal was taken south to the Alabama and Tennessee River Railroad, later the Selma, Rome and Dalton, and shipped to Selma for use in the foundries there.  When the Eureka Company was formed (at Oxmoor furnace) to experiment with making iron using coke instead of charcoal, the coal came from Helena mines.  Upon the success of the experiment in 1876, a hundred coke ovens were built at Helena – the ruins are still there, adjacent to the Hillsborough Subdivision.  And there are other old ovens nearby on Buck Creek – Ken Penhale knows all about the area.  Go visit the museum at Helena!  

At the time of the Eureka experiment, carried out at Oxmoor Furnace, Birmingham was hardly even born.  There had been a financial “panic” in 1873, and the newly built railroad struggled for lack of freight much less passengers.  As Ethel Armes says in her landmark history “The Story of Coal and Iron in Alabama”, no one traveled much in Alabama in those days.  And there was little capital for mines.


She also tells us that at this time, there were only a few coal mines opened in the area that became the Birmingham District.  The mines at Helena, some of which dated before the War, were located in the Cahaba Coal Field.  The other mines, brand new at the time, were also tried for coking coal.  But these mines were far to the north around the Jefferson and Blount County line.  That was called the Browne coal seam of the Warrior Basin, later changed to the Pratt Seam.


When the South & North Alabama Railroad was completed north of what was to be Birmingham, toward Decatur, the railroad was in dire financial shape.  In fact the founding of Birmingham hung in the balance in 1871 because the new company couldn’t raise the money to pay interest on the State backed bonds.  A competing railroad, the Southwest and Northeast, wanted to ship the area’s mineral wealth to Chattanooga.  Just in the nick of time, a man named James Sloss stepped in and offered a deal to the L&N Railroad which had been extended south to Nashville.  Sloss offered his Nashville & Decatur line, and urged the S&NA backers to offer their line, still incomplete, to the L&N as a “lease and build” deal.


The short version of this story is that the deal was worked out in Louisville, finally, and the L&N stepped in to provide capital to pay the interest on the bonds, and o provide for the completion of the line from Elyton, Birmingham’s predecessor to Decatur.  This was a win-win-win for all involved as it provided a logical extension of the L&N toward the Gulf, saved the S&NA and allowed James Sloss to move toward a Birmingham where he entered the iron business.  That is another story.


But, since the finances were so constrained, the S&NA’s Chief Engineer, John Milner, who knew better, had no choice but to direct the contractor “more curves, more curves, more stiff grade” as the line was built north in the hills and valley of Jefferson and Blount County toward Decatur.  So, every effort was made to avoid cuts and fills, to avoid tunnels and to minimize bridges.  But the line was completed in 1872 and traffic, as little as there was, could move from Montgomery to Nashville with the L&N as lease holder of what was called the S&NA Division for many years.  But the line and grade were rough!


So, in the latter years of the 19th Century Birmingham slowly started to become the workshop town envisioned by its founders who were also the leaders of the S&NA.  The S&NA’s mainline soon had new spurs being extended to serve mining efforts of the pioneer coal entrepreneurs.  This included mines in the area whose towns became Warrior, Kimberly and Morris as well as colorful names like Majestic and New Castle to name a few.


One of the things that the L&N did showed wise business acumen by its leader, Milton Smith.  Smith was willing to support the extension of lines to mining areas.  Different arrangements could be worked out, but a typical approach was for the L&N to “lend” the hardware to build the rail spur, as well as capital to pay for grading and draining the new line.  At the time, the 1890’s and early 1900’s terms might be 6-7% interest for the mining company and the interim use of adequate hardware from the railroad.


It is noted that subsequently, and about the time period of the story below (c. 1911-1915), the L&N determined the need to "fix" problems with alignment and grade around Birmingham and all the way to Nashville, as well as double tracking this line, due to the heavy traffic that had developed due to Birmingham's significant growth.  That work is a story in itself.

Herein lies the real subject of this story – an example of one such effort by a railroad that the author had not heard of until recently – The Warrior Mineral RR.  I had certainly heard of the Birmingham Mineral, and that was our reason to visit Ken Penhale, but I had never heard of the Warrior Mineral.

You’ve heard that a picture is worth a thousand words.   This story involves three pictures, provided to Marv Clemons by one of the R&LHS Mid South Chapter members, [the late] Larry Kelpke.  Three pictures and three captions on the back were all that there was to start solving a puzzle about coal mining and railroad history – an example like so many.

