Unique Heritage

Brookside’s Unique History

“Brookside, Alabama, a quiet mining town in western Jefferson County, developed from the efforts of Sloss-Sheffield Iron and Steel Company to produce its own coal for use in the blast furnaces located in Birmingham.  Brookside grew up around the coal mines of Sloss.  Brookside’s unique ethnic makeup, however, sets it apart from other similarly founded Alabama towns.  While quite a variety of ethnic groups called Birmingham home, Slovaks were the dominant ethnic group in Brookside.  Slovak immigrants left their homes in Nieletz, Saros, and other villages in the Austro-Hungarian Empire to settle in Brookside, Alabama, in the 1890’s.  By 1910 Slovak families constituted approximately 37% of Brookside’s population and they had established two churches, a school, a social organization, and firmly rooted their eastern European traditions in the fabric of their own, and Brookside’s daily existence.”
Staci S. Simon (Glover)
Masters Thesis 1997
University of Alabama at Birmingham

More references on the history of Brookside:

  • Simon, Staci S. (1997). A Study of the Slovak Community at Brookside, Alabama, M.A. Thesis, University of Alabama at Birmingham.
  • Lewis, W. David (1994). Sloss Furnaces and the Rise of the Birmingham District: An Industrial Epic. Tuscaloosa, Alabama: Univ. of Alabama Press. ISBN 0-8173-0708-7.
  • White, Marjorie Longenecker (1998). The Birmingham District: An Industrial History and Guide. Birmingham, Alabama: Birmingham Historical Society. ISBN 0-943994-00-4.
  • Jones, Pam (Summer 2007) “A “Wild West” Town in Alabama: Brookside.” Alabama Heritage. No. 85, pp. 26–37
  • Blackmon, Douglas  “Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II,”  (Doubleday).ISBN 978-0-385-50625-0

Brookside Today

Today Brookside is reinventing itself as a recreation destination.  The beauty of Five Mile Creek, abundance of wildlife and rugged hills surrounding Brookside make an ideal location for canoeing, picnicking, fishing, hiking, bicycling, mountain biking and running.  The city is proud to be constructing the western end of the Five Mile Creek Greenway that is planned to extend from Center Point Reed Harvey Park, through Tarrant, Fultondale, Jefferson County, Brookside and Graysville.   When the Greenway is complete the Five Mile Creek Greenway Partnership will connect over 16 miles of rails to trails, 36 miles of canoe trails and over 20 miles of parks and pathways throughout the Five Mile Creek Watershed.

Throughout the development of the Greenway, local history will be the connecting strand, weaving the history of coal into the beauty of the trails.

Brookside History

Brookside is located in Jefferson County, Alabama North West of Birmingham, Alabama. Jefferson County, named in honor of Thomas Jefferson, was established on December 13, 1819, sixty-seven years before the first mine opened in Brookside, by the Alabama legislature. The county is located in the north-central portion of the state of Alabama, on the southern extension of the Appalachian Mountains and encompasses 1,119 square miles. The county is located in the center of the iron, coal and limestone belt of the South Eastern United States. Jefferson County is bordered by Blount, Bibb, St. Clair, Shelby, Tuscaloosa, and Walker counties.

Natural History
The Cumberland Plateau is a deeply dissected plateau, with topographic relief commonly of about four hundred feet (120 meters), and frequent sandstone outcroppings and bluffs. Many coal seams are present in the area causing the area to be heavily mined. The hills in the western most areas of the plateau have a relief of around 200 feet. The sedimentary rocks are composed of near shore sediments washed westward from the original Appalachian Mountains. Though the plateau is not composed of true mountains it has some of the most rugged terrain in the eastern United States. As is the case in Brookside, inhabitants mostly live in very narrow V-shaped valleys with little bottom land. Buildings and roads built along the bottom of the valley are susceptible to floods, while any structures on the steep slopes are subject to slumping. Roads are serious engineering challenges, and expensive to maintain. There are few locations available for agriculture; most people make their livelihoods from mining, timbering, or services. The plateau contains some of the largest stretches of contiguous forest in the eastern United States evident throughout the less populated areas of Brookside.

The soils of the Cumberland Plateau where Brookside resides are typically medium to fine textured with a mesic temperature regime, udic soil moisture regime, with mixed or siliceous mineralogy. Brookside is primarily covered in oak and pine. The Oak-Pine Forest type that pertains to Brookside is dominated by red oak (Quercus rubra) and Loblloy pine (Pinus taeda). The canopy tends to be somewhat open. The shrub layer is sparse and mostly composed of tree species regeneration. Herbs and dwarf shrubs are spotty: Mountain Laurel (Kalmia angustifolia), low bush blueberry (Vaccinium angustifolium), Bracken Fern (Pteridium aquilinum), star flower (Trientalis borealis), and oak seedlings are typical. This successional forest of the eastern United States is a broadly defined community developing after severe disturbance like the heavy mining that occurred in Brookside. These forests typically occur on gentle to moderate slopes at low to mid elevations. The glacial till underlying these forests yields loamy soils, moderately well drained to somewhat poorly drained.

