Coal City History

When mining helped turn a
crossroads into a thriving community

Story by Jerry Smith
Photos by Jerry Martin
Submitted photos

In 1910, Coal City was home to some 1,200 souls, far outstripping Ragland’s 600 and Pell City’s 400 combined. In fact, Coal City was once considered for a second county seat, but Pell City was somehow chosen instead. It was a coal mining boom town of impressive proportions, although you’d never recognize it as such today.

The first white settler to put down roots there was John Bolton, who arrived with his family in 1820. According to a Southern Observer story by Mattie Lou Teague Crow, Bolton had followed an Indian trail which ran from the Creek village of Cataula (now Ashville) to Cropwell.

They found their “four forties” of homestead land at the intersection of another Indian trail running from the Coosa River to today’s Friendship community. Bolton built a log cabin approximately where Old Coal City Road crosses Alabama Highway 144, and the area became known as Bolton’s Crossroad.

According to legend, a mixed band of settlers and friendly Indians were hunting on Bolton’s land. One of the Indians shot a deer, which fell into a creek. His arrow had broken when it entered the deer. As they ran to retrieve the kill, the Indian shouted “Thle Teka”, which is Muscogee for broken arrow.

Thus was the creek named, and the new settlement. Broken Arrow Post Office was established in 1839 in the home of its first postmaster, Francis Barnes Walker, who held that post until the Civil War. More settlers began moving into the area, building homes, schools, churches and other frontier accoutrements.

An abundant seam of coal was discovered by William Gould of Newcastle, England, who had heard of major coal deposits in the area. Gould and other pioneers dug wagonloads of coal from surface outcroppings and transported it on flatboats via the Coosa River to Selma and Wetumpka.

Gould formed Ragland Mines Company in 1854, and owned other coal lands in Shelby County. Somewhere around the 1850s, Broken Arrow became known as Coal City — a dependable source of quality coal of many types. During the Civil War, shipments of coal escalated in support of the war effort.

Harkey’s Chapel Methodist Church was organized in 1829. Its ministry survives today as one of the oldest in St Clair County. Mrs. Crow relates a legend about Harkey’s cemetery: the first burial was not a local resident, but rather a child from a tribe of gypsies who were camped nearby.

Other churches followed: Refuge Baptist in 1860, Broken Arrow Baptist in 1890, Pope’s Chapel Congregational Methodist in 1904, Shiloh Baptist (African American) in 1913, Mount Moriah Baptist in 1925, Wattsville Church of God in 1945, and Wattsville Freewill Baptist in 1947. In earlier days, some of these churches shared circuit rider preachers on alternate Sundays. Their churchyards host some of the oldest marked burials in the county, pioneer families such as Alverson, Barber, Carr, Rowe, Bibby, Milam, Savage, Crump, Weathers, Walker, Manning, Layton, Pope, Edge and Byers.

An old Birmingham Ledger article cites the Alverson & Moore firm as the oldest commercial business in Broken Arrow. They dealt not only in mercantile goods, but also operated a few mines, eventually constructing a two-story building to handle their operations.

The settlement had a succession of names, including Bolton’s Crossroads, Slope, Broken Arrow, Coal City, Wattsville, Old Town and New Town. Pell City native Sharon Gant says you can always tell a stranger because they pronounce Broken Arrow exactly as written, with four distinct syllables, whereas tenured locals always call it Broke-nar (two syllables).

According to Mrs. Crow, not long after the Civil War, George Washington Daughdrille brought his family from Demopolis to settle there. Daughdrille was educated at Howard College (now Samford University) while it was still in Marion, Ala. He had served in the Confederate Congress and, near the end of the war, joined the CSA army and fought under J.E.B. Stuart.

Once a wealthy man, he had lost most of his fortune in that war, like many other Southerners. The small wherewithal he had left was invested in coal interests at Broken Arrow. Though cash-poor, the Daughdrilles still owned a few trappings of wealth, among them some fancy French furniture, a rosewood piano, a harp and a small library.

Mrs. Crow relates that Mrs. Daughdrille was quite a musician, often entertaining their rustic neighbors in their log cabin with the music of Bach and Beethoven, and loaned books to those who could read.

The Daughdrilles also donated land for the Broken Arrow cemetery. The first burial was their infant grandson, “Little Jim” Daughdrille, whose repose was eventually joined by other family members and local pioneers. This cemetery, across from Broken Arrow Baptist Church, is a story unto itself.

It’s sited on rolling knolls with scant level space. Sisters Sharon Gant and Adonis Milam Fisher tell us that the ground there is so hard and rocky it was often necessary to use explosives borrowed from the mines at Ragland when digging graves. And then there’s the matter of the Broken Arrow ghost. (See sidebar story)

Daughdrille sold his mining interests in 1883 to John Postell, a business promoter. Postell changed the official town name from Broken Arrow to Coal City. He also built a narrow-gauge track called the East & West Railroad from Coal City to Cedartown, Ga., for shipping coal to various other rail connections.

Seaboard Air Line Railroad eventually bought this line as part of a new system that ran from Birmingham to Atlanta and all points beyond.

Seaboard converted the East & West Railroad to standard gauge and added a 7-mile section to connect with Central of Georgia in Pell City. Its roadbed comprised present-day Pell City’s oddly-angled Comer Avenue and Old Coal City Road, connecting with Seaboard’s main line near Wattsville Freewill Baptist Church. Coal City residents Clarence Alverson and Gilbert Pope recall hopping free rides to Pell City on the “Hoodlum”, as the train that ran this route was called.

