Walker County's Iron Horse
by Jennifer Cohron
Dec 05, 2010 | 2288 views | 0 0 comments | 21 21 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The Alabama Central Railroad was incorporated in 1906 and changed ownership several times during its five decades of existence. (Photo Special to the Eagle)
The Alabama Central Railroad was incorporated in 1906 and changed ownership several times during its five decades of existence. (Photo Special to the Eagle)
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Volunteers at Missions Unlimited in Jasper have been curious for several years about a dusty file box sitting in the rafters.

They took it down recently while cleaning and found paperwork from the Alabama Central Railroad, which operated in Walker County for 55 years.

Although many of the documents were deteriorating, some were as pristine as the day they were printed. They included tax records from the 1920s, pay stubs and receipts from various businesses.

Missions Unlimited director Kenneth Key gave employee Charles Harper permission to do what he wanted with the contents of the box.

Harper, who was born a decade after the railroad closed, returned some of the records to the individuals and business owners involved. He kept the rest to preserve for future generations.

"It's of historical value to the county," Harper said.

The Alabama Central Railroad was incorporated in 1906, according to a history provided online by the Chamber of Commerce of Walker County.

It began as an investment of Enos M. Barton, co-founder of Western Electric Company. A charter was granted for a line from Tuscaloosa to Decatur. However, the original rails ran only 6.7 miles from Jasper to a lumber mill at Manchester.

By 1921, the line had been extended 8.7 miles to serve strip mines at Sunlight and Marigold.

In addition to lumber and coal, the Alabama Central also hauled passengers. At one time, the local train made two round trips a day and carried more than 3,000 people annually, according to the online history. The schedule was reduced to one trip during World War I, and only 16 riders were using the Alabama Central by 1925.

Ownership of the railroad changed several times during its five decades of existence. It frequently lost money, ran on only 15 miles of track and never had more than two locomotives.

However, it transported over four million tons of coal in its time, according to the Chamber's history.

It also captured the imagination of boys like Lanny Capps, who once ran away from home to watch trains stop at a watering hole near present-day Tubbs Salvage.

Capps said one unique feature of the Alabama Central was that it could not turn around. The caboose led the way and the engine backed from downtown Jasper to the Marigold tipple, according to an article from 1967 reprinted in the Chamber's online history.

"It moved so slow that the man on the caboose could jump off and run ahead of it to flag traffic. In later years, they dropped the caboose but hung off the back of the coal car," Capps said.

Capps said his brother used to hop the train in Jasper with a group of other teenage boys. They jumped off at Farmstead School and walked to a popular swimming hole nearby called Rock Crusher, a former strip mine.

When the boys were ready to come home, they went back to the school and hopped the train again as it brought back its loads of coal in the afternoon.

Older men were equally fascinated by the Alabama Central. Capps said his grandfather used to drive from Birmingham once a month to watch the No. 29 leave the station on 19th Street long after the heyday of steam engines was over.

An era ended in Walker County when C.A. Lee Jr., president of the Alabama Central, applied to the Interstate Commerce Commission for abandonment of the unprofitable line in April 1960.

Engine 29 pulled into Jasper for the last time on May 26, 1961. Its sister engine, No. 28, was scrapped that December. The No. 29 now rests at the Alabama Mining Museum in Dora.

"It's a relic," Capps said.

Capps is helping the Chamber compile information for its website, www.alabamacentralrailroad.com. Anyone with additional history, photographs or other memorabilia to contribute may contact the Chamber of Commerce of Walker County at 384-4571.