Carbon Hill, Alabama
William C. Pryor
National Archives and Records Administration,
Records of the WPA, "Miscellaneous Records of
the Photography Division," RG 69, E 696, Box 2.
CARBON HILL, ALABAMA
Carbon Hill is a coal mining town of approximately 2500 population in Walker County, northern Alabama. It is about sixty-three miles northwest of Birmingham and one of the dustiest and dirtiest towns it has ever been my fortune to stay in. There was nothing particularly attractive about Carbon Hill. Its main street is lined on one side with little stores and shops of the type generally found in small country towns. There are no restaurants that a stranger of discrimination would think of eating in but the meals at the Carbon Hill Hotel, run by Mrs. Wheeler, (picture included) are swell.
The other side of main street is given over to tracks and years of the Frisco Line, the only railroad serving Carbon Hill.
To me one of the most interesting indications of the economic condition of the town is the fact that the telephone operator told us there were "about 71" telephones in Carbon Hill. Most of these are in the stores and in the mine company offices. Carbon Hill, although it is a mining town with a certain rough element, actually is rather strongly religious. There are nine white churches and six Negro, we were told. The Southern Methodist and Baptist Churches, of course, are the largest and most prosperous white churches. Walker County is dry and, therefore, there is no liquor available in Carbon Hill except that brought in from outside Walker County by individuals. We were served beer in one home and wine and whiskey in another, but in both cases the drinks had been brought in from Birmingham by our hosts. In the week we spent in Carbon Hill mingling with the people in their homes and on the streets both day and night, and even Saturday night, we did not see one case of drunkenness. The churches were well attended on Sunday and the whole atmosphere of the town is surprising considering the type of community it is.
Complete resume of the industrial situation in Carbon Hill is found in the long statement accompanying the portrait of Charles Rice, Foreman at the Chickasaw Mine. Rice is the youngest mine foreman in Alabama and a very intelligent man.
Before WPA moved into Carbon Hill the town was on its uppers. The main street had been paved several years before and there was a water system, but that is all. Sewage from outdoor privies was collected daily in a tank wagon and hauled away to be disposed of (photos). PWA built a sanitary sewer disposal plant which did away with this unattractive way of handling the sewage problem.
Other than the one paved street, all streets were mud roads without curbs, gutters or sidewalks and flanked by deep weed-grown ditches on each side. At each street intersection there were of necessity eight little wooden bridges so people could cross these ditches. In rainy weather not only the streets but paths were extremely muddy. Most of the streets were irregular lanes. WPA built sidewalks, curbs and gutters, cleaned out ditches, straightened most of the street lanes and cleaned them out. Streets were topped with what is known locally as "redrock". This is a by-product of the coal mines. Refuse from the mines is burned and the residue or ash has a dull reddish tint which gives it its name. This provides a surface that does not become readily muddy, although it is horribly dusty when it is not wet. The WPA also removed the eight little wooden bridges at each intersection substituting well built culverts. There were no recreational facilities whatever aside from an inadequate play ground at the inadequate school building. PWA built a new high school building relieving school congestion. The old building was turned over to the grades. Immediately on occupancy of the new high school building, however, high school enrollment increased until today the capacity of the new building is being taxed. WPA built the Vocational Agriculture and Home Economics Buildings at the high school, where the children receive instructions in the practical arts of living that it was impossible to give them before and which they could never get at home under the conditions in which most of them live. WPA built a swimming pool and athletic field in Carbon Hill. The pool, said to be the only one between Birmingham, Alabama and Tupelo, Mississippi, is well patronized during the season. In this connection, there developed a little more liberal attitude in Carbon Hill. Since people there can remember, it had been the custom to keep boys and girls apart as much as possible. They were not allowed to mingle at play on the school grounds, for instance, on the theory that if you do not set a match to a pile of paper it will not burn. When the new swimming pool was built the city commissioners announced that it would be open to both sexes at the same time. A delegation of ministers in the town called upon City Commissioner Earl Kelley, who was the leading spirit in obtaining most of the New Deal improvements, to protest against mixed bathing. Mr. Kelley told them that he know what they were coming to see him about and that he had expected it but that nevertheless he intended to have the boys and girls of Carbon Hill go swimming together in the new pool and he pointed out that it was much more normal and wholesome than keeping them segregated from one another. It is now taken as a matter of course and thus the New Deal has been instrumental in modernizing some of Carbon Hill's thought as well as some of its physical attributes.
The athletic field which is in the same part with the swimming pool includes wooden bleacher seats and steel goal posts and here various athletic contests are held, including night football games since the field is flood-lighted.
There is intense rivalry between Carbon Hill and Jasper, the county seat, a town eighteen miles away and of about 3500 or 4000 population. This rivalry does not only extend to athletics but into every form of municipal activity. We attended a Kiwanis luncheon at which this matter came up and one of the members boasted that President Roosevelt's special train had not stopped at Jasper but had stopped at Carbon Hill. Another member, more truthful, added, "Yeah, stopped here to take on water."
Carbon Hill has one motion picture theatre running, of course, Class B pictures. The showings are only moderately attended and Westerns are among its most popular attractions. This is about the only night-life in Carbon Hill except for the dances held every Saturday night at the skating rink (pictures included).
The women of Carbon Hill are progressive enough to have a Business and Professional Women's Culb, which is rather surprising in a town of that size and type and most of the members and guests at the meeting which we attended were in correct evening gowns.
The matter of health is an important one as far as the WPA is concerned. Before WPA went into Carbon Hill, malaria was a frequent disease there. There were many abandoned mine workings and sink holes near abandoned mines that had been permitted to fill with water and thus became breeding places for malaria mosquitoes. All such places within the town and near it were drained by the WPA so that this condition no longer exists and as one doctor said, it has cut the incidence of malaria in Carbon Hill to one-third of what it was. There still is ill health there, such as the diseases brought on by malnutrition. The doctors state that this is due more to ignorance or carelessness on the part of the people in selecting or preparing foods than to anything else.
The people of Carbon Hill regardless of whatever shortcomings they may have are swell. Almost without exception they were extremely friendly, even cordial and very cooperative. They display, in spite of the economic adversity that they faced for years due to technological unemployment as well as the depression, a great deal of courage and fighting spirit without which they probably never would have obtained the improvements that they did. These improvements have made Carbon Hill a healthier and a pleasanter town than it was, although there still is much to be done especially in the matter of paving to relieve the awful redrock dust. Carbon Hill was and is an ugly town as most coal mining towns are and the improvements have not and could not make it beautiful.
There is in fact nothing beautiful in Carbon Hill but the spirit of the people. That, however, seems to be quite enough to have enabled the town to survive through a period of economic disaster and the people we talked to were practically unanimous in feeling that the Administration has saved the town from oblivion and they were, therefore, grateful. Whether the town can ever depend again entirely on the income from the mining industry and get along as it is now is a question (See Charles Rice's statement), but if the courage and the will of the people mean anything they will make a good try.