The annals of literature contain few protagonists with more varied lives than that of Charles Linn, the Finnish-born immigrant who established the National Bank of Birmingham. A man of contradiction, he trusted no one with his money yet himself became a banker. He lived miserly in his early American years and later built Birmingham’s first skyscraper. Linn traveled the world and spoke several languages. In his waning years, he appropriated the wisdom of a sage, often speaking and writing in maxims.
In the five decades before he came to Birmingham, Linn was an apothecary’s apprentice, rose from deck hand to sea captain and worked as a tin peddler, a matchstick maker, grocer and merchant.
He was born Karl Erik Englebert Sjödahl on June 13, 1814, in Nyland Province, Finland. His Swedish parents arranged to send their son to a private school in Abo. An 1827 fire destroyed much of the city and brought his education to an early end. He began a brief and unhappy tenure in a Jakobstad apothecary. Soon, the youngster defiantly took to the sea. For nearly a decade thereafter, commercial ships were his home. He rose from a stowaway to captain of his own vessel and made dozens of transatlantic voyages.
He first glimpsed America’s shore in 1833. A few years later, he left his seafaring life behind and settled in New Orleans. He arrived in Montgomery in 1838 and took the name Charles Linn. During his first years there, Linn lived tightfistedly, sleeping in cotton warehouses rather than spending money for room and board. He bought eggs and chickens in Montgomery and sold them at a profit downriver and along the docks in Mobile. He soon expanded this venture into a wholesale mercantile concern.
Business during the 1840s and 1850s was good for Charles Linn. By the onset of the Civil War, he had amassed a savings of more than $400,000. In 1861, he elected to relocate his large family to Germany for the duration of the conflict. During that voyage, a travel writer named J. Ross Browne listened intently as Linn espoused the Confederate cause, the necessity of the preservation of slavery and the evils of Republicanism. The Irishman Browne was saddened to hear a fellow immigrant to America’s shores “tinctured with the heresies of rebellion.” Had Linn only immigrated to Massachusetts rather than Alabama, things might have been different, Browne felt: “I don’t think his heart was in the movement, though his pocket, doubtless, felt a considerable interest in it.”
Upon his return, Linn attempted to aid the Confederacy by returning to a ship’s prow. At his own expense, he outfitted a 193-foot sidewheel riverboat and attempted to run the Union blockade carrying cotton and cattle hides to Cuba. But the winds were against the aging sea captain; his ship was captured on its maiden voyage. Linn spent much of the remainder of the war incarcerated in New York.
After brief postwar business ventures in New Orleans and Montgomery, Linn was enticed by the president of the Elyton Land Co. to the promising community of Birmingham. Espousing great confidence in the future, Linn purchased the large commercial lot at the corner of 1st Avenue North and 20th Street for the price of $400 (a steal at roughly $9,500 today). There in 1872 with $50,000 in gold, Linn established the town’s first financial institution. The original, wooden structure belied its sturdy name: The National Bank of Birmingham. Unlike the bank, its first headquarters was temporary. Though Birmingham had fewer than 1,500 residents, it would soon boast one of the region’s finest bank buildings.
Onlookers and naysayers aplenty beheld the rising three-story stone building with awe. Many viewed the extravagant construction project as a sign of Charles Linn’s senility or pretentiousness, as “Linn’s Folly,” rather than a proof of his business acumen or abiding confidence in the young town. Still, when it was completed in late 1873 the National Bank building became a symbol of Birmingham’s promise. On New Year’s Eve, 1873, Linn threw open the doors of his bank for an elaborate ball. No longer a folly, the bank was “like a monument of faith.” Six years later, deposits neared $100,000.
As the bank continued to grow, the restless Linn expanded to other interests in Birmingham. In addition to five years’ service as an alderman, he invested heavily in Jones Valley real estate and established the successful Linn Iron Works. Begun in 1875 with the purchase of machinery from the defunct Confederate iron works in Selma, Linn’s concern was later acquired by the powerful Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Co., and eventually became a part of U.S. Steel.
The occasion of Linn’s 67th birthday in 1881 coincided with a lunar eclipse. In an elaborate public celebration, he offered a free evening of music and entertainment in a park near the National Bank headquarters. In concluding remarks before the eclipse, Linn said he wanted to be buried in Oak Hill Cemetery overlooking Birmingham, so that he could “walk out on Judgement Day and view the greatest industrial city in the entire South.”
Charles Linn died on August 7, 1882. Thereafter, National Bank Vice President William Berney was promoted to run the institution. Linn’s only surviving son, Edward, later became the bank’s cashier. Two years later, National Bank merged with the City Bank of Birmingham to create the First National Bank. That institution was later known as AmSouth Bancorporation, one of the largest and most prosperous banks in Alabama history. In 2006, AmSouth and Regions Financial completed their $10 billion merger, which combined the two banks’ assets to $140 billion and approximately $100 billion in deposits. According to our Bank Performance listing on page 23 of this issue, Regions Bank had total assets in 2021 of $162.2 billion.
Charles Linn’s symbolic three-story building occupied 1st Avenue North & 20th Street until 1906. It was replaced by the towering Brown Marx Building, which today stands more than four times higher. By the end of the decade, the completion of several other skyscrapers transformed the site of Birmingham’s first bank into the self-styled “heaviest corner in the South.” Should a certain Finnish sea captain emerge from Oak Hill Cemetery today, he would find a city larger, certainly taller, than even he could have ever imagined.
Historian Scotty E. Kirkland is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He lives in Wetumpka.
This article appeared in the October 2022 issue of Business Alabama.