Geologist’s work contributed to Alabama’s economic recovery
by Jennifer Cohron
Sep 18, 2011 | 1752 views | 0 0 comments | 15 15 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Eugene Allen Smith sits at his desk at the University of Alabama in the late 1800s. Photo special to the Eagle
Eugene Allen Smith sits at his desk at the University of Alabama in the late 1800s. Photo special to the Eagle
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Geologist Joseph Holmes once urged Alabama legislators and university trustees to help his peer Eugene Allen Smith all that they could with his work.

“You may rest assured that with his present extensive knowledge and experience as a basis for every dollar you now invest, the state will reap an hundred fold in return,” Holmes said in 1910.

A century later, Alabamians are still paying tribute to the man who spent decades documenting the natural resources that numerous industries were built around during his lifetime.

Smith’s accomplishments, from helping found athletics programs at the University of Alabama to establishing the Alabama Museum of Natural History, are the subject of a new book — “Eugene Allen Smith’s Alabama: How a Geologist Shaped a State.”

Author Aileen Kilgore Henderson said she first learned about Smith when her father was working for the Works Progress Administration at UA during the Great Depression. He was assigned the task of typing Smith’s journals and brought home carbon copies of the materials he found particularly interesting.

“I was entranced with what Dr. Smith saw in Alabama after the Civil War, his humor and his use of language. I never forgot him,” Henderson said.

Smith was born in Autauga County in 1841. He graduated from UA and served in the Confederate Army before earning his doctorate in Germany.

Smith became professor of mineralogy and chemistry at UA in 1871.

His alma mater, like the rest of the state, had been devastated by the Civil War. Smith had witnessed the burning of the campus by federal forces during his service.

Henderson said that Smith was convinced the state had the potential to rise above its widespread poverty.

“Smith felt that to recover, we had to turn from an agriculture economy into an industrial economy based on our natural resources,” she said.

In 1873, Smith was appointed to the post of state geologist. He convinced the legislature to reactivate the position, which had been discontinued after the death of the first state geologist in 1857.

Smith continued teaching at UA and did field work in the summers.

He was responsible for all expenses. The funds the legislature had promised him never materialized. Smith would not receive even a meager salary from the state until 1906.

Henderson said that somehow Smith always found a way to get himself where he needed to go.

“In the first 10 years with a wagon and a mule, he visited every single county in Alabama searching out the natural resources that we could use in getting on our economic feet again,” Henderson said.

The Warrior River and coal fields of Walker County were two of the many subjects that Smith studied.

He reported his findings to the governor, the scientific community and northern industrialists who were interested in developing the state.

The maps he produced during his 54 years as state geologist would be considered standards for decades.

He also discovered plants that were not known to exist and collected specimens and artifacts for the natural history museum of his dreams that became a reality in 1910.

Randy Mecredy, current director of the Alabama Museum of Natural History, called Smith’s research some of the finest that has ever emerged from UA.

“He had writings that covered a wide variety of subjects, from the oldest rock and crystals to sands at the seashore. It’s monograph after monograph of everything from agriculture to gold mining,” Mecredy said.

Henderson said Smith could have used his research for personal gain. Instead, he earned a reputation as a man of integrity who devoted his life to others and died with more honor than money.

“As one person said, many people grew wealthy because of Dr. Smith, but he died not owning one square inch of the state he loved,” Henderson said.