The Cane Creek rail line was an 28+-mile branch of the old Louisville & Nashville Railroad that forked off the main line just north of Birmingham and ran west to the Warrior River through the rugged coal hills of Jefferson County. On the way, it served nearly 30 separate coal mines owned by the Pratt Coal and Coke Co., opened through violent extraction of rock. To keep the rails on the same grade as the coal seam, nearly all its length lay through dynamited rock cuts across 30 separate train trestles.
Fifteen of those trestles were more than 75 feet in the air. But one of them–the #10–was 672 feet long, gently curved and, at the time, the highest wooden train trestle in the United States, at 116 feet.
Many of those facts are already familiar to long-time residents in North Jefferson County. But many have only recently been uncovered, including the identity of trestle builder Joshua L. Mitchell, whose picture with his large and growing family accompanied a 1904 Atlanta Constitution article about the Alabama trestle. Joseph Mitchell, 87, a professor emeritus of Troy University, is the trestle builder’s grandson. He found the article in 2008 after a 20-year search of his family heritage. At the same time, J.L.’s great-grandson Robert Lindberg, 64, a Boston-area dentist, was on the same trail of his family’s history. The two had never met–the Mitchell branches long parted by J.L.’s death at age 40 and other family circumstances.
Their reunion in July and continuing work on the trestle’s history will be presented in a Jefferson County Historical Association newsletter later this year. “My first goal is to get J. L Mitchell now and forever proper credit as the trestle builder of this historic landmark and person of note in the building of the coal industry in Alabama Birmingham area,” Bob Lindberg said.
According to his genealogy research, Joshua Mitchell was born in 1866 and grew up in Loganville, Ga. He married his first cousin, Nettie Long, and the couple had seven children with an eighth on the way when the Atlanta Constitution picture was taken in 1904. Beside constructing trestles, Mitchell was a contractor working on convict labor housing at Palos and later the nearby Bessie Mines, opened by the Sloss-Sheffield Iron and Steel Co. The year 1906 was a tragic one for the family. Mitchell’s youngest son fell through the ties of a different Cane branch train trestle, dying in his father’s arms, Bob Lindberg said. Later that same year, at age 40, Mitchell himself died under circumstances prompting an inquest, and which will be detailed in a fully footnoted paper in JCHA’s newsletter.
As with any disappearing national treasure, recognition often comes too late. Such was the fate of the #10 and its task to carry coal out of the wilds of north Jefferson County. The structure survived without fanfare the boom years of mining, the rise and eventual abolition of the convict-lease labor system, and decline of domestic coal mining. Meanwhile, the L&N was absorbed through various mergers by CSX, which decommissioned the line in 1997 and pulled up the rails.
By 2002, the structure was interesting only as a potential barrier to another engineering marvel, the planned Northern Beltline. It lay out in the sticks, literally, and had been overlooked years earlier during an exhaustive study of Birmingham’s historic industrial sites by the U.S. Park Service. Two Birmingham News stories that year prompted a visit by Park Service’s Historical American Engineering Record to correct the oversight. Those photos are publicly available from the Library of Congress archives http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/hh/item/al1317/.
Then in 2003, Jefferson County and CSX agreed to “rail-bank” the 16.5-mile corridor for a future walking trail. Managed by the local Freshwater Land Trust, and with $1 million in public funds still earmarked toward its purchase, a sale is still being negotiated with CSX more than a decade later.
A tragedy would follow a century later with the absolute destruction of the #10 trestle in a May 23, 2006, fire blamed on kids with fireworks. No state fire marshal investigation was conducted, and Lindberg admits his second goal—finding out about the fire’s cause–may never be answered.
“Did they catch and identify the boys?” he asks. “Did they admit to setting fire that Tuesday? Eight years later, do they regret what they had done? I could care less about any punishing of anyone. I just would like to know the whole story.”
Plans still chugging along
Lindberg’s and Mitchell’s research has helped correct several factual errors in the record (the trestle was completed in 1904, not 1914 as newspaper and CSX records showed). Also, the Library of Congress mis-dated the 2002 photographs and listed them the keyword “King” instead of “Cane” or “Cain” branch of the L&N Railroad. These are being corrected.
Finally, he feels satisfied that the old L&N line may still be used for hikers to travel and learn about the rough-and-tumble history of North Jefferson County. The Freshwater Land Trust has been quietly negotiating the purchase of the property, which has been rail-banked — or reserved– under the city of Fultondale, the proposed trailhead.
Lindberg is hopeful about the plan.
“I would like to see that the Fresh Water Land Trust recognizes what was lost and makes every effort to hold onto the ROW and even rebuild a ‘trestle’ structure of some kind,” he said. “Retelling of the story of the building of the trestle hopefully will help people of Birmingham and Jefferson County better appreciate what they had and what was lost and what should be remembered, on a personal level.”
Author’s note — I took some interest in this story after Robert Lindberg contacted the Birmingham History Center about it in August. I was the author of two of the Birmingham News articles listed above. Mr. Mitchell’s research also turned up a 1951 News story about the trestle. The last one published chronicled the devastating 2006 fire –Liz Ellaby