The Brock’s Gap Railroad Bed from South Shades Crest to Chestnut Ridge (1 mile) in West Hoover


Brock’s Gap site visit,  March 30, 2021


by Birgit Kibelka, BHSTrustee


On our second visit to Brock’s Gap we were a group of mostly Hoover residents with different backgrounds: Jim Langley and Deborah Burtnet along with Edna McWilliams and Gene Fuller, of the Hoover Historical Society; Brian Hale, Community Relations Officer with the Hoover PD; Carolyn Buck, Trail System Director with the Freshwater Land Trust, our friendly chaperone Thomas Abbey of the Brock’s Gap Training Center and myself (BHS).

We met at the entrance gate to the Brock’s Gap Training Center at South Shades Crest Road where Jim gave an overview of the history of Brock’s Gap followed by Birgit’s introduction of the map and of the walk ahead. As we walked we took a look at the 1907 Atlanta, Birmingham and Atlantic Railroad cut before stepping into the woods for a peek at the epic original 1871 railroad cut that led to the founding of the city of Birmingham. The large heaps of rock that line the rim of the cut impressively illustrate the magnitude of the work with the limited tools available at the time.

At the point where the cut and the current driveway meet we stopped to take in the ascent of the railbed from the south into the crest of Shades Mountain. We continued on into the wide views of the woods atop the tall fill that takes the historic railbed through the valley toward the steep towering slope of Pine Mountain. The newer, taller 1907 railroad track stays within view to the right  as a constant reminder of the progress that followed the initial struggle to access the mountainous mineral regions of Alabama.

The railbed then led us through the two cuts in Pine Mountain that time and again are awe inspiring. The rock layers rise at an angle and show drill marks in some spots. A drill bit that got lodged and broke off 150 years ago can be seen and invites to share Jim Hahn’s story of the wrought iron rings attached to the rock, used to tie up convict laborers during construction of the railroad. As we reached the stark slope in the driveway we talked about the 924′ long dry trestle that used to span the valley between Pine Mountain and Chestnut Ridge atop the 30′ tall embankment.

At this spot the difficulty of getting the railroad up the mountain was finally evident to everyone. We had seen and walked deep cuts, and tall fills and were now faced with a third method of building the railbed at the needed 1.25% grade. Walking down the slope to the long lower fill we took in the full extent of the former trestle. Once we reached the lower fill, the view into the valley and onto the shooting range was wide open.

Established in 1962, the Brock’s Gap training center is the reason why the historic railbed was preserved during the development of the surrounding areas into residential neighborhoods. As the training center prepares to move on, this view into the valley also represents the wide view into the future of west Hoover with its planned parkway and development corridor.

While we headed toward Chestnut Ridge the other active CSX line drew close on the left. Historic railbed and active railroad run parallel as they cut through Chestnut Ridge. We emerged from this last cut and found ourselves at the western end of Stadium Trace Parkway, high up on the southern slope of Chestnut Ridge. Toward the south the terrain drops toward the Cahaba River. To the left lies the new Black Creek Mountain Bike Park that would make a great anchor for a Brock’s Gap Greenway. A closer look from the opposite side of the street revealed that the original railbed continues south until it meets the active rail line. Could a greenway extend in this direction to reach the planned Cahaba Park?

What Might Have Been – Vulcan’s Underground Wonderland

Monorails, subterranean boat tours, historic cycloramas and murals under Vulcan Park and The Club never materialized, but were suggested when The Club first opened in 1951. Inspired by the fantasy of California’s recently opened Disneyland, The Club management and the Chamber of Commerce did a series of promotional watercolors now in the collection of Birmingham Historical Society.

Read more about the history of “The Cut” in Birmingham Historical Society’s latest newsletter HERE. Want more? Join us!

TIME TO RENEW MEMBERSHIP

Several changes were approved at the last board meeting including a slight increase in membership fees. Your generous membership fees and gifts pay for research, publications, society events, annual book signings, tours, newsletters, and educational events. We encourage you to renew your membership or join us now! For more information, please click HERE. Note that our membership year runs concurrently with the calendar year, January 1st to December 31st and membership renewals are now due. Thank you for your support!