Brookside Geologic Foundation

By John M. Ozier. OMI, Inc Huntsville
Overview: The geology of the Brookside area is the Pottsville Formation. The Pottsville Formation is characterized as sandstone and shale with coal layers. The coal layers (seams) are the reason that Brookside Exist. The formation gently dips toward the south. From a Geotechnical perspective, there are several ways of mote and concern. First; the undisturbed areas, where flat or gently sloping are usually suitable to support almost any size building. Second; Historical mines can cause areas that can subside due to collapse or areas of tailings or strip mine soil pride that will settle detrimentally under a building. Third; the step slopes can have loose soil on them that is called colluviums. Colluviums move down a hillside at a rate of ¼ to several inches per year. It is usually not noted by the casual observes until the site is developed. Colluvial soil must be identified and properly tested with engineered solutions. Fourth; the soils above the bedrock are usually from a few inches to about 10 feet deep. The soils are suitable for septic tank disposal as long as the houses are spread widely apart. However when housing developments place houses in a dense arrangement the soils have trouble assimilating the treated sewage and problems with wet weather springs and inadequately treated sewer occur. Fifth; the sandstone and unweathered shale can not be excavated with backhoes or track hoes. They can be excavated if they are thin bedded but not if they are think bedded. This will cause problems with excavation for buildings or sewer trenches.

Coal Resource: Since discovery in 1821 of Alabama’s Warrior Coal Field, coal has become Alabama’s leading industrial mineral. Alabama has traditionally been one of the nation’s major coal-producing states, especially with the rise of the Birmingham steel industry in the 1870 that directly influenced the development of the Brookside area since its conception in 1886. The current rate of coal production is expected to continue due to Alabama’s high-quality, low sulfur bituminous coal. Alabama also has high-grade, near-surface lignite deposits, which are not presently being mined. Brookside topography of rolling wooded hills and level plateaus are bisected by Five Mile Creek that flows along the southern border of the town and Newfound Creek that connects with Five Mile Creek at the northern edge of historic downtown Brookside.

Newfound Creek
Unfortunately, Newfound Creek still shows signs of biological integrity issues as identified in the information acquired through the EPA. Brookside has several environmental concerns that may impact future development opportunities in their community. Strip mining in the area has left some lands scared and soils potentially unstable. Geotechnical services may play an important role as Brookside developers work through the issues of Brookside’s mining past.

Water Quality

USGS reported the water quality of Five Mile Creek from 2003-2005. See the full report below .

USGS assessment of water quality in FNC

Existing Cultural Conditions

Brookside’s historic downtown neighborhoods are blessed with narrow streets that add to the community’s village character. This is a feature that many Brookside residents expressed interest in repeating as new residential development occurs in the area. Brookside has several vehicular bridges across Five Mile Creek and opportunity to provide pedestrian crossing as well through the utilization of abandoned bridges. Brookside loves baseball. The community often used games played in their local ball park as a source of Friday night entertainment and a time to socialize. Unfortunately, after the flood of 2003, Brookside local ball fields closed moving games to other communities. This not only removed an important economic source from families who traveling into Brookside but also removed an important community socialization event.  Unfortunately, a tragic event closed down the pool leaving behind a community wide void. Little remains of a dance floor that used to be a local hot spot for evening entertainment. The local Brookside VFW facility now plays the role of meeting facility and, sometimes “dance hall”.

Nestled along Five Mile Creek, about twenty minutes northwest of Birmingham, sits a community rich in history, waiting to be rediscovered. Formerly a thriving mining town, Brookside’s coal driven economy crashed in the 1920’s. A depreciating coal market and United Mine Workers strike forced the local mining company to close its doors. The community never recovered and maintained a down hill spiral that reached catastrophic proportions, in 2003, when a violent storm caused Five Mile Creek to breach its banks.

The community’s already struggling downtown was completely destroyed. While this devastation caused tremendous grief and loss for many residents of Brookside, it also presents the town with a unique opportunity for a more hopeful and prosperous future. Isn’t it ironic that the creek that caused so much pain and suffering, coupled with historic remnants of the town’s colorful, mining past, that many would like to forget, offer Brookside an exciting economic opportunity. Over 6,000 acres of Brookside land wait, like a blank canvas, for a plan to attract potential developers, investors and new residents. People with vision who appreciate the town’s close proximity to Birmingham and its historical past.

