By Jimmy W Langley, President-Hoover Historical Society
The Key that unlocked the gateway for the founding of Birmingham is hidden in the mountain rocks, trees, and bushes of Hoover Alabama. People in this area knew as early as the 1840s that Red Mountain had red iron ore and the surrounding areas had coal and limestone. These were the necessities for making iron. But the area remained mostly farms and forests until the Civil War. Why? The area had mountains, no major road network, no navigable rivers, and most of all, no railroad to transport the rich mineral assets to markets South and North.
The L & N railroad came down from the North to Decatur. Railroads from the South were coming up from Montgomery to the Cahaba coal fields. Loaded trains could only pull a hill with a 1% grade, so Shades Mountain stood in the way. In 1854, Alabama chartered the South and North Alabama Railroad intending to link the Gulf of Mexico to the Tennessee River through the center of Alabama. In 1858, Gov. Moore selected John Turner Milner to survey and determine routes that would allow access to the vast mineral resources of the state. Milner chose a route that went through a natural gap in Shades Mountain and hugged the topography and paralleled the Montevallo Road, the only north/south road crossing this portion of the then largely undeveloped wilderness.
On June 1, 1858, Carolinian Pinckney L. Brock purchased land on Shades Mountain. In 1860, the Alabama legislature officially adopted John Milner’s recommendations for the best route for a railroad. Milner finally had funds to begin work on the railroad. The S & N bought land along the chosen route including 300 acres from Pinckney Brock at the gap. (Brock moved to Winston County because he opposed secession). Milner began advertising for hundreds of black slaves to work laying the ties and tracks and had built the South and North Railroad from Calera to just south of Brock’s Gap by 1863.
In 1863, the Red Mountain Iron & Coal Company acquired the land to build the railroad (Including Brock’s Gap) into Shades Valley and access both the future Oxmoor Furnace land and the future city of Birmingham. (Point of interest: The community of Oxmoor started as Ox Moor, named for the Carolina plantation and the Irish homestead of a company lawyer). Although the Company had acquired the land at Brock’s Gap, there were no explosives available to blow through the gap. Their only option were hand tools, but little progress was made trying to chisel through the hard sandstone rock. The railhead remained stuck on the south side of the mountain.
After the close of the war, efforts to build the Railroad resumed. Money became tight, so Milner’s new plan was to construct as cheaply as possible avoiding expensive tunneling and bridgework. The final obstacle was breached when Col. Jackson, using State of Alabama convicts, used nitroglycerin to blast a 75-foot-deep channel through the hard sandstone rock of Shades Mountain at Brock’s Gap.
Thanks to Hoover’s Brocks Gap, the first train to run over the tracks of the South & North Alabama Railroad into Shades Valley and across the Ross Creek Culvert did so in November 1871. It arrived in the cornfields that filled the future city of Birmingham on November 11, 1871. The city was chartered a month later December 19, 1871. Birmingham, the first industrial city in Alabama, developed around the intersection of the North & South Railroad with the Alabama & Chattanooga Railroad and was an important transportation center.
The North & South Railroad became part of the L & N Railroad system. When the L & N built the tunnel now in use under South Shades Crest Road, the old route became obsolete. This old railroad bed can still be seen on the opposite side of the road. The ground around the cut is littered with large blocks of stone cut from the mountain.