The caption of this wonderful image reads, "Louise" was a "dummy" that had no fire and was charged with steam from a power plant- thus, no fire in the mine. Samual [sic] T. Moss, Supt.  Mine owned by Uncle Albert and son Everett. RR ran from Nyota to Warrior, about 10 miles circa. 1915.”

The caption of the second image reads, “Owned by Uncle Albert and son Everett. #404 is probably an ex-L&N loco RR ran from Nyota to Warrior, a distance of about 10 miles.  Also serviced the Sibleville [Sibleyville] Brick Co;  Samual [sic] T. Moss Supt. of the mine.  Circa 1915. Part of the Moss-McCormack Coal Co.”  The caption doesn’t say that the lettering on the tender is “Warrior Mineral RR

We pretty well knew where Warrior was, on the “old” S&NA mainline.  The author had heard of Nyota, and a search revealed it to be on the “new” mainline (c. 1915) of the L&N, somewhat to the east.  The image shows that “Louise” bears the name “Warrior Black Creek Coal Co" (WBCCC).  Research indicated that the WBCCC was active in the era of WWI and included members of the Moss family – quite a few of them in fact.  There were three mines opened by the company, Liberty, No. 2 and Carbon.  This was found in the Coal Directory of 1920, although the directory didn’t say a word about Louise, only referring to mule and rope haulage.  These directories typically did say if the company owned any locomotives, but for reasons we don’t know, Louise didn’t make the directory.  But we know she was there, cause we have pictures.

Now the story expands a little bit.  We have mention of the L&N Railroad, the Moss-McCormack Coal Company, and the Sibleyville Brick Company. Both images give us a time frame of 1915.  Research yielded the Moss-McCormack Coal Company (MMCC) as a successor to the WBCCC between 1920 and 1921 editions of the Coal Directory.  This series of Directories covered the entire United States, and was published by the Keystone Publishing Co of Pittsburgh, and was found through Google Books.

When faced with research of this type, maps are a key tool in the effort.  One source is the United States Geological Survey, USGS, and these maps are available free on line at the “USGS Map Store” website.  For the Birmingham area, the author knew that maps might be found in three time frames, c. 1890, c. 1907 and after that, sometimes the 1930’s and sometimes the 1950’s and newer.  A wonderful map was found of the area around Warrior, dated 1907.  This map image shows the “old” S&NA/L&N mainline through Warrior and shows two obvious spurs to Watts Mines and to Coaldale.  The place name “Nyota” is not shown on this map which indicates that it was obscure or that it “hadn’t happened yet” – one doesn’t always know which.  But Nyota does show on the newer USGS maps “sitting straddle” on the “new” L&N mainline.  Nyota would be in toward the upper right hand corner, toward the “WA” in Warrior, above the “Y” in Boundary (in the 1907 map below).

US Geological Survey (USGS) map dated 1907.  Found on USGS web site via Topo View.

The caption reads, “Coal train of Moss-McCormack at Nyota, AL about 1914. Loco in background with a box car indicates some general merchandise hauling. Warrior River to left.” [Closer review makes this “boxcar” out to be a work car or a homemade caboose.


“When in doubt, ask Google”, is another tool of the intrepid rail history “researcher” (nut).  So, Google was asked about the “Warrior and Nyota” as well as the “Warrior Black Creek” coal company.  The company name search results included a reference to the company incorporation charter, which in turn led to the Secretary of State’s online business records archive.  Oh my, this website is a treasure trove of arcane data.  For a $20 bill (credit card) the researcher downloaded documents from 1911 and 1912 about WBCCC which add much to our puzzle and the story behind it.

Milton Smith would have been proud!  In fact he might have approved this business deal.  The documents indicate that the WBCCC had a railroad called the Warrior Mineral RR.  The Warrior Mineral desired to extend a spur to its parent’s new mine, but lacked the resources.  The parent also lacked the resources, and so turned to the S&NA RR (Division of the L&N) for “aid”.  Aid was forthcoming in the amount of $40,000 as well as “lend”-ing the railroad all the necessary hardware to build the line.

Of more help was a solid location on this venture.  First, contract document states that track will be extended from the Hogeland Br of the Linton Br of the S&NA R.  From our 1907 map we can see Hogeland Creek and we can see Linton, so the names of the spurs make sense.  And the other location is “hard stuff” – the “NW Qtr. of the NW Qtr. of Section 8, Township 14S, Range 2 West”.  Without going into all the details, this narrows the site down to 40 acres on the USGS map of 1907.  You just have to know how to read the map.  And 40 acres is a pretty specific area on a map of this scale.  This form of land reference is called Range and Township and is used throughout Alabama, which is a very good thing for this type research.


