Joshua Lafayette Mitchell
Joshua L. Mitchell and Family, 1904 Joshua Lafayette Mitchell (1866-1906) was a noted builder of wooden railway trestles in Alabama and Georgia in the early twentieth century. He is best known in Alabama for building what was at the time the highest wooden railroad trestle in the United States for the L&N Railroad Company in Jefferson County. He also oversaw construction of housing and other facilities for convict workers and other laborers of the Sloss-Sheffield Coal Company as well as trestles for other mining enterprises.
Mitchell was born October 28, 1866, near Loganville, Georgia, the first child of Wilson Lumpkin Mitchell and Rachel Catherine Moon Mitchell; he was one of five children. His father was a farmer and carpenter who built houses and barns and helped to restore railroad infrastructure destroyed by federal forces under Gen. William T. Sherman on his “March to the Sea” during the 1864 Atlanta Campaign. When his father died suddenly in 1877, Joshua helped his mother with the four younger siblings on the farm and earned money with his carpentry skills. By 1887, he was building wooden trestles. That same year, he married his first cousin, Nettie Long, with whom he would have eight children. In 1889, the family moved to a farm near Norcross, a fast-growing resort and railway center 20 miles north of Atlanta.
Flat Top Mine Prison In 1898 and 1899, Mitchell worked on expanding a rail line between Cornelia, Georgia, and Franklin, North Carolina. Originally founded as the North Eastern Railroad of Georgia in 1854 and running from Athens to Lula, construction had lain dormant after a series of ownership changes. By 1882, construction had reached Tallulah Falls and then again fell dormant. In 1898, the Tallulah Falls Railway Company was organized and construction was renewed. Mitchell was hired to oversee the replacement of the 98-foot-high Panther Creek Trestle, which had collapsed under a passenger train. The locomotive and first car fell into the ravine below, but the passenger car remained on the trestle, and only one person was killed. Mitchell also helped repair six other trestles along the railway. Part of the rail bed is now a short “Rails to Trails” hiking path near the Panther Creek Recreation area in the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest.
In 1900, Mitchell and his family moved to Jefferson County, Alabama, where he was hired to work on train trestles and other structures in several mining communities, most of them in the county. In 1901, he began work on a large penitentiary for the Sloss-Sheffield Coal Company‘s 400 convict workers at Flat Top, Jefferson County. The site, when completed, also included a small hospital, a large kitchen, and a small women’s prison.
No. 10 Trestle Support Structure In late 1902, W. H. More and Bros., contractors from Gwinnett County, hired Mitchell to build 34 wooden trestles on the 35-mile Cane Creek Branch of the L&N Railroad in coal-mining areas of Jefferson and Walker Counties. Fifteen of these trestles were more than 75 feet high, with the No. 10 Trestle over associated Newfound Creek earning the designation of “Highest Wooden Trestle in the United States” at the time. Completed on April 29, 1904, it was 720 feet long and 116 feet high and earned Mitchell attention in newspapers, and he and his family were the subject of an article in the Atlanta Constitution on May 1, 1904. Mitchell went on to build trestles in Cordova, Walker County, and Itawamba, Mississippi, before returning to Alabama in 1905 to build worker housing for a new mine in Bessie, Chilton County.
No. 10 Trestle, 1980s On February 1, 1906, tragedy struck the family when four-year-old Joshua Jr. fell through a trestle and plunged 20 feet. He died that evening in his father’s arms at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Birmingham. Grief-stricken, Mitchell worked harder and started drinking excessively. Six months later, tragedy again struck the family. Mitchell and four of his sons were in Capitol Park (present-day Linn Park) in downtown Birmingham when he became involved in an altercation with another man and some children. Mitchell sent his four boys back home and continued the disturbance. The police were called, and Mitchell was arrested for public intoxication. The following morning, September 2, he was found dead on the floor of his cell in what the local newspapers reported as suspicious circumstances. The coroner’s jury, however, ruled that he died from a broken neck after falling out of his bunk. Nettie and the children then moved to west Birmingham, near the Ensley and Fairfield mills, and all five of the boys went to work at the Ensley plant in the transportation department. Jesse Mitchell later became a road and bridge builder, following in his father’s footsteps.
On May 23, 2006, Trestle No. 10 burned down as a result of a fire started by children playing with fireworks. It had been slated to be the centerpiece of a rails to trails park in Jefferson County.
Lindberg, Robert J., and Joseph Mitchell. “Joshua Lafayette Mitchell and the Story of the Highest Wooden Railroad Trestle in the United States in 1904.” The Jefferson Journal 4 (Fall 2014): 1.