Oral Histories from Individuals

The following anecdotal stories or oral histories have been provided as part of this signs project.  To submit a story you have about the Birmingham Mineral Railroad, click here.

Harold I. Fisher, Jr.: Downtown Birmingham — Military Use of L&N Train Station (“Union Station”) — Many young men drafted during the Korean War were riding trains to basic training or to ports of embarkation to go overseas.  After basic training, several of my friends and I had orders to report to the L&N train station at Morris Avenue for transfer to New Jersey to go overseas.  We arrived at the station and left on the train from there.

Mimi Wilson Tynes:  Mountain Brook Area — In the early 1930’s, my brothers and I lived in the area between Ramsay Park and Carlisle Road, and our backyard backed up to the BMRR.  One day my young brother, Bland Wilson, put on his cowboy outfit, stood in the middle of the train tracks, and pretended to rob or “hold-up” the train with his cap pistol.  The engineer stopped the train, got out, and spanked Bland.  Bland also got another spanking when his dad got home.    [Information also contributed by nephew Frank Tynes.]

Herb Griffin:  English Village — When I was working for the Shades Valley Sun newspaper in the 1950’s, there had been three or more train cars parked on the railroad tracks near English Village for several years.  When the Birmingham Mineral Railroad tracks were removed from that area in 1954, someone checked on the train cars that had been parked there and found that they were part of a shipment that had been missing for several years.

Thomas Talbot:  English Village and Irondale — Around 1945 or 1946, when I was at Ramsay High School, I rode with one of my friends in his car from the Birmingham-Mountain Brook city limits area east of English Village to English Village on the railroad track. It was my understanding that he had actually driven from the Irondale area to English Village on the railroad track on several occasions. The distance between the rails was the same as the distance between the centerline of the tires of automobiles.  [This was accomplished by letting some of the air out of the tires so they would hug the rails.]

Thomas Talbot:  English Village — In the 1939 to 1943 time frame I had a friend from Lakeview Grammar School that lived on the south side of Carlisle Road a few houses from English Village. Occasionally when playing at his house a train would come from the East and go to English Village. Several times we would get pennies and put them on the railroad track for the train to flatten when it went back to the East. The trains usually dropped cars off or picked up cars and the engine did not stay in English Village but a few minutes.

Dr. Robert Glaze:  English Village — During World War II, a machine shop that was located in what is now English Village made artillery shell casings and shipped them out on the Birmingham Mineral Railroad that was operating through English Village.  As a 10 or 11 year old child, my friend who lived on Lanark Road above English Village called this the “tin shop” because it had a galvanized roof, and we loved to throw rocks down on the roof, creating a lovely clatter and bringing irate workers outside to curse us mightily.

Bart Morrow:  English Village / Carlisle Road — In early 1948, we moved from Ensley to Redmont Park (2911 Carlisle Road).  I was 12 years old and was fascinated by the railroad that ran along the south side of our property.  At that time, the engine was diesel and usually pushed only one box car to English Village.  It went to the construction warehouse in English Village a block or two west of Cahaba Road.  Since the train came infrequently, naturally I used the railroad as a path to the Village.  I don’t know how often the train came because I was usually in school when the exciting event occurred.  I’m sure the engineer knew he was traveling a route full of kids and pets, so he always traveled slow and waved to all of us.  I don’t remember the date when the railroad offered to sell the property to my father.  Apparently, the price was right because my father bought the railroad roadbed and that doubled our lower backyard (living on a hillside, there were three levels to the rear property).  I wasn’t there to witness the removal of the rails and crossties, but I remember it left a space across the lot that was devoid of any topsoil.  Dad bought a Monsanto product that we tilled into the red clay soil and created a more porous soil.  The addition of fertilizer created a fine soil for grass.

Carolyn Green Satterfield, PhD:  Carlisle Road — As a child, I remember “the train” (one engine and maybe an additional train car) coming by our backyard.  Since there was a street crossing the tracks, the train had to come to a stop and check out the traffic.  The engineer also checked to see if we had left a blockade or “barrier” on the tracks.

I had three siblings, and we all have pennies flattened by “the train” we watched from behind our hedge.  Sometimes, we put wooden blocks on the tracks and waited to hold up the train.  The engineer always was kind and would wave to us with our masked faces and cap guns.  It didn’t take long for him to make his return from English Village or wherever, so we often waited for him to come back.

I don’t remember if the engineer blew a whistle or clanged a bell, but I do know that I still have my flattened penny and fond memories!