The plot certainly began to thicken at this point.  In looking at our 1907 map and the range & township location, this was nowhere near the Warrior River.  Granted, it’s in the neighborhood, but we see no track alongside the Warrior River.  What other maps might show this information?

Segment from Kelly's 1905 "Mines, Railroads and Industries" map.

The Mid-South Chapter of the R&LHS sells maps to its members as well as the general public.  One of these is Kelly’s 1905 Mine, Railroad and Industrial Map.  It is a wonderful resource and proved helpful in this puzzle.  This map doesn’t show “Nyota” but it does show “Sibleyville” and the brick company from caption two.  It shows Coaldale, and Hog[e]land Junction, referred to in the railroad loan contract and it shows a mine far off to the right, labeled Warrior-Black Creek Coal Company.  But is doesn’t show the river – that is, this map doesn’t show any rivers, so it is of no help there.

More research was in order.  The author dug deep and realized he had a mine directory downloaded several years ago, dated 1986, that ostensibly documents “every” coal mine in Alabama with data on location, ownership and mine name.  Skipping some details, this led to a search of Blount County properties of the Moss-McCormack Coal Company, labeled “Upper Creek” with range & township locations.  When these were plotted, low and behold, they were close to the Warrior River!  They were also close to the “mine” shown on Kelly’s map labeled for the WBCCC.

Another resource collected by the author are a series of aerial photos taken in 1940-41 by the Soil Conservation Service (SCS), now a component of the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NCRS).  But the collection only covers Jefferson County, and a little bit over the line.  Would there be any coverage? Fortunately, the answer was “yes” and it was exactly the coverage needed.

This image is dated 2/17/1941 and shows a large coal mining property, as indicated by the many workers houses and telltale shape of spoils piles.  The line running up and down the picture (north-south) is the “new” L&N mainline.  If you look closely you may be able to see a “wye” track near the top to the right of the mainline.  That is the location designated “Nyota” on modern USGS maps.

What is more important is the line in the trees coming in from the left, and going just above the bend in the river, in the middle of the picture.  This line is a rail spur, and it is “next to the Warrior River” just as shown in picture number 3!

A detail from image three shows the “Louise” in the background on a tramway on the bluff. There seems to be a semblance of a coal dump (slide) to enable the tramcars to dump from the bluff to the hoppers or gondolas below on the spur.

Putting all the pieces of the puzzle together, confirms that the rail spur for which the company borrowed $40,000 from the S&NA/L&N extended from the Linton Spur to Nyota and it does end up next to the river as shown in the image.  By the time of the 1941 aerial it is pretty clear that the rail spur was likely abandoned.  And why not – the main line of the Old Reliable ran right through the middle of the mines at Nyota!

So, what became of the spur when the mainline was relocated?  Kincaid Herr, in his landmark L&N History tells us that this work was done around Birmingham between 1911 and 1914.  And the line from New Castle to Bangor, which required the 2,200 foot Hayden Tunnel, was “completed by November 15, 1914.”  It certainly appears that image three, dated 1914 is a brand new line, freshly graded and ballasted, recently cut trees and blasted rock in evidence.  So, did the coal company borrow $40,000 only to complete the line in time for the L&N to relocate the mainline right through the area served by the mortgaged spur track?  Did the L&N do the mine company dirty?  Did the spur get some use to amortize it before being abandoned?

We don’t know at this point in our puzzle solving.  Staring at the 1941 (right) aerial there appears to be a mine tipple served by the tramway “Louise” that would not have been readily accessible to the L&N mainline.  And there appears to be a formal tipple from the tramway to the spur track – maybe!  A field trip to the woods might help tell the tale.  More research may help explain the timing of improvements at Nyota.

But the L&N did relocated some 25 miles of mainline, serving Warrior for some more years from the south by connecting another old mine spur to the new mainline.  Eventually the spur to Warrior from the south was abandoned.

And what of the old mainline to the north of Warrior?  It was abandoned in 1914 and some years later the Highway Department built a road on the roadbed.  That road is US-31 which is the address of the Top Hat Bar-B-Que next to Blount Springs in Hayden, AL.  Now, the Top Hat didn’t open till 1967.  So, maybe the old Pit Man wasn’t hearing things, all alone, in the early hours, after all.  What do you think?  Could we still hear it 100 years later?


Google Earth overlay showing "old" L&N main line in blue, spur tracks to various industries and mines in red. The purple segment is thought to be the original spur to the Mabel mines, Mabel Mining Company shown on Kelly's 1905 map. The "Louise" tramway is shown in yellow.

Larger view showing "old" L&N main in blue and "new" L&N main in black.


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