The Vagabond – Early iron ore mines in Gadsden Part 4


The Vagabond started a new series a few weeks ago about the iron ore mines around the Gadsden area and how they got started. There was some surprising history to be found.

As mentioned earlier, the early settlers knew the presence in the Gadsden area of iron ore. John S. Moragne, one of the first settlers, discovered in 1850 the outcrops of red iron ore in and near Gadsden. 

Soon after, he engaged in the surface mining of the iron ore. Moragne employed a few persons to pick up the loose ore on the surface and to dig shallow trenches along the outcrop. The ore was hauled by wagons to steamboats. After The War between the States, Moragne developed the mines. Later upon completion of the railways in 1870, the ore was loaded on cars and shipped to distant furnaces.

In the late 1870’s, Thomas O’Conner started the O’Conner Mining Company and opened up red iron ore mines on Shinbone Ridge. Hundreds of tons of iron ore, mostly red hematite from the nearby ridge, usually was stored at the plant site. It was at first hauled in by wagons, but finally a railroad spur was built to the mines. 

After O’Conner’s death from a duel, the Hammond family took over the mines. This week we will start with a little about this family.

One of the most prominent and influential pioneer families of Attalla was that of Richmond F. Hammond. The family moved to the area in 1872 from their 3,000-acre plantation in the rich and fertile Beaver Valley in St. Clair County, where Mr. Hammond’s father settled in 1820.

The Civil War had freed their 67 slaves, who came to this county where their children might have more advantages. 

The Hammonds bought a block where the Attalla Baptist church now stands. Mr. Hammond died soon afterward, leaving his wife to manage alone. A most forceful woman with a good business head on capable shoulders, she built up a comfortable fortune with the aid of her sons and daughters.

Two children died in infancy, but seven grew to maturity – Albert, Joseph, W.B. Pope, John B., Miss Nena, Miss Bevans and Newton.

The Hammond sons became successful businessmen, Albert, who first started the Hammonds iron ore mines, was probably the most successful, although he died at the age of 27 years. Albert was on the way to a large fortune when he was overtaken by death and Joseph (Joe) had to take over.

The other boys also engaged in iron ore mining and merchandising. All of them accumulated considerable money and property, with the exception of W.B. Pope. He became a lawyer and moved to McAlester, Okla. Pope rose high in his profession and served two terms as probate judge of his county. 

Miss Bevans married John Staton of Atlanta, Ga., and became the mother of two star football players at Georgia Tech. Miss Nena never married.

The family built a six-room house, but as the children grew up, Mrs. Hammond erected a 12-room colonial residence that was a center of hospitality in the good old days. Friends and visitors enjoyed many house parties there.

Earlier when the Civil War came about, Mr. Hammond, a young man subject to service in the Confederate Army was owner of the 3,000-acre farm and 67 slaves. He produced so much food and cotton needed by the army that he was ordered to stay at home. Within two years, however, the army had be-come so decimated that Hammond was ordered to join up. He promptly did so, fighting to the end of the conflict.

Hammond was only 52 years old when he died. When he left for the war, he discharged his white overseer and placed two elderly slaves, Uncle Joe and Uncle John, in charge. They were loyal throughout.

Mrs. Hammond was an able manager who directed the work of the slaves with complete success. She was something of a diplomat as well. 

After the ceasefire order had sounded, a large Union army was camped near her home. She sent for all of the officers and entertained them at dinner, largely to induce them not to seize any of her property. In a few days, however, the camp followers and stragglers came along and seized a lot of stored food. 

One of the men took a fancy to a young mule and decided to confiscate it and ride the rest of the way home. The mule had been trained to the plow by a young black person and had never been handled by any other person. 

When the soldier attempted to put a bridle on him, the mule rebelled and became dangerous. The soldier pulled his pistol and started to shoot the animal when Mrs. Hammond interfered. She had the mule caught and turned it over to the soldier, knowing all the time that the animal, if not tied fast with a rope, would slip its bridle and come back home.

The mule was back the next morning.

When General Robert E. Lee began to invade Pennsylvania, Confederate money became more valuable and could be exchanged almost dollar for dollar for Union money. Mrs. Hammond saw then that the South would lose, and she began exchanging some of her Confederate paper bills for Union silver. Mrs. Hammond collected about $3,000 that way. When the Yankee regiment camped near her home, she turned it over to Uncle Joe and told him to hide it and not to tell her where it was so that she could resist any pressure or torture that might be inflicted on her.

Mrs. Hammond’s dinner for the Yankee officers obviated any such necessity.

When Mr. Hammond came home from the war, he casually asked his wife if she had any money. She told him to ask Uncle Joe and he did. The $3,000 was found hidden under the marble slab of a grave in the family cemetery.

With freedom given to his black dependents, Mr. Hammond gave Uncle Joe and Uncle John sections of land and a year’s supply of food and clothing. Not only did he show his appreciation of their loyalty in this substantial way, Mr. Hammond named his sons Joe and John after them. Many today could ever understand and appreciate the close relations of the whites and blacks in pre-war days.

Joe Hammond was about 13 years old when he became interested in the mining industry. From the beginning, he was a mining engineer and mine operator. For a numbers of years, Joe operated what was called the Etowah Mines for the Alabama Company. He later leased the mines at Tumblin Gap and operated them, selling the ore to the Sloss Sheffield Company.

Joe Hammond’s early association with the mining industry and his long career in it gave him a practical knowledge of the geology of Etowah County that was unequalled. Joe’s opinion about ores was usually correct, and his knowledge gave him the position as one of the foremost geologists in the state.

Joe Hammond’s death came as a result of a lingering illness from which he had suffered for 10 years.

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