Retrospect: The Birmingham & Southeastern Railroad

Charging into Alabama history, then quietly fading out.

Engine No. 200 ran the tracks of the Birmingham & Southeastern Railroad from 1926 until 1953. Photo courtesy of the Alabama Department of Archives & History

For a time during the early twentieth century there existed amidst the gently rolling green hills and farmland of Macon, Bullock and Elmore counties a short-line railroad with a grand and ambitious name. At its peak, the Birmingham & Southeastern Railroad (B&SE) consisted of a mere 48.2 miles. Although the line never achieved its founder’s dreams of stretching from Birmingham to the Gulf of Mexico, the railroad played a part in one of Alabama’s great construction projects.

The railroad’s industrious champion was businessman William Madison Blount. Born in Bainbridge, Georgia, in 1854, Blount was a successful merchant in Union Springs, the seat of Bullock County, located 40 miles east of Montgomery. Blount and his associates started the Union Springs & Northern Railway Co. on March 8, 1901, with $100,000 in capital. Work began immediately on the initial 7.5-mile route from Union Springs to Fort Davis, the Macon County town where the new venture would meet the larger Seaboard Air Line Railroad.

In November 1901, investors and members of the press boarded “The Kathleen,” a special locomotive named after Blount’s daughter, and embarked on the new railroad’s inaugural ride.

The route between Union Springs and Fort Davis was only the beginning. Blount and his financial investors envisioned a railroad extending from the iron and coal mills of Birmingham through the pine forests and the cotton-rich farmland of Alabama’s eastern counties. They planned for new depots in Pell City, Union Springs and Dothan with the terminus along the docks of St. Andrews Bay in Panama City, Florida.

In April 1911, reflecting these ambitions, Blount changed the company’s name to the Birmingham & Southeastern Railroad.

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For a number of years, it seemed nothing would stand in the way of the B&SE as it marched toward Birmingham. By June 1912, workers had laid 20 miles of new track connecting Fort Davis north to Milstead. That same year, the B&SE purchased the Tallassee & Montgomery Railroad, which connected Milstead to Tallassee, site of a prosperous textile mill, and nearby Eclectic, a town with five operating sawmills. The purchase price was $146,000 cash and B&SE stock worth an additional $60,000. A crowd of 5,000 attended the ceremonies welcoming the B&SE to Eclectic, which included a speech by Gov. Emmet A. O’Neal.

A remnant of the old B&SE track leads to the Tallassee Mill. Photo courtesy of the Alabama Department of Archives & History

Blount’s railroad now extended more than 48 miles across three counties and boasted connections with two larger east-west commercial lines. The B&SE route included 95 timber trestles and an impressive metal bridge spanning the Tallapoosa River. So smooth and scenic was the route that its crewmembers nicknamed it the “Bump & Slide Easy.”

W. M. Blount possessed an abiding confidence in his enterprise. But as drums of war rang out in Europe, the railroad magnate found that fewer financiers were willing to support his expansion plans. Prospects turned quickly and his vision of a railroad extending from Birmingham to Panama City stalled for lack of capital. Wartime hardships were compounded by disastrous springtime floods in 1919, which damaged the tracks. W. M. Blount died in July 1919, after a three-week bout of typhoid fever contracted during a business trip to Washington, D.C.

Control of the railroad soon went to its deceased founder’s son, Winton Malcolm “Beau” Blount (1890-1944), who had recently returned from wartime service. It took time for the energetic new president to make his mark and overcome the compounding misfortunes of 1919. Three events in the year 1923 helped save the plucky B&SE. The railroad replaced its aging steam-powered passenger trains with cost-efficient gasoline coaches. The mill at Tallassee announced a 50% expansion, which led to more commercial business for the railroad. Most importantly, the B&SE entered a partnership with the Alabama Power Co. to transport the necessary materials for the construction of a series of hydroelectric dams in the area. Crews added branch lines from Eclectic to the worksites. Each day, up to 125 carloads of sand, gravel and other supplies traversed the countryside rail. Flush with business, the B&SE had to rent locomotives to meet demand. By the time the three dams in the area were completed on the Coosa and Tallapoosa rivers, the short-line railroad had hauled an estimated 40,000 carloads of material for the projects.

But those heady days did not long continue after completion of the dams. Soon the railroad found itself in financial straits once more. In 1937, it suspended all services to both Eclectic and Union Springs and began a slow decline amidst a changing commercial landscape. The northernmost stretch of the line — from the cotton mill in Tallassee to nearby Milstead, where it connected to a larger railroad — remained profitable. Yet those profits were negated by maintenance costs and other losses along the remainder of the line. Bowing to this reality, executives pruned the B&SE to merely the seven miles of track from Tallassee to Milstead. The discontinued 43 miles of rail were pulled up and sold for scrap. Among the workers who undertook this mournful task was Winton Malcolm “Red” Blount (1921-2002), the teenaged grandson of the railroad’s founder who would go on to his own successful career in business and philanthropy.

A contract with the U.S. Post Office kept the B&SE running from 1955 until 1964. Three mail trains ran between Tallassee and Milstead six days a week. At the same time, nearly all other commercial and passenger traffic on the railroad ceased. Improvements to Alabama Highway 229 made it faster and cheaper to ship goods on trucks rather than trains. In 1963, the B&SE lost $25,000. When the mail contract ended, the railroad’s losses far outweighed its profits. A July 1964 report affixed the company’s available cash at the ignominious amount of $17.

A train traversed the rolling line of the “Bump and Slide Easy” between Tallassee and Milstead for the final time on March 5, 1965. The engine named “Tecumseh” pulled eight empty boxcars and a single load of textile material bound for New England. The company ceased operations the following day and the Birmingham & Southeastern Railroad faded into history.

Historian Scotty E. Kirkland is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He lives in Wetumpka. This story first appeared in the October 2021 issue of Business Alabama.

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