Lyric Theater once again threatened by a pandemic

The Lyric Theater is one of Birmingham’s Historic Landmarks and is also one of the few remaining theaters that was specifically designed for vaudeville shows. By 1918, four years after it opened, it had an active and popular schedule of events attracting stars including Mae West and The Marx Brothers, and was lauded by Milton Berle to be “as fine a theatre as any in New York.”

But in October 1918, according to booking records carefully preserved since its opening in 1914, it went dark for three weeks. (see below) It’s presumed that the Spanish Flu ravaged the city and forced cancellation of all events. Perhaps because of the very lethal nature of that epidemic, it burned out quickly, and the theater was able to reopen.

However, once again, the theater’s future is threatened by a global pandemic and this time the closing has been much longer than before. The Lyric and Alabama theaters have once again been forced to cancel events, eliminating the income upon which they depend.

According to their website:

WITHOUT YOUR HELP, WE’RE HISTORY

“The Alabama and Lyric Theatres depend on events for income, but the COVID-19 pandemic has jeopardized the future of our historic venues. We need donations more than ever to make sure these Birmingham Landmarks survive this crisis.

If you’d like to help, please invest in the future of these Birmingham landmarks HERE. Or please consider including them in your holiday gift giving. Thanks!

Alabama’s 100-year-old Holiday Cake

In the South, recipes are filled with history, and often shared with memories, stories, and traditions. One of the most iconic examples is the Alabama Lane Cake. Created by Emma Lane from Clayton, Alabama for a county fair in Columbus, GA, her flavorful layer cake won first prize. She subsequently included the recipe in her self-published cookbook entitled, “A Few Good Things to Eat” as the “Prize Cake”in 1898.

It immediately became popular for its light sponge cake texture combined with a raisin or dried fruit filling which was soaked in brandy. Over the years, Southern home cooks experimented with many variations and created their own special versions passed down with carefully guarded secrets among generations. It was often the cake of choice for celebrations and holidays, particularly Christmas, for its festive presentation.

This version of the Alabama Lane Cake uses the filling for the sides and top of the cake instead of the boiled icing called for in the original recipe. The recipe used here was from food historian, Gil Marks. Gil Marks wrote about the history of American Cakes for ToriAvey.com, revealing the history and culture of the United States through its classic treat. An author, historian, chef, and social worker, Gil Marks was a leading authority on the history and culture of culinary subjects. 

By the 1960’s, Harper Lee, an Alabama native, memorialized this tradition in her book, “To Kill a Mockingbird” as Atticus Finch’s daughter Scout reports:

“Miss Maudie Atkinson baked a Lane cake so loaded with shinny it made me tight”

Also in To Kill a Mockingbird, Miss Maudie bakes a Lane cake for Mr. Avery, who was severely injured in an attempt to put out a fire in her home.

“Mr. Avery will be in bed for a week—he’s right stove up. He’s too old to do things like that and I told him so. Soon as I can get my hands clean and when Stephanie Crawford’s not looking, I’ll make him a Lane cake. That Stephanie’s been after my recipe for thirty years, and if she thinks I’ll give it to her just because I’m staying with her she’s got another think coming.”[

– To Kill a Mockingbird. Author Nelle Harper Lee (1960), a native of Monroeville, Alabama, presented a picture of Southern culture in the mid-20th century, with numerous vestiges of life in the Deep South and Southern foods including Lane cake.
[Shinny = slang for liquor, derived from moonshine]

After Harper Lee published her second book, “Go Set a Watchman”, interest was renewed in Southern culture which included the iconic Lane Cake mentioned in her book. So, in May 2016, a bill passed in the Alabama state legislature to make it Alabama’s official State dessert, signed by Governor Robert Bentley.

According to former Southern Living Food Editor, Margaret Chason Agnew, Alabama Lane Cake was one of the two most frequently requested recipes the magazine received (the other being Hummingbird Cake), and it was even more popular at Christmas. In fact, her mother’s recipe, published in Southern Living’s Annual Recipes, 1983, page 269, was used again and again in multiple Southern Living publications with several variations.

Taste, traditions, stories, memories, and Southern culture are all wrapped up in a serving of Alabama Lane Cake. Happy Holidays!

And a special shout out to Becky Sorrell of Ritch’s Pharmacy for the inspiration. She has been baking her family’s special recipe for decades and provided lots of baking tips!

Historical Research, Publishing, and Education