The City of Birmingham was founded in 1871, one month after the completion of the last link in the North-South railroad connecting Montgomery to Birmingham through Brock’s Gap. The new city was the center of the developing Birmingham District that grew quickly as a collection of iron ore, coal, and limestone mines. Manufacturing plants were scattered throughout a five-county region constituting today’s Birmingham-Hoover metropolitan area. Attempts to bring the railroad up from the Cahaba River and across Shades Mountain began in the 1850s but were frustrated for many years by the difficult terrain. Brock’s Gap extracted a heavy toll both in terms of funds and human lives before the railbed was successfully completed.
A milelong railbed still exists as a forested road (follow it HERE) that is a potential greenway connection between Shades Mountain and the planned Cahaba Park on the Cahaba River near Helena. Unfortunately, the Brock’s Gap railbed stretches through an area near Interstate 459 that has been targeted for development. The railbed is threatened by a proposed interchange and future land uses.
The Brock’s Gap railbed is irreplaceable as a physical reminder of the success of our forbearers. They overcame difficult challenges developing the Birmingham District whose story begins with the railroads that run through the heart of the District to this day. Brock’s Gap is at the center of this history while also providing a unique public amenity. For more information, read THIS to follow the railbed as it currently exists and download and print this PDF to read about its creation and importance to the Birmingham District.
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?
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!