Naming of Birmingham

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The Naming of Birmingham was the decision of the shareholders of the Elyton Land Company

The creation of the land company to plan and develop a new industrial city at the crossing of the Alabama & Chattanooga Railroad and South & North Alabama Railroad railroads in Jones Valley was largely thanks to the efforts of engineer John T. Milner who determined the precise location of the crossing. The land around the crossing was purchased by banker Josiah Morris and transferred to the ten shareholders of the company at its incorporation in December 1870.

The shareholders met again in early January, then reconvened at the Morris' offices to choose directors on January 26, 1871. Those five directors met together the next morning and James Powell was unanimously elected president of the company. Immediately following that meeting, the ten shareholders came together again, and adopted by-laws, the first of which was, "The city to be built by the Elyton Land Company, near Elyton, in the County of Jefferson, State of Alabama shall be called 'Birmingham'."

Henry Caldwell, who was present for those meetings and wrote a history of the company, declined to credit any one individual for selecting the name, and omitted any discussion of alternatives.

According an account related by Truman Aldrich and recorded by Ethel Armes:

"When this good town of Birmingham was organized, there was a great discussion as to the name that would be given it. Some suggested calling it Powellton after Colonel Powell, at the head of the Elyton Land Company; others wanted to name it Milnerville or Morrisville.

Mr. Josiah Morris objected very strongly to these names, and, looking out of the window, said there was a distinguished citizen who was a native of an adjoining town whose name would be particularly appropriate and to name it after Judge Mudd and call it Muddtown. As a matter of fact, nothing could have suited the place more at that particular time, and indeed for a good while later. The town just missed it."

It is likely that in Aldrich's account Morris' suggestion was made facetiously, or as Bertha Norton puts it, with reference to the "sea of mud" at the rudimentary train platform, "the name was too appropriate to be possible." Nevertheless, that story has been remembered, and sometimes confused with a former settlement called "Mad Town" on the Cahaba River. The notion of the town having "just missed" having a humbler name also recalls the story that Elyton itself had nearly taken the name "Frog Level".

Armes goes on to credit Morris with making the suggestion of naming the new town for England's industrial metropolis, which gained unanimous approval of the shareholders. Others have given Powell the credit, in part because he had made a point to tour Birmingham, England during his European travels in 1870 and was clearly thinking of Alabama's future industrial metropolis as its expected "sister". Mary Powell Crane, wrote in her biography of her father that, "[h]e advised all the business men with whom he talked to invest in lots in this new city, which he said must be named Birmingham," and further explained that, "[i]t was his visit to Birmingham, England, that inspired him to suggest this name for the new city that was to resemble it, and it was his belief that what that name stood for in England would be a promise of what the new Birmingham would stand for in America."

In his 1960 history, John Henley Jr considered her account. While he found the evidence in favor of Powell being the source of the name "fairly conclusive," he admitted that, "the records fail to mention the proposer directly."

Armes further reports the reminisces of Henry Willis Milner, John Milner's son, who visited the unimproved site of the future city when he was six years old. According to him, Captain Alburto Martin, who had held the options on the land until Morris redeemed them at the last minute, had taken to ridiculing the new venture in the state's newspapers, calling it "Bucksnort".

An earlier town of Birmingham existed in Jackson County and was shown on maps from the 1860s to the early 1880s, but its existence was never considered an impediment to giving the new city the same name.

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