Today’s guest columnist is Melissa Young.
Elyton—once Jefferson County’s seat and a springboard of possibility—is now just a tiny blip on Birmingham’s historic radar.
Few people know, however, that in 1870, Elyton was predicted to be the site of the state’s next economic miracle.
Birmingham won out—drawing settlers and business in the middle of a depression, despite its rough reputation and dilapidated condition!
One family’s story demonstrates the nature of its victory, which crushed Elyton’s hopes in the process.
In the spring of 1873, Samuel and Henrietta Marx decided to leave Montgomery, After a run of bad luck and a fire at their dry goods store, the couple finally succumbed to the crushing debt they’d accumulated during Reconstruction. Forced to declare bankruptcy, they’d lost their business and home.
With little left to lose, Samuel and Henrietta relocated, hoping for a better life for their four small children. They packed up what remained of their household, said goodbye to their friends, and traveled ninety miles north to Central Alabama. They’d heard about the region’s state- and federally-funded rebuilding efforts after the Civil War. A few scandals had slowed progress and stained some railroad managers’ reputations, but it still seemed promising.
Birmingham had been built by a group of land speculators two years before, in 1871. Because its founders heavily promoted their “magic” city, Samuel and Henrietta considered it as a destination. They couldn’t afford to fail again though, so they sent Samuel’s twenty-two-year-old son Morris and Henrietta’s brother Charles Neumann ahead to scope it out.
Although Morris and Charles were able to rent storefronts immediately, they had trouble making ends meet. The unstable postwar economy was a contributing factor, but the city’s founders—the men who formed the Elyton Land Company—were largely to blame.
The corporation was fighting bankruptcy itself. Overspeculation and corruption, which enabled the company to exist, were taking their toll on the state and the nation. Making matters worse was board president James R. Powell, who had little experience in city planning or management.
Birmingham’s railroad lines and construction stalled in 1873, creating housing shortages and delaying the transportation of goods and supplies. Drainage issues created swampy streets and a giant mud hole in the middle of the city. Even before the cholera epidemic in July, residents complained about the lack of clean water.
Civic elites’ quest to control the local government was also backfiring. Powell’s connections to regional and state legislators would ultimately triumph, but Black and white laborers were balking at attempts to limit and exploit them. Public displays of outrage and their rejection of long-term employment were additional setbacks.
Rent was cheap, so young men like Charles Neumann and Morris Marx were unbothered by Birmingham’s growing pains. Their experiences, however, caused Samuel and Henrietta to hesitate. The couple decided to settle two miles west in Elyton, the village that gave the land company its name.
Samuel and Henrietta were swayed by more than the stability that Elyton offered their little ones. In 1870, the year before Birmingham was founded, Selma and Montgomery journalists predicted the small town would be the site of the state’s next economic miracle.
Reporters based their work on the writings of Robert Henley, an Elyton newspaperman who highlighted Jefferson County’s mineral district, politics, and culture. Portraying his little town as a sleeping industrial giant in a New South, he pointed to the endless possibilities in the rich iron and coal seams that surrounded it.
Despite warning signs of a financial panic that was just around the corner, Elyton’s mining and production prospects seemed limitless, and the railroad projects the papers listed—the Grand Trunk Railroad (later known as the Mobile & Elyton), the Corinth & Elyton, and the Elyton & Aberdeen—promised to extend jobs and markets. That meant customers and trade for storekeepers like Samuel and Henrietta.
On April 7, 1870, the Selma’s Times-Argus went a step further, drawing potential farmers to the surrounding area by reprinting an article Henley had written about the Central Alabama Agricultural Association. It described the annual fair the organization was planning near Elyton, detailing its fountains, lakes, and “trotting track.” Pitching the town’s resources as much as the association’s support, the article noted the amphitheater and a three-story exhibition hall that were under construction, emphasizing a rooftop observatory and other forms of entertainment for prospective visitors.
Such articles got people talking about Elyton and Central Alabama, which seemed to offer something for everyone, whether merchants, farmers, laborers, or investors.
The Marxes were not the only ones listening closely. The men who created Birmingham centralized Elyton in the name of their corporation and made sure railroad construction shifted to serve their needs. Admiring Henley’s vision, they drew from his language to market their new city a year later and had Alabama’s governor appoint him its first mayor.
Their plan worked.
Birmingham’s rough edges smoothed out, and the depression sparked by the Panic of 1873 morphed into the industrial boom that Henley predicted. Interest in Elyton waned as the promising village lost its growing reputation, status, county seat, and most of its population to its neighbor.
Samuel and Henrietta were among those who relocated once again. Elyton’s markets shrank and their remaining money dwindled. In September 1874, just over a year after their trek from Montgomery, the couple pooled their interests with Morris and Charles, moving to Birmingham to share living expenses and a single shop with the two bachelors.
Luckily, the Marx family’s business grew under Charles Neumann’s name and management. The store they founded together finally gave Morris and other family members the springboard they needed to increase their income, clientele, and civic networks. By the time Samuel Marx died in 1886, both his family and Birmingham were thriving. He and Henrietta had two additional children, who—like Morris and Charles—became influential residents through their businesses, charities, and building projects.
Elyton was not so lucky.
Like Robert Henley, whose political career was cut short by tuberculosis, it began to perish soon after its peak. Weakened by the tricks and ambitions of the Elyton Land Company’s stockholders, the town straggled alongside the larger city for 40 years.
The final death knell was the Greater Birmingham campaign, a wide-ranging annexation plan that led to its absorption in 1910.
Dr. Melissa Young is a public historian who specializes in American Jewish history, women’s studies, and the US South. In 2016, she helped create the archives of what is now the Alabama Holocaust Education Center and served as its archivist for three years. She is currently writing a book on the establishment of Birmingham’s Jewish community and splits her time between teaching for UAB and working on community projects like the Beth-El Civil Rights Experience.
David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown. He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).
Invite David to speak for free to your group about how we can have a more prosperous metro Birmingham. email@example.com