Diamonds in the Rough: A History of Alabama’s Cahaba Coal Field by James Sanders Day (review)
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Diamonds in the Rough: A History of Alabama’s Cahaba Coal Field. By James Sanders Day. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2013. 222 pp. $49.95. ISBN 978-0-8173-1794-2.

Jim Day of the University of Montevallo tells the story of the Cahaba coal field of West Alabama from its discovery in 1815 through the demise of its mines in the mid-1970s. He identifies two significant historical stages that require separate treatment: the discovery and development of the field itself, and the creation of coal mining towns. Dwarfed in size and importance by the Warrior field and laying outside the Birmingham District, the Cahaba field and its history deserve serious examination because, as Day notes, “the coal mines . . . made a lasting impression on the families who developed and worked them” over that 160 years (159).

Inspired by his desire to reconstruct the lives and surroundings of the people of the Cahaba fields, particularly those of the now-gone town of Piper, Alabama, Day produces a well-researched narrative that makes a solid contribution to the literature on the Alabama coal industry. His book is the recipient of the Alabama Historical [End Page 296] Association’s 2014 Clinton Jackson Coley Award for the best work on Alabama local history.

In addition to narrating their stories, Day places the Cahaba field and its people in the mainstream of the mining industry in Alabama and the nation by engaging the historical literature of industrialization, coal mining, welfare capitalism and mill towns, convict leasing, unionism, and mechanization. Day does not fear countering the authorities he engages when his evidence warrants, and he does a commendable job conversing with those other experts. He begins as early as page 2, when he takes issue with economic historian Gavin Wright’s assertion that “southern manufacturing stagnated in the 1850s” by arguing that coal mining in the Cahaba field was robust, limited only by logistics and transportation. In a later example, Day discusses the role of churches in mill towns by introducing Crandell Shifflett’s and Liston Pope’s idea that churches “represented a ‘powerful instrument of social control’” (123), then arguing convincingly that in the Cahaba field congregations of miners’ families formed their own churches relatively free from employer domination.

Like most historians who make the initial foray into a topic, Day is constrained by his primary sources, most of which come from correspondence and accounts concerning the employers. His first chapter, “Discovering and Marketing Coal, 1815–1859,” relies heavily on the reports of state geologist Michael Tuomey, the history of the Cahaba field written by mining executive Truman Aldrich, and the correspondence between early entrepreneur William Phineas Browne and his coal salesman George O. Baker about their struggles to open and supply the West Alabama market. The next two chapters concern the importance of Joseph Squires to mapping the field and its exploitation by entrepreneurs like Truman Aldrich and Henry DeBardeleben. They are, of necessity “top-down” history, focused on the exploits of individual “shakers and movers” without much regard to the voices and agency of those around them. But, this is the first critical historical account of this area, and it opens the door for other historians to more thoroughly analyze sub-topics Day uncovers. [End Page 297]

Day has more sources to compare his findings when he examines mill town development. He devotes a chapter to mine and town operations–how miners dug the coal, how geography played into mining and selling the product, how towns related to mines – then discusses convict leasing. Here Day veers away from his focus on the Cahaba field into a general discussion of leasing that centered in the Birmingham District but was present in Cahaba. In 1910, for example, Day reports that three large operators (TCI, Sloss-Sheffield, and DeBardeleben) controlled 1100 convict workers. This system spread in the district until abolished in 1927. This chapter is a good primer on convict leasing in Alabama, as well as an example of how an adept historian can examine large issues through small, local manifestations.

He is even better when discussing welfare capitalism and unionization in two chapters spanning the years 1878...