Prior to the 2006 Brookside charrette, the Town of Brookside commissioned Dale Fritz, a landscape architect out of Birmingham, Alabama, to assist them in designing a layout for a new Town Center to be located just east of what remained of Brookside’s downtown area.  The challenge for Brookside will be to provide synergy between their existing downtown and this new Town Center. This will prove to be a difficult but not insurmountable task should ALDOT continue with their current plans to locate the Northern Beltline directly in between these to sites.

In addition, a handful of quaint, historic mining homes, community churches, and historic cemeteries are additional encouragement toward the community’s potential redevelopment. Brookside’s two greatest assets, however, are the town’s natural features and historic mining artifacts. Over the past one hundred years, each has influenced the other. What remains today are several attractions that offer local residents an opportunity to draw visitors state and nationwide. Brookside is a mining and railroad historian’s playground. Hikers, campers and canoe aficionados will find days of scenic adventure and entertainment.

Colorful Mining History

The Brookside mine was opened in 1886 by the Coalburg Coal and Coke Company. It was purchased one year later by the Sloss Iron and Steel Company as a source of fuel for their blast furnaces in Birmingham. Following the practice of the time, the mined coal was processed into coke in rows of beehive ovens banked into the hillside below the mine opening. A beehive oven is used to turn coal ore into coke. In 1897 a Robinson-Ramsey Coal Washer was installed, increasing the efficiency of coke burning and therefore the overall efficiency of the mine. Other advanced equipment was also installed at Brookside, placing it at the forefront of mining technology in the Birmingham District at the turn of the century.

Brookside served as the headquarters for four Sloss-owned mines in the immediate area: Cardiff, Coalburg, Brazil and Brookside. Because the capacity of Brookside’s processing equipment exceeded the mine output, some of the slack from the Brazil mine was brought to Brookside for washing and coking.

Sloss, like other employers in the booming industrial expansion of the early 20th century, had difficulty recruiting skilled labor. Recruitment efforts extended internationally and Brookside became the home of many Czechoslovakian immigrants and their families who made their way to the mines. As Brookside became a destination for Eastern European miners in the area, the culture of the town reflected their ethnic traditions. A Russian Orthodox Church was founded and served to strengthen community ties. Unlike other mines where skilled whites and unskilled blacks could be played against each other by the owners, the Brookside miners were tightly organized and carried out a successful (albeit violent) strike in 1906.

Just north of Brookside near the Locust Fork of the Black Warrior River, an explosion in the spring of 1911 at the Banner Coal Mine owned by the Pratt Consolidated Coal Company killed 128 convict miners.

Between 1910 and 1920, mining operations jumped around to several seams and the number of miners fluctuated between a low of 54 in 1910 and a high of over 600 in 1914. In 1913 the mechanical coal cutters used previously were supplanted by hand picks. A new church building for St. Nicholas was completed in 1916. A United Mine Workers of America-led general strike in 1920 combined with a global depreciation in the coal market, led to a shutdown of the mine. When the strike was settled in 1921, Brookside mine was never re-opened. Sloss removed all of the surface works and held on to the mine property. In 1952 Sloss merged with the U. S. Pipe and Foundry Company, a subsidiary of Jim Walter Industries since 1969.

The bustling town was known as a particularly rough area of the county, described by novelist Thomas Rowan as “a cocked gun of a town, hair-triggered, double-geared lightning and hell on the draw when it came to knives or guns, ‘bottle-bust’ fights or hairy teeth and fist and skull!”

A Natural Disaster

In May, 2003, a series of supercell thunderstorms moved from Mississippi across the northern half of Alabama bringing with them several tornadoes, wind damage, hail, and incredible amounts of rain. The north and north-eastern sections of metro Birmingham were hit especially hard. The rainfall from this event was the highest on record, recorded at 10.5 inches in a 10-hour period, with an amazing 5.5 inches in a 1-hour period. The torrential rains resulted in the highest stage, 19.14 feet gage datum, since records began in 1953. These floodwaters inundated local roads, including Highway 79. Flooding was especially intense and devastating in Brookside. The small number of business include the town hall were completely destroyed. Several residents were also displaced.

References for above data

Historic American Engineering Record. “Brookside Coal Mine (Sloss Sheffield Coal & Iron Coal Mine)”. Birmingham Industrial District. Photographs. Drawings. Written Historical & Descriptive Data. Spring 1993. HAER Survey No. AL-17.

Lewis, W. David (1994). Sloss Furnaces and the Rise of the Birmingham District: An Industrial Epic, Tuscaloosa, Alabama: Univ. of Alabama Press. ISBN 0817307087.

Rowan, Thomas. Alabama Miners; BLACK EARTH. 303 pp. New York: Hillman-Curl, Inc.

Ward, RD and WW Rogers.  Convicts, Coal, and the Banner Mine Tragedy, 1987. ISBN 9780817390402

White, Marjorie Longenecker (1981). The Birmingham District: An Industrial History and Guide, Birmingham, Alabama: Birmingham Historical Society. ISBN 99902300