This week the Vagabond goes down the Black Creek for an adventure. The sites he passes by include the old Clayton’s gristmill, coal mines and nearby Sulphur Springs. These locations can be reached by the new Black Creek Trail that extends from the back of the Noccalula Falls campground to the Tuscaloosa Avenue/Black Creek Bridge near the Etowah County Rescue Squad building.
Opened about a year ago, the Black Creek Trail is already listed No. 3 in the top 100 best and most popular hiking trails in Alabama, with Little River Canyon No. 1 and Indian Falls Trail as No. 2, both located near Ft. Payne.
The trail was once the old Black Creek Road and runs parallel and west of Black Creek. The original old road is on the new trail after crossing the cascades behind the campsites and climbing to the top where the road goes through.
The trail gradually (and easily) descends to the creek. From this point to Tuscaloosa Avenue, the remains of the old Clayton’s coalmine operation can be seen. (WARNING: Several of these mines have reopened over the years and are very unstable and dangerous to enter. PLEASE STAY OUT!!!)
At various times between 1880 and 1930, coal was mined on a small scale within the city of Gadsden at the base of Lookout Mountain. The first entry was made near the bottom of the west wall of the Black Creek Gorge, about one-fourth mile below Noccalula Falls.
In 1902, W. P. Clayton organized the Noccalula Coal Company. The opening vein was 17” to 35” thick and at that time was expected to increase to seven feet.
Black Creek Road was a slum a few years back until the city cleaned it up. The area was infected with bootleggers, crime and occasional murders. One murder story often heard is that of a woman who killed her husband, dragged him into an unused coal mine and covered his body with lime. The husband was reported missing, and many years passed.
The woman’s conscience finally got the best of her and she told what she had done. A party was sent to uncover the remains. Nothing was found except a pocketknife and a belt buckle identified by the son to be his father’s. The lime had eaten the body, bones and all!
The Claytons, who once operated these mines, also operated a water gristmill. Clayton Mill was located on Black Creek a mile or so below Noccalula Falls on the home place of Charles A. Clayton and his wife Nancy Richards Clayton.
The mill was located about 50 yards north of the present-day Etowah County Rescue Squad building. This acreage was part of a tract of land originally granted to Joseph Clayton (father of Charles) by the federal government in 1855.
It was built and operated by Charles from 1895 until his death about 1918. Mr. Clayton granted Dwight Cotton Mill the right to build a dam across the creek on his property and to construct a pump station to supply water for the new textile mill. This water was pumped from another dam near the falls.
The dam on the Clayton’s property formed a sizable pond that provided sufficient waterpower to operate the gristmill, which Mr. Clayton erected soon after the dam was completed. The pond often was used for baptisms, swimming and fishing. A group of local doctors stocked the pond with bream and bass. The doctors spent many happy hours fishing at the pond.
At times, churches held baptismal ceremonies in the little pond. Many mothers also worried about their boys swimming and getting tangled up with a water moccasin.Even today, one can see the descendants of those early snakes, as there are many of them still around.
Clayton’s gristmill was a popular subject for early photographers, as its scenic beauty was widely known. One of these early photographs appeared in the rotogravure section of the Birmingham News. Traces of the “double upside down v-shaped” dam, which was made of wood, can be seen today protruding out of the creek bed.
The mill ground corn into meal for the Claytons and their neighbors. Nora Clayton, the youngest of the Claytons’ 10 children, remembered a bell at the mill that was rung when someone wanted to swap his corn for meal. It was her task at a very young age to go to the mill to make the exchange.
Nora also remembered her brothers’ summertime chore of diving into the millrace to remove lodged trash. She remembered how uneasy this operation made their mother, for fear the boys would tangle with a water moccasin.
The famous Sulphur Springs are located just below the Clayton’s mill site In 1869, there were plans to build a hotel at the springs to accommodate the many people that came to drink the strong black sulphur water. The spring was located on the west bank of Black Creek, a short distance north from the Tuscaloosa Avenue Bridge (this street was once known as Mineral Avenue).
At one time, there was a picnic ground and a park just north of the springs. The location was a gathering place for Sunday schools and lodges. On several occasions The City of Gadsden used it for Fourth of July celebrations, where the finest orators gave speeches.
Sulphur Springs disappeared long ago when the slough in which it was located was allowed to fill up. Supposedly, the stone wall and floor remain, but are buried under several feet of muck and debris. Today, there are remains of another spring on the east bank of Black Creek.
All of this area was part of a tract of land originally granted by the federal government to Joseph Clayton in 1855. It is through early pioneer settlers like the Claytons, undergoing extreme hardships and working with meager resources, bequeathed to us a part of a heritage upon which the greatness of Gadsden and surrounding cities were built.