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Recent History Center Acquisitions

Dixie Club Coffee Promotional Fan

Dixie Club Coffee Promotional Fan

Dr. Dennis Pappas donated this promotional fan for Dixie Club Coffee. The company has an interesting history. Founded in 1921 in Birmingham, the company changed hands several times but eventually went out of business due to competition from more popular brands in Birmingham such as Red Diamond and Royal Cup Coffee. The original founder of the company was Konstantinos "Gus" Jebeles. He was born in 1885 in Geraki, Greece at small town about 20 miles east of Sparta. Moving to America at the age of 8 with his father, he joined other family members in Birmingham. Jebeles is probably best known as the owner of the Birmingham Barons in the 1940s.

History Center building


Bring any items of historical interest to our new office at 310 18th Street North, Suite 401. Our phone number and e-mail has stayed the same: 205-202- 4146    Email:

building in Birmingham from the 1940s from the collection

A donor recently brought in 86 tax assessment photos of buildings and billboards in Birmingham from the 1940s. Notice the 19 cent gas price in the photo above. To see more go to www.birminghamhistorycenter.org.


Talley-Ho carriage

One of the largest items in the History Center's collection is this reproduction Talley-Ho carriage originally acquired by our first curator, Marvin Whiting. It is the forerunner of the open-top touring bus. Our Talley-Ho is a replica of the type used, somewhat coincidentally, as a touring carriage on the route between London and Birmingham England in the late 19th century. It has seating for 10.

For more information about this carriage go to our website blog at:



Iron Pigs, Steel Rails and TCI

—by: Tom Badham

Tennessee Coal, Iron & RR Company, Ensley Works, 1906 (Detroit Publishing Company).

Tennessee Coal, Iron & RR Company, Ensley Works, 1906 (Detroit Publishing Company).


he 19th Century was the era of the steam engine as the 20th was the century of the internal combustion engine. In America, the railroads opened up the country to settlement. Vast numbers of cities and towns were built and expanded along with their industries. Iron and steel girders began to be used to build bridges and skyscrapers. Almost anything made at that time had some sort of iron or steel in it.

The Birmingham District’s coal and iron resources fueled a good portion of the Industrial Revolution in the last half of the 19th Century. Alabama’s coal heated homes, powered boilers, industrial furnaces and fueled trains and ships. Each ton of iron production required two tons of ore, one and one-half tons of coke, and a half ton of limestone. In 1890, excluding yards and extra tracks, the total number of American railroad routes stretched for 163,597 miles. By 1916, the track mileage had increased to 254,037 miles.

As locomotives and trains grew heavier and faster, larger rail was needed. The first railroad rails were either completely made out of wood or were “strap rails” which were made out of wood with a strap of iron along the top. As rails grew larger; more iron was needed to produce them. Due to the ever increasing weight, iron rails could not handle the load or pounding of the engines. The use of steel was not common until after 1870. Ever heavier steel rails, which weren’t as brittle, were required.

In 1850 a locomotive weighing more than 25 tons (50,000 lbs) was considered large. A train load of 200 tons (400,000 lbs) would have been a load to pull. By the 1900’s, 2,500 to 3,000 tons were hauled over long distances. Rails grew in weight from 85 lbs to 110 lbs to the yard. Before the 1890’s rails were 30 feet long. Then rails of 60 feet weighing one ton began to be used.

Iron with low silicon content, called basic iron, was used to make steel. While Alabama iron ores were good for pig iron, they had too much silicon in them for basic iron. In 1891, Bessemer’s Little Belle furnace first produced basic iron from Alabama ores. After much experimentation, the Alice Furnace in Birmingham produced a large commercial-scale cast of basic iron. A 4,000 ton sample was shipped to the Andrew Carnegie mills in Pittsburgh for evaluation. A 21,000 ton follow-up order was soon received.

