The Pratt Mines are a collection of former coal mines operated from the 1870s to the 1950s to produce foundry coal and furnace coke from the Pratt seam (originally the "Browne seam" in the vicinity of what is now Pratt City.
The first shaft mine in the area was sunk by William Gould and the area was further developed by Henry DeBardeleben's Pratt Coal & Coke Company beginning in 1878 to serve Linn Iron Works and Alice Furnace in downtown Birmingham. DeBardeleben named the company for his father-in-law and benefactor Daniel Pratt. While he focused on sales, his partner Truman Aldrich worked with engineer Llewellyn Johns to establish the mining and coking operations.
Under their supervision, the Pratt Company opened two slope mines (Slope No. 1 and Slope No. 2), and then opened Shaft No. 1. As the mining operation grew, contractor Frank O'Brien was kept busy by the company, erecting coke ovens and other surface works near the mines, which followed the seam's outcrop to the northeast and southwest of the first mine opening.
The mines were connected to downtown Birmingham's "Railroad Reservation" by the six-mile long Birmingham & Pratt Mines Railroad and DeBardeleben was selling coal to Linn Iron Works and the Birmingham Rolling Mills. DeBardeleben built his own Alice Furnace at the rail terminus, engineered specifically to make iron with Pratt coke. Soon the mines were also supplying the Thomas and Sloss Furnaces as well.
As demand grew, the Pratt Company increased its reliance on leasing convicts from the State, housing them in guarded barracks, recognized by the state as the Pratt Mines Prison. Leased convicts unearthed about 120 tons per day in the beginning, and 1,500 tons of coal and 300 tons of coke per day by 1881. That year DeBardeleben sold the company to Enoch Ensley. Five years later Ensley's holdings were acquired by the Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Company which invested heavily in expanding operations to fuel demand at its Ensley Works. Engineer Erskine Ramsey was made superintendent of the Pratt Mines division of TCI in 1887, and worked to increase output and quality while lowering costs. New slope mines opened southwest of Pratt City, toward Wylam.
Ramsay engineered the digging of a new ventilation shaft and designed a means of capturing heat from the coke ovens to power steam engines for hoists and compressors. He developed a system of shaking screens to separate lump coal from less-valuable slack, allowing the company to raise prices. The operation of the mines improved, but was still beset by labor problems and costly accidents. An 1889 strike at the mine was easily stifled by leasing more convicts. A fatal explosion in the No. 1 mine killed 10 convicts and a free laborer. Ramsey was promoted to chief engineer of all TCI's Alabama mines in 1894.
TCI was acquired by U.S. Steel in 1906 and another round of capital investment followed. The company ceased using convict labor in 1914 and built guarded "model villages" around some of its more remote mine sites to attract and retain more skilled and reliable miners.
As the market for metallurgical coal matured, the product produced in the Pratt mines became less marketable. The former Pratt mines faded into history, with no surface works remaining by the end of the 1950s.
- Armes, Ethel (1910) The Story of Coal and Iron in Alabama. Birmingham: Birmingham Chamber of Commerce