David (Dave) Phillips:  Altoona, Woodlawn, and Aviation Road — I never knew how much the BMRR formed our family until recently reading history about it.  My grandfather Dave (1903-1974) was from Altoona as a kid.  Family stories say it took 3 days to travel to Birmingham by wagon where Highway 79 is now.  Their last watering hole and camp was where the Chief Wm. C. “Billy” Hewitt Park is now in Tarrant next to Five Mile Creek [or near there where a spring provided fresh water — near present-day Springdale Road in Tarrant].  Later, the BMRR railroad was extended to Altoona and brought them on its passenger service both ways to Birmingham and back in 1 day.  Thus, they were able to get jobs in Birmingham.  As young people, in 1910 or so they found a house to live in by the Woodlawn Depot, and several more children were born in Woodlawn.  My grandfather Dave and grandmother Erma are buried about 100 feet from the former BMRR roadbed which is now Aviation Avenue that runs through the cemeteries at the south side of the Birmingham-Shuttlesworth International Airport.  With all their years of traveling as passengers on the BMRR, they never would have guessed that they would be buried so close to it.

Altoona Trestle — My Dad always said that his Dad’s brother and school friends used to jump off the trestle in Altoona and land at an angle in the sand.  But one day his Dad’s brother hit a hard spot and died of complications in about 1907 or 08.

Helen Bess Mines near Montclair Road — My uncle Jessie Phillips (1911-1997) said the railroad was their transportation, and, while traveling one day on the passenger train, he saw an ad for renting a section house near Helen Bess Mines [behind the current Crestline Post Office].  He said that a “section house” was one owned by the railroad and that the person living in it was responsible for maintaining 5 miles of track in both directions.  While living there in about 1918, my grandfather said that yellow jacket bees swarmed out of their nest while he and others were repairing the tracks beside Georgia Road at Red Gap on the BMRR.  My grandfather said that, while they lived in the section house, they would go hang out at a well at the Helen Bess mining camp because that is where the teenage girls would draw water.  He met my grandmother Erma there, and they were married in 1923.  Their first-born child was named “Helen” after Helen Bess.  My Uncle Jessie was a caddie at the golf course on Highland Avenue around 1917-1919 when he was about 6 or 7 years old.  I assume that he walked to the top of the mountain from the Helen Bess Mines area and walked down Altamont Road to the golf course.  My Uncle Buck Elrod was born in the Helen Bess mining camp, and he is now 89 [in 2015].  They lived there in the 1920s even after the mines had closed.

Eastwood Mall / Century Plaza area — I grew up behind Eastwood Mall [now Eastwood Village] in the 1960s, and I appreciated seeing the historical photograph of the BMRR train on the bridge over Oporto Road [see Historic Photographs on this website].  My dad said that locals called that locomotive “Hauly” but pronounced it more like “Hulley.”  He said that one day in the 1940s that locomotive caught him on the railroad bridge that crossed over the other tracks at Red Gap, and, although the locomotive was slow and noisy, the thought was terrifying as he ran across the trestle ahead of the train.  He remembered the Hammond Mine camp along Oporto Road where the Interstate 20 circular on-ramp is now– rough looking, bare wood houses with smoke coming from the chimneys.  Uncle Jessie said that right near there [where Interstate 20 is and between Montevallo Road and Oporto Road — near the former Toys R Us and now Family Leisure store] hobos and gamblers lived “and killed.”  Everyone knew better than to go back in there!

Coalburg — I ride off-road vehicles around many of the former mine sites and the BMRR roadbed all around Coalburg.  Back in the 1980s, I saw a small tree in the brush with a slanted board — the remnants of a BMRR railroad crossing sign.  It was the original Coalburg Road crossing on a track way out in the woods near Daniel Payne Road.

Marvin Clemons:  Roebuck / Lisa Lane — In the mid-1960s, our family lived on Lisa Lane near Roebuck Plaza in northeast Birmingham. Our house backed up to Ruffner Mountain, and the abandoned roadbed of the Birmingham Mineral’s Trussville Branch ran along our property line. As a young train buff, I often walked the roadbed to Irondale to watch trains. The track was still in place from Irondale up to what’s now Shadywood, and there were even some iron ore hoppers still resting on a siding at Ruffner Mine. Since the branch was abandoned, I fantasized that I owned the railroad and had my own “train” (albeit my own two legs!) to ride back and forth to Irondale. It was all innocent kid stuff, but for a brief shining moment I enjoyed being the “Emperor of the Trussville Branch.”

Roebuck / Sadler Gap — A few of the neighborhood kids also enjoyed dropping souvenirs from the trestle abutments onto cars passing through Sadler Gap, where the Trussville Branch passed over the Gadsden Highway. I’m proud to say I only witnessed and never took part in such shameful juvenile behavior.