Steel could be more easily made if the basic iron was in its initial molten state. Tremendous transportation savings would accrue to any company making steel in Birmingham where huge supplies of ore and coal were located. The impetus for steel manufacture in Alabama culminated with the construction of the Birmingham Rolling Mills, which produced its first steel cast in July of 1897.


TCI and the L&N Railroad immediately invested $100,000 each to increase this mill’s capacity to 500 tons. However, little progress was made in upgrading the facilities. Growing frustrated, L&N’s Milton H. Smith and TCI’s Nat Baxter then invited Southern Railway’s president, Samuel Spenser, to join in their efforts to build a new steel plant. TCI, L&N and Southern each invested $250,000 to organize a new company, the Alabama Steel & Shipbuilding Company. Steel production began on November 20, 1899 from 10 huge open-hearth furnaces at Ensley.

The open-hearth furnaces had a total daily capacity of 1,000 tons. Except for Andrew Carnegie’s Homestead Works near Pittsburgh, it was the largest open-hearth plant in the nation. By the end of 1902, a rail mill was also in operation at Ensley and TCI began selling the nation’s first open-hearth steel rails at competitive prices with northern rail producers. By 1906, TCI’s Ensley plant produced over 400,000 tons of steel. In the spring of 1907, the Harriman Rail Lines ordered 150,000 tons of rails. The southern competition was not received well in Pittsburgh.

On September 5, 1907, with banker J. Pierpont Morgan’s behind-the-scenes manipulation, Andrew Carnegie’s United States Steel Corporation bought most of TCI’s stock with $35,317,632 worth of U.S. Steel’s bonds. The muzzling of Birmingham’s iron and steel industry began.

The "Pittsburgh Plus" scheme was immediately instituted. Birmingham steel was then priced the same as the price of steel at Pittsburgh plus the freight charge from Pittsburgh to the place of delivery. In 1909, this system was changed to the “Birmingham Differential.” The consumer of Alabama steel had to pay the price at Pittsburgh plus a differential of $3.00 a ton, plus freight from Birmingham. Straight Pittsburgh Plus was retained by the corporation in pricing Birmingham-made steel wire, making a differential of $1,830 per ton on this product.

Never again would Birmingham’s steel industry be allowed to challenge Andrew Carnegie’s monopoly.

Sources: Alabama Railroads, Wayne Cline; Origins Of The New South 1877-1913, C. Vann Woodward; The Birmingham District, An Industrial History and Guide, Marjorie L. White.


Pythian Temple, 310 18th Street, North, built in 1913

Pythian Temple, 310 18th Street, North, built in 1913.

Now and Then

—by: Jeremy Richter


s it turns out the temporary home for the Birmingham History Center business office is in a building with a history of its own.

The building now known as the Pythian Temple of Alabama was built in 1913 for the Alabama Penny Savings Bank, the first bank in Alabama to be owned by a black resident; additionally, the Alabama Penny Savings Bank, founded by William Reuben Pettiford, became the second largest black-owned bank in the United States.

The Penny Savings Bank, in operation from 1890 to 1915, was a staple of the black community in Birmingham. The bank provided mortgages and business loans for many residents of Smithfield and other Birmingham areas, who were unable to procure loans elsewhere.

The Pythian Temple building was designed by Wallace A. Rayfield, who was also the architect for the 16th Street and 22nd Avenue Baptist Churches. In addition to the indelible mark his architecture has left on Birmingham, Rayfield taught at Tuskegee Institute under Booker T. Washington, and designed buildings elsewhere in the South. The Windham Construction Co., also with black ownership, was contracted to erect the building; the Windham brothers, Thomas and Benjamin, had previously collaborated with Rayfield on the 16th Street Baptist Church.

In 1915, the Knights of Pythias purchased the building for $70,000, and it became a social hub in the city.

A.G. Gaston purchased the Pythian Temple and other neighboring buildings later in the 20th Century to house his various Booker T. Washington Corporation subsidiaries. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1980 and Mr. Gaston had his office here.

