I have no recollection of Schambeau’s advertising on TV, especially not a spot this long. It looks like the early 80s. The kids shown buying from the candy counter were probably my classmates.
Schambeau’s was one of the two main grocery stores in Bayou La Batre, along with rival Greers. Schambeau’s was about a mile further from our house, but we shopped at both.
Schambeau’s was more of a General Store than Greers, which was purely a Supermarket. In the last years, Crum Schambeau was heard to remark that the real competition was the Walmart in Tillman’s Corner.
Schambeau’s did not long outlive Mr. Crum, due (I’m told) to his heirs not wishing to continue running the store. Greers continues.
When we would drive around the shore on Shell Belt Road, my Pawpaw would point out a location where the “Old Factory” used to be. There was not even a trace of anything that looked like a building remaining.
This map, dated 1918, shows a “Canning Factory” at the end of a railroad spur, located conveniently near to the “Oyster Beds”. I don’t remember anyone specifically saying that oysters were what was processed at the factory, but it would certainly make a lot of sense if it was.
The railroad here was the “Bay Shore” branch of the Mobile & Ohio Railroad, which operated from approximately 1899 to 1940. There is little to show of this line today, the rails having been physically removed soon after abandonment. It is memorialized by Railroad Street in the Bayou and Bay Shore Avenue in Mobile.
This (1926) map highlights the route from Mobile to Bayou La Batre:
At the far western end of the wye at San Souci was the lead to the Alabama Canning Company, also known as the American Canning Company. Alabama Canning Company was located on the north end of Coffee Island, about a mile south of the junction at San Souci. It was on this track that the trains would head down first, then back up through the wye toward Bayou la Batre.
The 1918 map disagrees about the factory being on Coffee Island, and I’m inclined to side with the map. An island location would have required the railroad to build a mile-long trestle over the bay. This does not fit with any description of this railroad that I’ve ever heard of before, and would have been a literal “bridge to nowhere”.
It seems more reasonable that the factory was located on the mainland.
At the approximate location of where the “Old Factory” was said to be, there is still a dirt “road” off from Shell Belt Rd through the salt marsh, leading towards the shore of Portersville Bay. It goes to a point that naturally sticks out into the bay. It can clearly be seen on modern satellite images:
This is what it looks like in Google Street View (and in real life too!):
It is most consistent with the old map if this “road” is actually the railroad right-of-way. Here is the satellite image with the guessed route of the railroad tracks highlighted in yellow:
The real revelation happened when I began searching for more info on the “Alabama Canning Company”.
It turns out there are a lot of pictures of this place, located in the National Archives and the Library of Congress!
This photo shows oysters being unloaded onto the dock. It looks like they had a large pier running out into the bay, with railroad tracks utilized for wheeled oyster baskets. The factory in the background looks like a sizeable operation. It must have been the biggest industry in town at the time.
Here we see the whole thing as it looked from out on a boat in the bay:
Many of the photos show very young workers in the factory and on the boats. This was the early 20th century, the era of child labor.
These photos were taken about 1912-1913. The children would have been born in the first decade of the 20th century. This is about the age of my great-grandparents. If you are from Bayou La Batre, some of them could be your great-grandparents, if not great-great-grandparents.
The work was seasonal, with many families coming to town only during the cooler months when oysters were in season. You can see in the photos almost everyone is dressed for cooler weather. Many of the workers were also immigrants, as the captions mention some children being unable to speak English. From the Mississippi Gulf Coast Museum of Museum of Historical Photography website:
The [labor shortage] problem was resolved initially by bringing in Eastern European immigrants known as ‘Bohemians’ from the Baltimore, Maryland canneries. The Baltimore people traveled in special railroad cars from their homes in Baltimore to work the canneries during the winter oyster season along the coast. They lived in factory-owned camps near the canneries, and the children rarely attended local schools. Some of the Baltimore families stayed on after the oyster season.
We can assume the hiring practices established in Biloxi were also followed in Bayou La Batre.
It turns out the reason all of these 100-year old pictures from Bayou La Batre are part of the national historical record, is because they were part of a famous series taken by Lewis Wickes Hine. Lewis Hine is an unsung hero of American labor relations, risking his own safety to end the practice of child labor in this country.
Hine’s work for the NCLC was often dangerous. As a photographer, he was frequently threatened with violence or even death by factory police and foremen. At the time, the immorality of child labor was meant to be hidden from the public. Photography was not only prohibited but also posed a serious threat to the industry. To gain entry to the mills, mines and factories, Hine was forced to assume many guises. At times he was a fire inspector, postcard vendor, bible salesman, or even an industrial photographer making a record of factory machinery.
So here we have a connection to historical events of national importance, right there in Bayou La Batre, and all that’s left of it is a dirt path through the marsh grass and scattered recollections of an “Old Factory”.
