The Vagabond: Early land and water speculators in Gadsden area

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By Danny Crownover

In 1902, John L. Burnett introduced a bill in the U.S. Congress which, if passed, would authorize R.R. Ashbury and Associates to use the waterpower at Locks One, Two and Three on the Coosa River. The bill carried the right to dam the river, provided navigation was not obstructed.

A local newspaper called it a “gigantic waterpower scheme” and declared it would be beneficial to Gadsden, Anniston, Talladega and Birmingham.

Just a few days earlier, U.S. Senator Pettus of Alabama introduced a bill in the senate to permit the use of water locks far down the river, numbers 23 to 28, for power development, there being a number of concerns all over the country considering the feasibility of power projects on the Coosa.

Ashbury came to Gadsden and made an inspection of the field as the representative of G.H. Cutting & Company of Worcester, Mass. As a result of his survey, Ashbury obtained options on land at and below Greensport.

The deal included the riparian rights on both sides of the river, and it looked like the promoters of the idea meant business. Interested parties were making various investigations of the feasibility of power projects at low-lift locks, which, of course, meant low dams. They meant that comparatively little power can be developed.

It remained for Captain W.P. Lay of Gadsden to solve the power problem, which also meant solving the navigation and the flood control problems, all by constructing high dams. In 1906, Lay founded the Alabama Power Company and built the first high dam on the Coosa River.

In 1902, many big projects were being considered for Gadsden and surrounding territory. The coming of the Alabama Steel & Wire Company attracted many prospectors to the district, one of the most interesting being the re-opening of an old plan to develop the oil and gas resources of the district.

There was no doubt in the minds of some local landowners and promoters that plenty of oil could be found in this area, no matter what the experts said. A report that oil had been struck 14 miles from Gadsden at a depth of 1,500 feet caused a rush to this area.

The same report caused another prospecting company to secure leases on 30,000 acres of land in Etowah, Talladega and Calhoun counties. The leases were taken in the name of the Illinois Oil Bond Company.

A contract was closed with a Texas well driller to start drilling at once near Piedmont. Another concern was contracted to drill for oil near Spring Garden and Piedmont.

Some boring was done, but no oil or gas came out of the ground.

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