Wherever we go, the landscape is dotted with history–places large and small where the world once shifted, for one or for many. Sometimes those memories linger in physical form–if you know the story behind what you’re seeing. As a student of the past, my History In Site posts tell some of the stories of places I’ve come across.
A few years ago, on a business trip to Birmingham, Alabama, as my inbound flight approached the airport the plane passed over a pair of stone pylons in the river, clearly the remains of an old bridge. With nothing else on my agenda, I thought it might be interesting to find my way to that spot, and learn about the erstwhile bridge while I was at it.
As it turned out, the bridge in question was once the #6 trestle of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, spanning the Cahaba River about 25 miles southwest of Birmingham. Its history was short–and tragic.
The bridge was constructed in 1892, and served the railroad to carry freight and passenger trains. One such train, the Birmingham Mineral Branch, made its way between several area communities, mostly carrying workers and coal to and from the mines, coking ovens, and furnaces of the area’s steel industry. The iron trestle bridge stretched 800 feet in length, and soared 110 feet above the river, only about 4 feet deep at this point.
The bridge remained in service for just 4 years.
On Sunday, December 27, 1896, the Mineral Branch #40 train pulled out of Birmingham at 6:30 am, consisting of an engine, baggage car, and two passenger cars. The train carried about 30 people, mostly area miners and their families, taking advantage of a holiday sale on excursion tickets.
After making a couple stops, the train reached the bridge over the Cahaba around 7:50am. As it steamed across the bridge, the trestle gave way beneath it, sending the train plummeting down into the river.
The engine and cars piled up in the shallow water, and caught fire, quickly burning down to the waterline. Most of the passengers and crew aboard the train were killed: crushed, burned, or both. The generally agreed-upon death toll is 22, making it the most deadly railroad accident in Alabama at the time. Survivors included several children, and other passengers who were only slightly injured.
Newspaper stories reporting the tragedy suggested the bridge collapse was the result of sabotage, with robbery as the motive. However, it seems more likely that this was a story concocted to shift the focus from the trestle bridge itself, which may have been poorly constructed.
Today all that remains are the two stone pylons that once supported the bridge, some other debris from the tracks that led onto the bridge–and the memory of a tragedy that cost nearly two dozen lives in the winter of 1896.
The bridge pylons still stand in the Cahaba River at GPS coordinates 33°06’31″N, 87°02’21″W. The spot isn’t easily accessible, but can be reached via some primitive roads inside the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge, and then a short hike along the river. While you’re in the area, consider also visiting some of the historical sites related to the coal and steel industry, like the West Blocton Coke Ovens and Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park.