Many renovations later, the Pythian Temple is little more than an office building with an old foundation and a largely forgotten history. Very little is left that would indicate its past importance to a large segment of Birmingham’s population.

Sources: http://blog.jeremyrichterphotography.com/2011/ 10/pythian-temple-of-alabama.html#sthash.2yszfLhi.dpuf; The Architectural Legacy of Wallace A. Rayfield: Pioneer Black Architect of Birmingham, Alabama, Durough, Allen R., University of Alabama Press, 2010.


BMRR, Red Gum Turn Crossing, Orporto Road, Birmingham, ca 1900.

BMRR, Red Gum Turn Crossing, Orporto Road, Birmingham, ca 1900.

Historic Birmingham Mineral Railroad Signs Project

—by: James Lowery


efferson County Historical Association member James Lowery is installing signs throughout Jefferson County and beyond to places such as Oneonta, Altoona, Helena and West Blocton where the historic steam-train era L&N Birmingham Mineral Railroad (BMRR) once ran. The line provided industrial rail service, as well as passenger service on some of its branches.

The BMRR provided railroad service in six Alabama counties. The total length of the BMRR mainline tracks with all its 31 branches was 240 miles long, which is equal to the distance from Birmingham to Mobile. If you added its various sidings and spurs to the mines, quarries, coke ovens and iron furnaces, it would put its total length to over 300 miles.

The sign project, Lowery said, is progressing on schedule with 34 signs having been installed in the Birmingham area as of mid-summer 2015, and more signs are scheduled. The purpose of the project is to raise awareness among the general public, historians, teachers, students and tourists about the locations and extent of L&N’s Birmingham Mineral Railroad.

The primary purpose of the BMRR was to transport iron ore and coal from local mines, limestone from local quarries, and coke from local coke oven facilities to the blast furnaces; pig-iron from those furnaces to processing facilities and "products" from those facilities to other connecting railroads.

The passenger service provided by the BMRR opened up a new era for many people in outlying areas who could then come to Birmingham for jobs, shopping, and entertainment. For many of them, it turned a three day trip to get to Birmingham by wagon into a one-day round trip by rail.

Historic Birmingham Mineral Railroad Site Sign

The first rails were laid in 1884 in present-day Red Mountain Park and continued with additional branches being added and used until they were abandoned at various times. A portion of one branch continued to be used (by diesel trains) to handle light industrial materials until 1984, and one branch continued to be used to handle the movement of train cars until 1988. Even today over 130 years after its inception, some segments of the BMRR roadbed are still in use as portions of active railroad lines in the Jefferson County area.

The project has allowed interested persons to take self-guided “Driving and Walking Tours” to drive to, and see, the old roadbed or, in some cases, to walk on it. The driving and walking tours are available on the project’s website at

Because the roadbed no longer is contiguous, it cannot be walked or bicycled as one complete trail.

The sign project, as of mid-summer 2015, has identified 15 historic cut-stone culverts built as part of the BMRR and dating from 1888/1889/1901. Some have been previously documented but many of them were unknown. These culverts still carry water through them, and photographs of the culverts can be seen on the project’s Bham-MRR.com website.

One of 15 historic cut stone culverts still in existence along the Birmingham Mineral RR line, some dating to the 1880s.

One of 15 historic cut stone culverts still in existence along the Birmingham Mineral RR line, some dating to the 1880s.

The slogan for the project is "The BMRR Past and Present".

Tax-deductible BMRR signs contributions in any amount are accepted and a person or organization may "sponsor" a sign at the $100 or above.

Donations for this project may be made payable to “R&LHS” through the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society Friends Campaign designated for “BMRR Signs Project” and sent to:

John Atherton,
16 Coachlight Drive,
Poughkeepsie, NY 12603-4241.

There is a form for this purpose on the website which can be printed for this use.




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