Last Days

This a re-print of an article written by Thomas Lawson, Jr., an Alabaman studying at the University of Tennessee—and a keen student of the iron horse, particularly Southern short-line and industrial steam--has worked summers as an engine man on two Dixie daisy-picker lines. The article is re-printed here just as it was published in the periodical "Steam Locomotive & Railroad Tradition" Number 17-18 February 1967.

The Last Days Of
The Alabama Central

Click for a bigger picture

On May 26, 1961, a 2-8-0 numbered 29 pulled into Jasper, Ala. , the county seat of Walker County , and 55 years of service on the Alabama Central Railroad came to an end. Coal, the only reason for the railroad's existence, was no longer king in Walker County .

Coal, however, was not the reason for the Alabama Central ' s incorporation on May 19, 1906. Originally built to serve a lumber mill at Manchester , 6 miles north of Jasper, the road reached a maximum of 15 miles of track in 1921 after extensions had been opened to two mines. Click for a larger pictureEarly motive power included a Shay, and a 2-6-2 built new for the road in 1914. Locomotives of Manchester Saw Mills also ran occasionally on the Alabama Central, but such power disappeared as logging declined, and the 2-6-2, No. 2, was sold in the late 1920's. Two 4-6-0' s, Nos. 34 and 36, handled all work during the Depression.

Click for a larger pictureWith the advent of heavier coal cars came a need for bigger power. No. 810, an old slide-valve Dickson 2-8-0 from the Frisco, was purchased about 1942 and served adequately until 1950, when, to avoid costly repairs, the Central acquired another Frisco locomotive, 4-6-0 No. 698.

Coal traffic had declined somewhat but was still good when two heavier steamers became available early in 1955. A slump in coal business had already hit Tennessee ' s Oneida & Western Railway, and that road quit in September, 1954, leaving two 2-8-0's of about 100 tons, Nos. 28 and 29, looking for a new home. C. A. Lee, Jr., president of the Alabama Central, lost no time in buying them, since the 698 was due for tubes.

These were the Central's last two engines, and they had impressive histories. No. 28 was Pittsburgh & Lake Erie No. 9329 before going to the Oneida & Western. She handled the dismantling train on the Tennessee road and was last used on the Central in 1957 before the time expired on tubes rolled in by the O&W in May, 1953. No. 28 sat stripped and rusting at the Marigold mine tipple from 1958 until she was cut up in January, 1962.

No. 29 was a real boomer. Alco's Richmond Works built the 2-8-0 in 1923 for another Alabama short line, the Birmingham Southern Railroad. As Birmingham Southern No. 35, she was bumped by diesels in 1937. By way of Birmingham Rail & Locomotive Company, the engine then went to the Chattahoochee Valley Railway, an eastern Alabama short line with shops and offices at West Point , Ga. , as their No. 35. Diesel power took over on the Chattahoochee Valley in 1947 and the 35 moved on to the Oneida & Western as their No. 29, until abandonment sent her back to Alabama and the Alabama Central. After the Central itself quit, Jasper's Jaycees bought No. 29, intending to display the engine.

Under local ownership, and with tonnage up substantially from that of the Depression years, the Central ended a long period of deficit operation and made some money during the Forties and Fifties. From 1958 to 1960, however, the annual traffic slipped from 131,804 to 93,703 tons and the company again went into the red. A trickle of material hauled for a dam being constructed nearby was not enough to offset the loss of coal traffic. On Apr. 17, 1960, with a return to profitable operation apparently not likely, President Lee applied to the I.C.C. for permission to abandon the entire 9.96-mile line. Besides the loss of traffic, the 75-pound rail leased from the Illinois Central was overdue for replacement and No. 29 was due for tubes that November. In fact, a Federal inspector had red-tagged her once in 1959 for defective running gear, but pilot wheels and rods from the Illinois Central at Memphis had put her back in order. Permission to abandon was received August 31, 1960, after the road had unsuccessfully tried to buy a serviceable 2-8-0 from a steel mill in Birmingham . Then Mr. Lee asked for and received a six-month extension on the 29's tubes. This gave the road life until the following May.

The train ran three days a week, and the crew—Lawrence Maxwell, engineer; Joe Estes, fireman; Basil O' Rear, conductor; and J. C. Gilmore, brakeman—customarily reported for work at 5:00 A.M. By 6:45 the engine was hot, switching at Jasper with the connecting Illinois Central, Frisco, andClick for original picture Southern was complete, and the train—running caboose-first with the engine backing--was on its way to the other end of the line, the Marigold Coal Mining Company tipple at Marigold. If all went well, the train arrived at Marigold by 8:15 A.M. The caboose and empties were set out on a spur, the engine was cut off and spotted to take coal, and the crew settled down for the six-hour wait until the start of the return trip.

The tipple quit loading at 3:00, and by 3:30 the train was made up and heading for home—crossing several country roads and the front lawn of a high school on the way. Its slow journey over the lightly graded line was through a gently rolling countryside scattered with second-growth pine and deciduous trees. The only stop was at Manchester to take water and, by local legend, to see if the high wooden trestle a few feet on down the line was still standing. State Highway 5 was crossed a mile north of Jasper. Then the train passed over several grade crossings in Jasper, turned down a tree-lined avenue, and finally tied up at the Alabama Central depot behind the Greyhound bus station around 5:00 P.M.

After the line quit in May, 1961, the 29 sat in the usual parking spot for several months. The only caboose the Central ever had—it came from the Southern—was given to the company ' s general manager, Miss Mabel Deavours, and trucked to her home to be displayed on its wheels.

The rails were sold to Southeastern Metal Company of Charleston, S. C., in October, 1961, and pulled up that month, but not before the Jaycees fired up No. 29 and ran her half-a-mile back up the track to await display. (Because the Alabama Central no longer existed as a common carrier, the 29 could be moved without a Federal inspection. Title to the engine later passed to Jasper ' s Kiwanis Club.The job of restoration has never been carried out, and recently there has been talk of scrapping No. 29 or turning her over to other parties for removal and preservation elsewhere.) *

In December, Southeastern Metal was awarded the contract to scrap the remains of engine No. 28, which was sitting at Marigold sans pilot wheels on the only section of rails still owned by the railroad, and the half-dozen or so hopper cars that Marigold Coal Mining had bought from the Lackawanna several years previously for on-line use. The cars had been resting in mud since October, when the rails had been yanked from under them.

When the scrappers left, memories lingered. Someone recalled that the train crew had completed a total of 85 years of service, and that in 55 years the Alabama Central never had a fatal accident.

* Since this article was written in 1967, #29 was moved to the Alabama Mining Museum in Dora, Alabama, where it sits today (9-11-2018) as pictured above.