Stanley E. Weir:  South Roebuck / Observatory Drive — I grew up in the South Roebuck area at 521 Chestnut Street from about 4 years old until about 18 years old.  There used to be an old plantation-style house located just south of, and below, Observatory Drive where it makes a sharp uphill left turn going to the top of the mountain.  The house was located about 100 yards down the dirt road from the existing curve on Observatory Drive.  At the sharp uphill left turn on Observatory Drive, the original dirt road (pre-Civil War or similar period) went straight down hill from that point, and there was nothing there but wooden land.  The dirt road continued for a long way down the hill until it reached the Birmingham Mineral Railroad tracks.  About 1960 there still was no development at all below that road all the way down to the Birmingham Mineral Railroad tracks.  As kids, we used to hike all over the Ruffner Mines area and the tracks from Oporto Boulevard [Road] all the way to Sadler Gap on Highway 11.  The plantation-style house mentioned above was run down but one could tell that it had been an elegant place.  It had two stories and columns in the front and a balcony on the second floor.  Some of the rooms still had remnants of beautiful wallpaper and plaster.  The house had a well (which was boarded up), was painted white or whitewashed, and had four chimneys and at least four fireplaces.  The house had double-hung and weighted windows throughout and a cookhouse behind it separate from the house.  The house was mostly fallen down by 1960, and the associated barn had collapsed by that time.  The land on which the house sat was later sold to a developer (Al Awtrey Real Estate) and was developed into a fairly large addition to Shadywood.  The house was burned down by vandals sometime before 1965.  I do not know anything about the ownership of that land or who lived in that house, but it was, at one time, something to behold.

I am not sure how far past the plantation-style house the railroad tracks were, but it was a steep, downhill wagon or horse trail, which we hiked all the time.  We used to hike down from that house to the tracks and then turn North (or Northeast) towards Trussville and walk the tracks all the way to Highway 11.  About halfway, Eastside Swim Club was built in the late 1950s, and we were members.  The railroad tracks ran just above the old swim club.  At that point, there was a walking trail on the far side of the tracks that led up to a fire tower.  We hiked and camped there almost every weekend during the summers from about 1960 to 1967.  I assume that the railroad roadbed is still there.

Oporto Boulevard [Road] — There was a very deep and large pond (I assume a settling pond) near the tracks very close to Oporto Boulevard.  It was cold and clear water but was too snakey to swim in.  There was an old dirt wagon road that led up and off from Oporto Boulevard near the railroad lines to Norris Yard, and the road went up to that pond and to the Ruffner Mines.  The road was blocked off when Oporto Boulevard was widened in the 1960s, but it is still there.

Explosion at Ruffner Mines — We lived in the South Roebuck area when the huge explosion took place at the mines when Southern Blasting contracted with the mining company to store dynamite and blasting caps in the shaft(s).  My father (Ernest W. Weir of Weir, Shannon, & Cornerly Law Firm) was the lead attorney for the class action group that sued the mining company and Southern Blasting and won a very large judgement/settlement.  Damage from the explosion was documented all the way to Huffman Baptist Church.

Clyde Dykes:  Pinson — Between Spring Street and Dr. Rudd’s office — My nephew was riding an 8 horsepower lawnmower to his grandmother’s house from Elm Street to Silver Lake Road located just behind Rock School.  His buddy was fishing at Spring Street, so he rode the lawnmower onto the BMRR railroad tracks to see if his buddy had caught any fish.  As soon as he got over the creek on the bridge, an approaching train blew its horn.  He had sense enough to jump off.  The train engineer got the train stopped behind Dr. Rudd’s office, not knowing if he had hit the boy.  He was glad to find out that he had not.  All that was left of the lawnmower was its engine.  My nephew was more afraid of telling his uncle than he had been scared by the train.

Jerome Lachaussee:  Tuscaloosa — Incident told by Jack Bowers (a dispatcher in Birmingham).  (NOTE:  By way of explanation, a “wye” as mentioned in this story is a triangular configuration of railroad tracks that enable perpendicular tracks to intersect as well as enables a train to turn around by entering one side of the triangle and going past the end of the triangle, then backing up along the second side of the triangle, then going forward along the third side of the triangle, thus ending up going in the opposite direction from whence the train came but on the same tracks that it used to enter the wye.  This story uses a wye to try to drop off some cars on the end of the train before completing the run through the wye.)  Jack Bowers:  “I was working as operator on the Birmingham Mineral in 1957-1958.  At Tuscaloosa one night, the local conductor, Felix Wilkes, slight of build but possessed of a deep gravelly voice, saw that his train, consisting of nine cars, was made up in reverse station order.  He decided to run the wye and instructed his brakeman, a new man on the job, to run the wye, but hold onto the through cars, as the stem of the wye held only about 6 cars.  The stem ended at the edge of a pretty high cliff; I’d say about a hundred-foot drop-off to a river bed and was unprotected by any type of bumping post.  Felix was standing in the office getting his paperwork together, listening on the radio as the switching began.  Directly, he suddenly realized that his brakeman had shoved his whole train around the wye.  Rushing outside, he cried, “That’ll do!  That’ll do!” on his portable radio.  But it was too late.  His next words were, “Damn!  There goes my caboose!”  Not to mention the two boxcars that landed on top of it.  When I reached the cliff, the crew members were all standing together looking down, like attendants at a funeral.