By Danny Crownover
Soon after Baine County was created in the fall of 1866, a number of Gadsden citizens petitioned Probate Judge L.E. Hamlin to call an election to determine whether the town should be incorporated.
Under the old village code of Alabama, communities of not less than 150 and not over 2,000 population could petition the probate judge to start the machinery for incorporation. In 1866, Gadsden had from 300 to 500 people and less than a dozen stores.
Judge Hamlin was asked to name a commission to conduct the election. The voters favored incorporation, and a board of mayor and aldermen were elected. The aldermen who elected Col. R.B. Kyle as the first mayor of Gadsden in 1867 were Dr. Joseph Bevans, Major W.P. Hollingsworth, R.O. Randall and Herman Herzberg.
After Probate Judge James M. Moragne swore in the mayor and aldermen, the ceremony was celebrated with a banquet at the Gadsden Hotel. The event was featured by “speeches, toasts, wit, wine and mirth.” Kyle was toastmaster.
In those days the mayor was called an intendant, a term that probably was a holdover from the Spanish rule, since Spanish possessions and political subdivisions were ruled by intendants.
There was no newspaper in Gadsden to report the incorporation, but one did come around on July 2, 1867. The paper announced that intendant R.B. Kyle had called a meeting of the common council to correct tax assessments.
Kyle referred to the council as “corporate authorities.” One of the first city ordinances was a law against public drunkenness. Others that followed were for the protection of the public.
For many years after Gadsden was incorporated, the town experienced a lot of trouble with drunks on the streets yelling defiance to the police. When only one policeman served the municipality, he usually deputized bystanders to help him, and there were many struggles between the marshal and his special deputies and drunks and their friends. Such rows usually resulted in the officers dragging one or two rambunctious citizens or visiting firemen to the calaboose.
It seems fitting that Gadsden should have been started off under the direction of such men as Kyle, Bevans, Hollingsworth and Herzberg. Kyle was the richest man in town and for many years its largest taxpayer. He was a successful merchant and manufacturer. He and Hollingsworth built the first railroad into Gadsden, the five-mile stretch to Attalla that became a part of the N.C. & St. Louis System.
Herzberg, who had the courtesy title of “major”, was the area’s biggest merchant for many years and one of the principal builders of the city and county.
Randall was a native of Brockport, N.Y., being born there in 1840. He came to Gadsden in 1858 and opened a watch making business. He later established a jewelry store that was owned by the family of his son-in-law, the late C.F. Cross.
Dr. Bevans was a famous surgeon in the Confederate army who in subsequent years served Gadsden as mayor several times. All five aldermen were Confederate army veterans,
Hollingsworth served as a major and was a personal friend of CSA General Joe Wheeler.
Dave Lewis was Gadsden’s first town marshal and was a member of a pioneer and prominent family.
At the time, it was revealed that Gadsden was suffering from a housing shortage. The local newspaper said that many families had expressed a desire to settle in the city but went elsewhere because they could not find a house in which to live. The paper said that it could name 50 men of means who had sought a home but could not find one and were not encouraged by property owners who might have been able to build. The council recognized this situation and ordered Lewis to begin opening streets.
The original survey of Gadsden mapped building lots and streets down near the Coosa River, and it was some years before there was a demand for lots to the west. When the First Baptist Church was built at Fifth and Broad Streets. many of its members complained because it was “out in the woods.”
Lewis engaged 50 to 60 men and put them to work at opening Chestnut Street from the river to Sixth Street, but and before he completed the work, houses began to spring up.
It is said that when the city council came to naming the streets, Major R.O. Randall moved that Pea Ridge be changed to Walnut Street, Church Street to Chestnut Street and Railroad Street to Broad Street. He also named Locust Street at the same time. The motion was carried.
Lewis said this new section of Gadsden had all the advantages and charm of the frontier. “Give us the bear,” he said, “and we will compete with the wilderness of the west.” To back up this statement, Captain J.T. Barrett, a leading businessman, stepped out a few hundred yards from his lodge at the southwest corner of Broad and First streets one morning and killed two wild turkeys and a dozen squirrels in what is now Moragne Park.
The Coosa River supplied great quantities of catfish, buffalo and suckers, while Big Wills Creek furnished the best trout fishing in the south.
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