The discovery of a high grade coking coal in 1879 began the industry upon which Birmingham, Alabama was born. This mineral wealth was touted far and wide by entrepreneurs such as Enoch Ensley and attracted industrial investment to Birmingham. Below he is pictured with an 11-ton lump of coal en route to the New Orleans World Exposition of 1884.
By 1886, Pratt mines were the largest and most extensive mines in the state. Pratt Mines was founded in 1878 by Henry DeBardeleben, Truman Aldrich & James Sloss. Pratt Coal & Coke Company was named in honor of Daniel Pratt who was DeBardeleben’s mentor, father in law and benefactor. In 1881 it was sold to Enoch Ensley for $600,000. Enoch sold it in 1886 to the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company. By the end of the 1950’s, the former Pratt Mines had faded into history with no surface works remaining.
Coal was either shipped via rail to market or changed in massive masonry overs to form coke, the fuel for making iron. by 1898 Tennessee Coal and Iron Co. was the nation’s second largest producer of coke. U.S. Steel acquired TCI in 1907 and developed Pratt City as a regional shipping point.
Three railroads had extended trackage into Pratt Mines by 1887. The privately developed community that grew like topsy adjacent to the mines and company quarters became Coketon, Pratt Mines and finally Pratt City, the state’s earliest and largest mining boomtown.
Just to the east, Pennsylvania iron-master Samuel Thomas built two iron producing furnaces and constructed residences for furnace labor. The furnace town, noted on O’Brien’s map as Enniskydeen, an attempt to spell Thomas’ hometown in Wales, became Thomas, Alabama, headquarters of Republic Iron and Steel’s Birmingham operations.
Experienced ironmaster David Thomas, together with his sons Samuel and Edwin along with industrialist Robert Sayre, purchased the 2,000 acre Williamson Hawkins plantation in 1886. This superb industrial site had an abundant supply of limestone, water from Village Creek and seams of coal and iron which were all the necessary ingredients for the production of iron. Couple that with the fact that Pratt coal supply could not have been closer and you had a recipe for success.
By 1890, the Pioneer Mining and Manufacturing Company, as it was called, had built two “family designed”, state of the art furnaces and constructed a two street town for furnace personnel. Other laborers were hired form surrounding farms.
Republic Steel acquired the Thomas site in 1899 and expanded plants and the towns of Thomas and Ensley. Republic rented housing to job holders whose tasks required them to live close to the furnaces.
Laid out in the 1880’s along wide tree lined streets, the residences along 1st and 2nd streets and the commissary were closely modeled after worker communities in Pennsylvania. The main difference was that these residences showcased southern industrial types including board and batten and frame shotguns, pyramidal cottages and bungalows.
Housing in Thomas solidified a clear cut class structure. At the head was the superintendent’s house set on a large plot among stately trees and magnificent gardens. houses along 1st were surrounded by picket fences with large yards, coal and out houses in back. Foremen and young bosses lived here, along “silk stocking row”.
Along 2nd street or “cotton stocking row”, lived mechanics and other skilled labor.
Housing for semi-skilled and day laborers was along 3rd and 4th. Those streets were called “bare legged row”. Here many Italians put down their American roots. Joe Bruno, Alabama’s leading grocery store magnate, was born here.
Black workers lived from 4th to 8th streets.
By 1912 more than 500 workers and their families lived at Thomas. Houses were fenced, streets and sidewalks graveled and tree lined. in the 1920’s, company gardeners maintained crepe myrtle and calla lily plantings in the medians and parks on most streets.
Early Thomas residents describe their community as closely knit. All the men worked at the plants “from can to can’t”, children rode the streetcar to schools in Pratt City. Community life revolved around the churches, the commissary and the front porch. A sense of community identity was further reinforced by geographic isolation. Thomas remains today totally hemmed in by plants and railroads.
The community of Thomas was annexed into the city of Birmingham during Birmingham’s great annexation push of 1910 along with other like communities such as Elyton, Ensley, Pratt City, West End, Wylam and Smithfield, among others.
During the 1910 annexation push, the City of Birmingham immediately grew by over 48 square miles and increased its population by nearly 73,000 people. Before Birmingham annexed these communities, the population was 60,000….afterwards Birmingham boasted a populace of 132,685.