Underground river

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There are numerous references, some fictional, some not, to an underground river flowing beneath downtown Birmingham. UAB geology instructor George Brockman attested to the presence of a below-ground stream downtown. The floor of Jones Valley, like much of the Birmingham District, consists primarily of limestone karsts. Limestone is a relatively soft sedimentary rock which is easily worn and shaped by eons of water flow. Slightly acidic runoff can accelerate the formation of caverns which become sinkholes when they collapse.

Walter Bryant collected several reports in a 1975 Birmingham News article. The following expands on that list:


[edit] Early reports

  • Early settlers were supposedly informed by Native Americans that an underground stream ran the full length of the county. According to Leah Rawls Atkins' 1981 history, The Valley and the Hills, "Indian children, when they came into the white settlements to trade at the stores, would play with pioneer children and tell them stories of how they had come from a long canoe ride on this underground river."
  • According to a 1954 account by his granddaughter, engineer William Barker, who laid out the city's lot lines for the Elyton Land Company, was convinced of the presence of an underground river.
  • R. H. L. Wharton purchased the "water privilege" for the infant city in 1871 and dug wells on 2nd Avenue North at 20th and between 20th and 21st Streets. The latter well was reported to have struck an underground stream and to be inexhaustible. Wharton's wells were closed after the establishment of the Birmingham Water Works in 1872.
  • Asked in the 1880s, older citizens said they knew of a "lime sink" near 5th Avenue and 20th Street where cold water could be drawn up in buckets from far below.

[edit] 1880s

Mulhatton's "Underneath Us" as printed in the Birmingham Iron-Age" on August 28, 1884
Mulhatton's "Underneath Us" as printed in the Birmingham Iron-Age" on August 28, 1884
  • In 1881 the area of Southside near 18th Street South and 5th Avenue was attracting a "large number of new settlers around the big spring", attracted by the convenience of fresh water.
  • In 1883 a well-drilling team struck a small flowing stream of water approximately 300 feet below the surface.
  • Milner Spring was located at 21st Street and Avenue D (4th Avenue South]].
  • In August 1884 it was observed, during a hard rain, that water flowing along a large, open sewer on 5th Avenue North, disappeared into the ground at a certain point between 21st and 22nd Street. An investigation revealed a hole in the bottom of the sewer opening into a large cavern. Mayor A. O. Lane directed an exploration by "two strong men with ropes tied around their waists", elsewhere identified as "Mr. Lacy, boss of the street gang, and a Negro man". The two worked their way through the rock and and that they heard rushing water below, but could not locate the bottom of the cavern, even with 9-foot poles they took with them. Complaining of headaches from "impure air" they returned to the surface.
  • The Birmingham Iron-Age of August 21 of that year reported that crews were working to open inlets to the underground river at 5th Avenue between 22nd and 23rd Street North, and at East Park, near Central High School. Mayor Lane was interested in determining the value of such a stream either for water supply or drainage. Later reports indicated that it was expected to be used as a sewer.
  • These developments inspired a notorious tale-teller named Joe Mulhatton. He produced a sensational report of a huge river flowing beneath the city and endangering the entire area. His fictional report first appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal, but was picked up by other newspapers afterward. Among Mulhatton's claims were that the city rested on a "crust" of stone only a few feet thick which had been broken open during construction of a large building. He claimed that many buildings had collapsed and that City Hall had settled 4 feet on one corner into a widening fissure. The city was "flooded with telegrams" inquiring about the calamity over the following days.
  • The Birmingham Iron-Age dubbed the reported stream the "Mystic River", for its hidden aspect and for the "poetical ring about it which will prove of much value to aspiring poets and poetesses to illustrate." They demonstrated one such attempt thus: "We'll idly float / in fairy boat / where moonbeams never quiver. / We'll pull an oar / to foreign shore / down on the Mystic River."
  • Not done with the story, Mulhattan also fabricated a report sent to the Birmingham Iron-Age and published on August 28 with the headline "Underneath Us", claiming that a group of leading citizens (including Joseph Smith, W. S. Brown, William Hood, T. J. Brown, William Berney, George Kelley, J. B. Earle and others), had contacted "Prof. Joseph Mulhattan" of Kentucky to investigate the city's underground river. After negotiating the narrow entrance, he claimed to have spent an entire Saturday with a small company exploring the 300-foot wide by 150-foot high by 15-mile long tunnel on an improvised boat. He reported that the 45-to-70-foot-deep river was suitable for steamship travel and "connected with tide water", meaning that the District's mines and mills could enjoy a direct route to sea. He concluded that his was "undoubtedly the most remarkable discovery ever made on the American continent," that the river was "greater in volume than the mighty Mississippi," and that its presence surely indicated that "prehistoric people" operated furnaces in Birmingham from which they supplied metals to "various points of the world". This last finding was justified by the discovery of "numerous articles of bronze, also statuary, numerous Masonic emblems, and mummies with sandals on their feet -- all in a perfect state of preservation" along the banks of the river. He also reported finding the remains of an ichthyosaurus, an example of an "extinct sea monster" which was "undoubtedly used by these prehistoric races to drag their ships from what is now Birmingham to the Gulf of Mexico." He viewed the hulls of just such ships scattered along the route. He further reported "numerous eyeless fish and eyeless sea-monsters of the shark species; also eyeless amphibian animals of the alligator and reptile tribe".
  • Inspired by these reports, a "shrewd Selma negro" advertised excursions by boat in Birmingham's underground river and filled train cars with curiosity seekers who never managed to locate his boat landing.
  • An October 22, 1885 edition of the Weekly Iron Age found the persistence of belief in a large underground river amusing. George Stonestreet, a sewer contractor, reported having been asked where the "big stream" was while his crew was working below 1st Avenue. Stonestreet replied that he "had not discovered it myself yet." He further explained that the lowest section of the city was the "flats below the Coketon Depot, and the highest point was "near the exposition building on 20th Street."
  • A March 25, 1886 report by W. C. Kerr, engaged in boring wells for the Birmingham Rolling Mill, indicated that water from an underground stream filled his 500-foot borings to within 12-feet of the surface. Those pressing their ears to the top of his holes could hear water rushing below.
  • A similarly fantastical report in the May 29, 1886 edition of the Birmingham Age, under the cryptic byline "H" tells the story of a covert voyage in a stolen boat under the city, the discovery of Steve Renfro's hidden counterfeiting operation, and of eventually surfacing into the Warrior River.
  • An office in the vicinity of 5th Avenue North and 22nd Street advertised "Mystic Underground River" excursions during the 1880s and 1890s.

[edit] Later reports

[edit] References

  • "Birmingham's Wonder: The Curiosities of an Underground Stream -- How it Was Discovered" (August 17, 1884) Atlanta Constitution
  • "He Wanted to Know Where the Subterranean Stream Is." Weekly Iron Age
  • "The First White Family" (April 15, 1886) The Weekly Iron Age - via Birmingham Public Library Digital Collections
  • Walsh, William S. (1892) Handy-Book of Literary Curiosities. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: J. B. Lippincott Co., p. 473
  • Bryant, Walter (November 27, 1975) "Underground river helped shape city." The Birmingham News
  • Bryant, Joseph D. (January 31, 2013) "Birmingham baseball stadium sinkhole patched but problems, challenges could linger, say geologists." The Birmingham News
  • Heggen, Richard J. (2013) Chapter 87 "To Lie Like a Mulhattan", in Underground Rivers. Unpublished draft at unm.edu/~rheggen/UndergroundRivers.html
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