This new rail link shifted the town’s geographical center northward a mile or two as the whole area began to build and prosper. Coal City officially incorporated in 1910.

There were four major coal seams: Dirty Dozen, Coal City, Broken Arrow and Marion. In fact, there was so much coal that residents picked it up off the ground or pried it from outcrops to heat their homes. In total, the coal basin runs about 32 miles long and two miles wide, ample reserves upon which to build a thriving local industry.

Mrs. Crow reports that some 600 to 700 miners worked at Coal City, often on overtime. Two new iron ore mines near Kiker’s Camp on the Coosa River employed more than 100 additional miners and brought even more settlers.

The quality and variety of Wattsville coal became widely known. Coal from the Bibby mines was especially good for use in blacksmith forges. Soon there were several mining interests in the area, including at least one Japanese company. Imagine the conflict of interests this caused as World War II became imminent. But all this mineral prosperity brought a few problems. A huge array of coke ovens was built near Shiloh Baptist Church, in an area Paul Manning calls Dog Fennel Ridge, where his father was born. These ovens roasted native coal to produce high quality coke, destined to stoke blast furnaces in Birmingham and elsewhere. Mrs. Crow describes the ovens thusly, “… they were in constant operation, belching forth evil-smelling, lung-choking black smoke.”

Another cottage industry flourished as well, evidenced by the name of a local waterway, No Business Creek. Locals all agree that its name has always meant “if you ain’t got no business there, don’t go.” Apparently, it supplied water for some questionable private enterprises. We can probably assume that a nearby place name, Home Brew Knob, had similar origins.

A major player in Coal City’s future was an ambitious politician/investor named T. Watt Brown, who already owned extensive land holdings in St Clair County. He re-organized the Ragland Coal Company in 1896, and eventually spread his mineral empire to Coal City and beyond. It’s been said you could walk from Ragland to Odenville on Brown’s land.

On Jan. 16, 1929, Watt managed to get the Coal City Post Office changed to Wattsville Post Office. Soon afterward, according to a story in Southern Aegis, 1929, Seaboard Railroad changed the name of their station, and a State Geologist re-designated the coalfield as Wattsville Coal Basin. In one fell swoop, T. Watt Brown had managed to get everything in sight named after him.

This did not sit well with many residents. It was felt that Brown had used undue political influence in forcing the PO name change but, if so, Brown seemed to have covered his tracks well. Petitions were signed, meetings were held, and serious threats were made, but the name persisted even unto today. Gadsden Times reported that some residents were so outraged they started receiving their mail via RFD from Pell City and Ragland rather than have it addressed to Wattsville.

Sharon Gant speaks of her mother, Elvie Milam, who would not utter the word Wattsville at all, citing a Bible verse that urges Christians to refrain from speaking of unpleasant, evil things. To Mrs. Milam, and apparently many others, Wattsville was a cuss-word.

Wattsville/Coal City became a true boom town, with a large warehouse, mine commissary, hotel which still stands today, several barber shops, livery stable, a casket factory, city hall, jail, some stores, pool halls, and several boarding houses, the most noted being Mrs. Louisa Alverson’s. Her prize roomer was none other than T. Watt Brown himself.

According to Mrs. Crow, the town’s social life consisted mainly of “… school concerts, church socials, dinners at the hotel and joy rides through the scenic hills to the river.” Men folks attended meetings at three fraternal lodges — Order of the Red Men, Odd Fellows and Woodmen of the World. A Masonic lodge opened later. All three original lodges shared Red Men Hall, which also housed a school and community meeting area. The Red Men, America’s oldest lodge, dated back to the Sons of Liberty in Boston. Their Broken Arrow chapter was active from 1889 to 1921.

The Wattsville/Coal City area built a succession of eight schools. The first was in the old Refuge Baptist Church building, followed by Old Town School near Broken Arrow Baptist Church, then Red Men’s School which met in the Red Men meeting hall. Next came Robinson School in Pope’s Chapel, then Rowe School at Mt. Moriah. The first Coal City School, built on a hilltop in 1919, taught all 12 grades. The last two students to graduate were Joe Black and Inell Savage, in 1929.

After that, Coal City School, also known as Rabbit Hop, served only elementary grades until it burned in 1951. Today’s official Coal City School is on US 231, near Paul Manning’s BBQ. Gilbert Pope relates that in the late 1920s an airplane was scheduled to fly over Coal City, and the school was let out to see it.

Pope also tells that electricity didn’t come to Coal City until the late 1930s, and the only fully-paved roads in the entire county were US 78 through Pell City and US 411 through Ashville. This was during the Great Depression, when Pope remembers working all day for a small bucket of syrup.

Whatever level of prosperity Wattsville had enjoyed in the earlier part of the century, the whole enterprise has gradually and mysteriously dwindled to nothing. Paul Manning, born in 1952, says it was essentially all over by the time he started school, except for a few strip mines owned by a Blount County firm. No one living today seems to know what actually caused the decline, whether from competition from DeBardelaben’s operations in western St. Clair, or conflicts of interest from Japanese-owned mines at the beginning of World War II, or just a mature community that had simply moved on to other interests.

There’s still a Wattsville Post Office and a water works, but one must now explore many side roads among Alabama’s lush foliage to find remnants of the now-unincorporated town’s former greatness — an abandoned city hall/jail, an old hotel that’s currently being renovated, several pioneers’ homes, cemeteries full of their families, and a few enigmatic road signs like Home Brew Knob, Memory Lane and No Business Creek.

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