The Wills Valley Railroad was incorporated in 1852, and the decades of 1860 and 1870 witnessed the coming of the railroad which gave Fort Payne and the county rail connections with the leading cities of the country. This was a crucial innovation for the city that offered great opportunity for growth.
Fort Payne, in 1887, was a small rural community, a little village of less than 500 people, surrounded by Wills Valley cotton fields. The families making their livelihood here included those of the McCartneys, Claytons, Greens, Duncans, Poes, Cravens, Garretts, Lyons and Smiths. Weather and crops were important topics of conversation, though some attention was given to news of the industrial growth in the Birmingham-Bessemer area of the Alabama mineral belt. But that was almost 100 miles away.
Rumors did persist that Fort Payne, too, was surrounded by rich mineral deposits. But none of the original residents here could have predicted the mad rush of prospecting, speculation and development which was soon to descend upon them. For, of all the industrial booms which developed in north Alabama towns thought to be possibilities for future “Magic Cities”, Fort Payne’s boom was by far the most colorful and spectacular.
The three-year boom period, which began in 1889, was to provide historians and amateur buffs with more absorbing factual material – as well as exaggerated myths – than had the whole previous fifty-year period beginning with the forced removal of the Indians.
Fort Payne, with its small school, one church building and few businesses, had not grown much in its half century of existence and remained an unincorporated village when wealthy and ambitious men focused their attention upon some mineral samples from a ridge and devised fantastic plans for a giant manufacturing city.
Four men, Milford W. Howard, C. O. Godfrey, W. P. Rice and J. W. Spaulding, were responsible for the speculation mania which was touched off in Fort Payne in l889.
In 1885, coal and iron ore were discovered in the area and investors envisioned a Pittsburgh of the South. The Fort Payne Coal and Iron Company was organized in 1888 and purchased 32,000 acres in and around Fort Payne. The City of Fort Payne was incorporated on February 28, 1889.
The Fort Payne Coal and Iron Company, having by now purchased 32,000 acres of land in the vicinity, immediately set about designing a city and preparing for hordes of speculators and fortune seekers. Streets were graded and new ones opened across the valley and up the ridges. A water supply was developed and a two-mile-long sewage system was constructed at a cost of $35,000.
The Boom Years began. The influx of “Yankee” investors swelled the population from about 450 to thousands. Mines were being opened and more and more laborers and investors arrived at Fort Payne. Industrial companies, banks and investment companies were organized, and stores, schools and churches were built. The DeKalb Hotel, occupying an entire square in the center of town, was constructed. The largest and best equipped hotel in northeast Alabama, this hotel boasted 180 rooms, a billiard room, a huge dining room and a ballroom. The owners refused offers as high as $100,000 for this hotel. Nearby an $80,000 opera house, now a tourist attraction, was built.
To landscape the city, the Fort Payne Coal and Iron Company hired Charles Landstreet who had come here from Virginia in 1887. Public parks were created, including Union Park across from the DeKalb Hotel, the site of the present City Park on Gault Avenue. One of the most interesting attractions developed under Landstreet’s supervision was Manitou Cave, located in the side of Lookout Mountain. Bridges and winding stairways were built leading to the huge ballroom, where dancers could watch the reflections of hundreds of candles glitter from the stalactites of the walls and ceiling. Later electricity was installed inside the cave and a public park created near the entrance.
To facilitate the movement of ores and fuel, the Fort Payne Coal and Iron Company even built and equipped a railroad. The Mineral Railroad, begun in 1889 and completed the following January, ran from the Alabama Great Southern Railroad in the valley in a northeastern direction to Beeson Gap and eastward to its terminal at the Lookout Mountain Coal Mine. A network of sidings in the manufacturing district made it possible to load and unload freight at the factories. The train consisted of’ a locomotive, combination passenger and baggage coaches and coal and construction cars. Regular routes were run from the city to Lookout Village. A considerable amount of passenger and freight service was provided for the public in addition to the company’s business.
By 1890 Fort Payne had quite an impressive directory of businesses and factories. The Fort Payne and the Bay State Furnaces had been constructed. The Fort Payne Rolling Mill and Steel Company was said to be the largest of its kind in the South. The Alabama Builders’ Hardware Company was one of the most extensive hardware manufacturing factories in the South, and a stove foundry was being constructed by the Fort Payne Stove Works. The Fort Payne Basket and Package Factory, located two miles south of Fort Payne, and the Fort Payne Fire Clay Works appeared to be promising industries.
During the latter half of 1890, it began to appear that the mineral resources, especially coal and iron, were below expectations both in quality and quantity. Thus far the Fort Payne Coal and Iron Company had actually been operating at a loss. This, coupled with a national economic panic, ended the Boom in 1893.
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