Hine is also the photographer of a very well known series on the construction of the Empire State Building.
So when was this factory built, and whatever happened to it? The Bay Shore website says:
Below is a photograph taken before the hurricane of 1906, showing the company tracks on the west side of the building. The photographer is facing south, toward Portersville Bay.
The buildings seen in this image were either heavily damaged, or destroyed, in the 1906 hurricane, and the company either elected not to rebuild, or was financially unable to. At a later date (unknown) this location became the Dunbar & Ducate Factory. Dunbar & Ducate was later destroyed by a boiler explosion which claimed the lives of several employees.
“Dunbar & Ducate”, (or DuKate) had already taken over by the time of Hines’ photos in 1912-1913 (and indeed some of his captions refer to it as such).
The Biloxi Historical Society lists a number factories owned by several firms involving the DuKate family, including “Dunbars, Lopez, & Dukate Company“, in Alabama, Mississippi, and Louisiana. It appears that it was often called the “Alabama Canning Company” even when it was owned by DuKate.
Julian Lee Rayford, writing in 1956, describes a world already long gone, including a “Big Factory” owned by “Dunn, Barr, and Ducate”.
GEORGE BRYANT told me about the factories
in Bayou la Batre.
The factories fall into two classes. First, the
factories of 1915, and a few years later. And,
second, the factories of today. There is little con-
nection between the two. True, the factories have
always canned shrimp and oysters, but there is a
distinct contrast between the periods.
Pure Food Laws have cleaned them up, and
now, everything is peaceful and quiet in the fac-
tories. Government inspectors stand on constant vi-
gil making the pickers maintain purity and quality
in the products.
After 1906, the factories lined the Bayou.
There was the Union factory, operated by the
Union. There was the finest and largest, the one
run by Daughdrille. On the coast, was the “Big Factory,” controlled by Dun, Barr and Ducate. And
there was the “Green Factory,” so called because of
the color used on the outside of the building. All
along the Bayou were the picking sheds, which sent
their products to the larger establishments to be
packed, or, canned.
An article in the New Orleans Times-Democrat, April 7 1910, mentions a factory being constructed by this company in Bayou La Batre:
The John F. Wentzell mentioned here is probably related to Wintzell’s Oyster House founder J. Oliver Wintzell, as well as the Wintzell family of Bayou La Batre.
The factory is described as packing shrimp. It is not clear if this was the same facility as the oyster plant shown in the photos, or a different plant also located in Bayou La Batre.
I cannot find any information about the existence of the Alabama Canning Company earlier than this. It is possible it operated under a different name before DuKate took it over, if it actually existed before 1910.
The plant survived and was repaired after the 1916 storm:
I can only find one other page about an explosion, the Find-A-Grave page for Robert Walter Cox who died on August 16, 1923 when an ammonia tank exploded in the ice plant of the cannery. It reads like a newspaper article, but there’s no citation and I cannot find the same story anywhere else.
EXPLOSION KILLS ONE AND INJURES TWO AT ICE PLANT
Ammonia Tank Blows Up At Bayou La Batre, Killing Robert Cox and Wrecking Plant
Death injury and heavy property damage resulted form a violent explosion at the ice pant of the Alabama Canning Company at Bayou la Batre Thursday night. Robert Cox, 40 years old, frieman at the plant was almost instantly killed and two other persons, Willie and Aime Castello, father and son, recieved serious injuries. The disaster occurred when an ammonia generator exploded, wrecking the one-story structure. The loud noise which accompanied the explosion attracted the attention of people throughout the community, many of whom hurried to the scene.
Cox was discovered in a dying condition outside the boiler room a few minutes after the generator exploded. The younger Castello was huried to the roof of the building from which he was rescued by persons who rushed to the plant. Willie Castello, the father, is an engineer at the plant according to information received in Mobile. His son is tankman at the ice plant.
Shortly after the accident a Mobile physicain was summoned to treat the injured. The small casualty list was apprently attributable to the fact that only a few employees were on duty whe the explosion occurred.
Perhaps this explosion was too much for the Big Factory to come back from, and put them out of business. Perhaps the Pure Food and Child Labor laws had made the business unprofitable. Or maybe decreasing supply due to overfishing. Or a combination of all these things.
By the time of this 1943 map, the railroad is abandoned, the spur track for the factory is already just a dirt road, and the there is no indication building where the factory would have been.
It is also gone on this aerial photograph from the 1940s, where things do not look terribly different from today:
In the 20 years from 1923 to 1943, all trace of the Old Factory has vanished into the sea and sand.
Near the town of Tunnel Springs in southwest Alabama is a feature normally reserved for more mountainous areas: a railroad tunnel, abandoned for years, and relatively easy to find.
