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Diamonds in the Rough

A History of Alabama's Cahaba Coal Field

James Sanders Day

Publication Year: 2013

Diamonds in the Rough reconstructs the historical moment that defined the Cahaba Coal Field, a mineral-rich area that stretches across sixty-seven miles and four counties of central Alabama.
Combining existing written sources with oral accounts and personal recollections, James Sanders Day’s Diamonds in the Rough describes the numerous coal operations in this region—later overshadowed by the rise of the Birmingham district and the larger Warrior Field to the north.
Many of the capitalists are the same: Truman H. Aldrich, Henry F. DeBardeleben, and James W. Sloss, among others; however, the plethora of small independent enterprises, properties of the coal itself, and technological considerations distinguish the Cahaba from other Alabama coal fields. Relatively short-lived, the Cahaba coal-mining operation spanned from discovery in the 1840s through development, boom, and finally bust in the mid-1950s.
Day considers the chronological discovery, mapping, mining, and marketing of the field’s coal as well as the issues of convict leasing, town development, welfare capitalism, and unionism, weaving it all into a rich tapestry. At the heart of the story are the diverse people who lived and worked in the district—whether operator or miner, management or labor, union or nonunion, white or black, immigrant or native—who left a legacy for posterity now captured in Diamonds in the Rough. Largely obscured today by pine trees and kudzu, the mining districts of the Cahaba Coal Field forever influenced the lives of countless individuals and families, and ultimately contributed to the whole fabric of the state of Alabama.

Published by: The University of Alabama Press


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pp. 1-1

Title Page, Copyright, Frontispiece, Dedication

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pp. i-vi


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pp. vii-viii

List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiv

...This project began as a dream approximately twenty-five years ago. Through historical study, I wanted to re-create the mining town of Piper, to put structures and faces on the rolling hills that I had walked as a child with my dad. Having met numerous “Piper People” at the annual Piper-Coleanor High School reunions, I longed to preserve their stories and to validate their memories. Earnest research...

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pp. 1-5

...Extending sixty-seven miles through St. Clair, Jefferson, Shelby, and Bibb Counties, the Cahaba field spawned numerous coal-mining operations during the late nineteenth century and the first half of the twentieth. Generally forgotten or ignored due to the growth of the Birmingham District and the more famous Warrior field to the north, the Cahaba field possesses a history that both coincides...

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1. Discovering and Marketing Coal: 1815–1859

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pp. 6-23

...The discovery of coal along Alabama’s Cahaba River is legendary. Named by Professor Michael Tuomey, the first state geologist, the Cahaba coal field includes the site of the first systematic extraction of coal in Alabama. However, initial discoveries may be traced back to 1815 when several veterans of the Battle of New Orleans...

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2. Mining and Mapping Coal: 1859–1883

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pp. 24-46

...Joseph Squire may be the least prominent of the personalities involved in the development of the Cahaba coal field, but his role was central. Born the son of an English naval officer on November 24, 1829, at Rochdale, Lancashire, he attended school in England until his father’s untimely death. Instead of pursuing a career as a naval officer as planned, he opted to work in a nearby coal pit. Squire stated...

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3. Surveying and Developing the Field: 1883–1910

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pp. 47-65

...steadily for eleven months. His work ceased in April 1884 due to Eugene Smith’s budgetary constraints. Surveys resumed the following year, but were suspended again due to lack of appropriations in August 1885. Squire devoted only six months to the survey during the following two years, but he maintained a regular correspondence with Smith. In fact, most of the letters exchanged between Squire and...

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4. Coal Towns: 1881–1919

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pp. 66-91

...One of the first bona fide coal towns of the Cahaba field developed at Blocton in north Bibb County in 1881. Established as the home of Truman Aldrich’s Cahaba Coal Mining Company (CCMC) in 1883, “Blockton” opened its first post office in March of the following year. By the fall of 1884, the CCMC had constructed one hundred houses and projected another one hundred dwellings for the near...

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5. Convict Leasing: 1872–1927

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pp. 92-108

...On Saturday, April 8, 1911, an explosion rocked the Banner Mine (located in Alabama’s Warrior field) of the Pratt Consolidated Coal Company killing 128 miners. Disasters of this type were not uncommon given the risks inherent in such underground work, but the victims’ demographics marked this tragedy as one of distinct significance. First, the miners were state and county convicts, leased to Pratt...

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6. Welfare Capitalism: 1915–1933

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pp. 109-131

...On the surface, paternalistic relationships within the towns of the Cahaba coal field appear mutually beneficial. For example, at Aldrich, William F. Aldrich retired in 1905 and sold his interest in the Montevallo Coal and Transportation Company to his brother, Truman. In spite of this change in ownership, William...

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7. Unionism: 1878–1935

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pp. 132-148

...During the widespread coal strike of 1920–1921, miners at Piper received eviction notices, and the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) erected a tent city about five miles to the east. The union provided some food, but the poor quality and meager quantities prompted family members to name the encampment “Esau” in reference to that biblical character’s anguish over his lost birthright. Denied...

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8. Decline and Demise: 1929–1976

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pp. 149-160

...Elizabeth Lowery married Edgar Frost, a trained barber, around 1927, and the couple moved to Dogwood in Shelby County. With a father who worked the mines at Aldrich, Lizzie felt no hesitation when Edgar began work as a miner at the Little Gem Coal Company. After two years in the mining camp, Edgar and Lizzie moved to her family’s land located about halfway between Montevallo and Calera. Edgar...


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pp. 161-194

Select Bibliography

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pp. 195-204


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pp. 205-211

E-ISBN-13: 9780817386740
E-ISBN-10: 0817386742
Print-ISBN-13: 9780817317942
Print-ISBN-10: 0817317945

Page Count: 223
Illustrations: 27
Publication Year: 2013

OCLC Number: 857645969
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Diamonds in the Rough

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Subject Headings

  • Coal mines and mining -- Alabama -- Cahaba River Region -- History -- 19th century.
  • Coal mines and mining -- Alabama -- Cahaba River Region -- History -- 20th century.
  • Coalfields -- Alabama -- Cahaba River Region -- History.
  • Company towns -- Alabama -- Cahaba River Region -- History.
  • Browne, William Phineas, 1804-1869.
  • Businessmen -- Alabama -- Cahaba River Region -- Biography.
  • Cahaba River Region (Ala.) -- History, Local.
  • Cahaba River Region (Ala.) -- Social conditions.
  • Cahaba River Region (Ala.) -- Economic conditions.
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