Tunnel Springs, Alabama

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:

https://www.google.com/maps/place/31%C2%B040’19.7%22N+87%C2%B013’21.4%22W/@31.672144,-87.222623,18z/data=!4m2!3m1!1s0x0:0x0

From there, I walked south along the railroad. There were no ties or rails left on this part of the railroad, making a smooth walk.

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Obviously by the ruts in the ground, people drive off-road here a lot, so if you have a 4×4 you could just drive right to the tunnel.

Getting close to the tunnel:

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Nearing the tunnel entrance, the trail gets pretty muddy. You have been warned.

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This picture, you can kind of see how much water is right in front of the tunnel.

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It’s actually drier inside the tunnel itself.

 

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I walked far enough to see daylight from the other end, and then turned around.

The ceiling is home to a large number of bats. The sound of them chirping is quite loud, and the whole place smells like guano.

 

Again with Alabama train pictures

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.

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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.

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Here you can see another train waiting for this one to pass:

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I was able to stay ahead of the train for a while and caught it again a couple of times.

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Now back to downtown Birmingham. I got Amtrak 19 as it came into the station, and an intermodal train that passed immediately after.

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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.

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University of Alabama, Wilson Hall (Demolished 2011)

These seem to be the only photos I have from when I explored this building shortly before it was torn down. I thought I took more.

Wilson had been used as a lab for studying children, as there was a large play room with one-way mirrors to watch the kids play. I don’t seem to have saved any photos of that.

Headless teddy bear see-saw in the basement:

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One of the heads:

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This toilet looked like people had been using it long after it had been disconnected from water:

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The attic. Now you know where my twitter profile picture is from:

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More 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.

As the “Birmingham Wiki” says:

The Railroad Reservation is a plot of land, 1000 feet wide by 4,780 feet long in the center of Birmingham‘s street grid, set aside in William Barker‘s original plat of the city for use by the railroads and related industries.

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:

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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.

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Caught the lead ES44AC of another train from the same overpass:

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I managed to beat that train downtown, and catch it again from the parking lot of Carrigan’s Public House.

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A different CSX train, this one showing the contrast between the “Bright Future” and “Dark Future” (fan nickname) paint schemes:

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UP power on NS, taken down under the Richard Arrington Blvd bridge.

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Downtown Birmingham Railfanning

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.

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Viaducts

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.

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This is looking northeast from the same place (and same train). Mountains loom ominously on the horizon.

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Some blatantly “instagrammed” pictures of the same trains. You can see the Sloss Furnaces pretty clearly in the background of these.

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Sloss Furnaces

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.

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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 :

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An NS train is about to cross the double CSX tracks, with the downtown skyline in the background.

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A train approaches on the CSX with a BNSF unit in the lead:

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The Crescent train 19:

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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.

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Railroad Park

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.

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 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.

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Marengo County High School, 1909

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.

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