The tunnel is located up the abandoned line past the north end of what is now the Alabama Railroad. Wikipedia gives us the date of construction of the tunnel as 1899:
The route of the Alabama Railroad was originally constructed over several years (between 1880–1901) as the Pensacola & Selma Railroad and quickly became a part of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad network. The original line proceeded north from Corduroy, Alabama to Selma, Alabama. That portion of the line was abandoned by the Seaboard System prior to the merger with CSX in 1986. There was also a L&N branch that went to Camden from a junction just northeast of Corduroy that was abandoned prior to the merger into the Seaboard System in 1986. The remainder of the line north of Peterman, Alabama was abandoned approximately 1994 to include an 800+ foot tunnel built in 1899 located at Tunnel Springs, Alabama.
This should not be confused with the similarly-named and situated Alabama and Gulf Coast Railway, the former Frisco line only a few miles to the west.
As I’m always looking for things to do on that long stretch of Nowhere, Al, between Mobile and Montgomery, I decided to go find it. After looking at some topo maps, I got a pretty good idea of where it was.
This link in Google Maps gets you to a location where a trail that used to be the tracks crosses the road:
A last-minute one-night trip to Tuscaloosa afforded me the opportunity to do some rail fanning on the way back, mostly CSX in the Birmingham area.
I did not go looking for trains in Tuscaloosa itself. This is the only photo taken in Tuscaloosa, and it shows the remaining ballast and ties of the L&N line from Birmingham to Tuscaloosa. This was taken near the city water works along Jack Warner.
Rest assured there is still plenty of active rail in Tuscaloosa but we won’t be visiting it today.
Now in between here and Birmingham a couple of things happen. This line crosses the Alabama Southern shortline, which operates the former ICG eastward from Mississipi into Alabama. Eastward from that crossover, the dead L&N line goes active and used by Alabama Southern to send trains to CSX in Birmingham.
At Brookwood, the track comes under CSX ownership, the direct successor to the L&N. This is the “Birmingham Mineral subdivision” and it serves the still-active mines in that area.
This is a coal train that I caught next the the Lowe’s store off of I-20/59 in Bessemer, where the line from Brookwood joins with tracks that make a loop around the western side of Birmingham.
Here you can see another train waiting for this one to pass:
I was able to stay ahead of the train for a while and caught it again a couple of times.
Now back to downtown Birmingham. I got Amtrak 19 as it came into the station, and an intermodal train that passed immediately after.
These are views taken from the 1st avenue north viaduct that overlooks the 27th street interlock. I stood out on that bridge long enough for three trains to go under it before leaving Birmingham.
When I said “it’s almost like it was designed by a railfan”, that may or may not literally be the case, but the downtown street grid was planned around a “railroad reservation”, as Birmingham was laid out in the 1870s at the height of railroad importance.
The tracks within the railroad reservation remain active today, giving people in Birmingham a rare opportunity to engage in trainspotting or benching in the midst of the downtown core.
This “bird’s eye view” drawing from 1885 shows the area around Sloss Furnace. Just look at those happy little trains. The railroad lines are recognizable. The train nearest the top of the picture is on what would now be the CSX, the middle train is on the NS, and the bottom train is on a segment of track that no longer exists but is continuous with the extant Alabama and Tennessee River. Most of the land is still empty, but the street grid is already laid out.
That image is from Birmingham Rails, which has a lot of interesting maps and other images if you follow the links.
What follows is a smattering of pictures taken at various places around the city.
NS SD40-2 on the north side of town with an obviously ex-BN green one with spraypainted change of ownership:
The tail end of a CSX train passing over Graces Gap, which is where northbound trains cross over Red Mountain into Birmingham proper. This train has already passed the CSX control point called “Grace’s”, which is slightly south.
Caught the lead ES44AC of another train from the same overpass:
Downtown Birmingham is not only better-preserved than downtown Atlanta, it is also much easier to watch trains. It’s almost like they let a railfan design the place.
Birmingham has its own equivalent of Atlanta’s “gulch”, sort of. NS and CSX run right beside each other through the very center of town. Both railroads are double-track, and there are additional sidings and such, so a fairly wide path through downtown is devoted to rail.
Birmingham’s downtown street grid is (as in Atlanta) grade-separated from the railroads, except that in Birmingham many of the surface streets go under the tracks rather than uniformly over. The freeways and a few surface roads go over the tracks on viaducts that provide a good view of the trains below.
Birmingham has not built any structures completely over the top of the tracks, as Atlanta has. Therefore the view from the viaducts relatively unobstructed.
The bridges on 22nd street and Richard Arrington Blvd (which occupies the place of “21st” street in the grid) have curbside parking spaces on the bridge, so you can pull your car over right in the middle and stand next to it waiting for trains to come by.
You shouldn’t have to wait long, because these viaducts span main lines of both NS and CSX. (Birmingham’s other Class 1, BNSF, is a topic for another day)
The 24th street viaduct provides no such parking, and the sidewalk is only on one side of the road, so it is not as good as the others.
This is a view looking southwest from the Arrington Avenue viaduct. To the right of the tracks in the distance you can see the platforms of the Amtrak station. These two photos show two trains that went by in rapid succession, you can see the end of the first train still in the second picture.
This is looking northeast from the same place (and same train). Mountains loom ominously on the horizon.
Some blatantly “instagrammed” pictures of the same trains. You can see the Sloss Furnaces pretty clearly in the background of these.
Speaking of which, before getting back to the rail pictures, let’s throw in a few of the Sloss site itself. If you don’t look at these and say “I want to go to there“, then I don’t really understand how you like trains either.
27th Street Interlocking
As shown on the map above, this is a major intersection of NS and CSX lines. In spite of its name, it not directly viewable from 27th Street. I got a good view of it from the extreme western end of the Sloss property.
The shortline Alabama and Tennessee River also comes into play here, but I saw no sign of their trains.
“Emergency release instructions” for both roads :
An NS train is about to cross the double CSX tracks, with the downtown skyline in the background.
A train approaches on the CSX with a BNSF unit in the lead:
The Crescent train 19:
Anoether NS train waits under the 1st Avenue North viaduct before proceeding. The viaduct itself might have provided a good overhead view of all this stuff, had I managed to find a place to park near its approach.
At the other end (southwest) of the downtown corridor shared by NS and CSX, lies Railroad Park. It is a nice park, but I think if you are really out just to see trains rather, then you will get a better view from the viaducts.
Easy Livin’ in Irondale
These last were not taken in downtown Birmingham at all, but out in the suburb of Irondale where the NS tracks enter Norris Yard. Here these is a covered wooden platform beside the tracks with benches and picnic tables, so you can just sit in the shade and relax as the trains roll by.
I did drive around Norris as much as possible without entering obvious NS property, but I didn’t really feel like stopping anywhere to take pictures, so these are all taken from the platform. The sun was pretty low by this point, as can be seen in these pictures.
As some of you may have heard me remark, I have driven from Atlanta to Mobile so many times that I will go to great lengths to avoid the normal I-85/I-65 route and get some variety.
This time I went to Tuscaloosa on Friday, spent the night and Saturday morning there, and headed south in the afternoon.
Ignoring the route suggested by Google maps, I decided to follow the way that was burned into my memory from 20 years ago. The route that at that time most Mobile-area UA students followed:
AL 69 to Greensboro, then AL 25 down to AL 5, which very shortly leads to US 43, which takes you all the way to I-65 north of Mobile.
The 25 stretch is the most rural. It is almost nothing but farmland alternating with the manmade lakes where catfish are raised.
The towns along the way are tiny, one traffic light (if that) affairs. The kind of places that have feed and seed stores. The kind of places where the main road in the middle of town has a passive railroad crossing with no lights or swinging gate arms.
In Thomaston a sign proclaiming “Eat Pepper Jelly!” caught my eye. Smaller signs indicated the “Alabama Rural Heritage Center” was nearby.
I know now the center was closed (it’s Saturday hours are only 10-1), but it would not have mattered anyway because I was too clueless to realize which building it was in.
Instead I thought the signs were directing me to a large old building that once I got up to it, turned out to be an abandoned high school. The doors were padlocked, the window glass was broken, and the wooden wheelchair ramp was rotting. Clearly this place has been unused for some time, although the mere presence of such a ramp showed it had probably still been in use in the 1990s.
I was at this point still confused thinking this was the heritage center, which I imagined as some kind of museum. Signs had promised a gift shop at least, and pepper jelly. Yet here it was, abandoned and decaying.
The gym was in even worse shape than the main building. Trees were growing out of its roof.
The ground around these buildings was not overgrown, indicating it is still cared for. A flag was loudly flapping atop the school’s flagpole, which presumably someone had to raise and lower.
I decided to walk around between the school and its gym. Behind the gym the tattered tin roof of an old shed was groaning in the breeze, metal scraping against metal with each gust of wind.
The back door to the gym was off its hinges, so I went inside to take pictures. The main roof was gone except for its skeletal ribs, the sun shining in fueling plant growth in what had presumably once been the basketball court and the scene of many a prom and homecoming dance. Nice touch for Valentine’s Day.
The actual heritage center turned out to be in a renovated outbuilding on the side of the school opposite the gym, actually closer to the Pepper Jelly sign. But like I said it was closed. No pepper jelly today.