Truman Aldrich

One of Alabama's principal industrial leaders, Truman Heminway Aldrich (1848-1932), was the state's first member of the American Institute of Mining Engineers. Immersing himself in the coal and iron industries, he explored and oversaw the mining of many of the state's mineral resources. Aldrich became a preeminent authority on geological study, scientific research, and industrial development. He also served briefly in the U.S. Congress, representing Alabama's NInth Congressional District.

Truman Aldrich Aldrich was born in Palmyra, New York, on October 17, 1848, to William Farrington, a lawyer and financier, and Louisa Klapp Aldrich; he had three siblings. One sibling, brother William Farrington Aldrich Jr., enjoyed a similar career path in Alabama, working in the coal and iron industries and winning election to the U.S. House of Representatives. Truman attended public schools and a military academy in West Chester, Pennsylvania. He graduated from the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York, in 1869, with a master's degree in engineering. In May 1870, he married Anna Morrison, with whom he would have three children. She died on April 13, 1913, and Aldrich later married Helen Levard, who had two children from a previous marriage. Aldrich moved to Alabama in 1872 and, despite his training in mining and civil engineering, he embarked on a banking career in Selma, Dallas County. One year later, he leased coal mines near Montevallo, Shelby County, and set up mining operations during the summer, which was considered an unorthodox practice at the time as coal was not in high demand then. His operations generated unprecedented stockpiles of coal, and the onset of cold weather that fall rewarded his forward thinking. By 1875, Aldrich was an established and successful businessman in the mining industry.

In 1876, Aldrich incorporated the Jefferson Coal Company in Morris with Marshall Morris (for whom the town was named), and S. D. Holt. The following year, he formed a partnership with Henry F. DeBardeleben and James W. Sloss to pioneer the industrial development of the Birmingham Mineral District. Following an 1876 coking experiment at the refurbished Oxmoor Furnace, the trio focused on the Warrior Coal Field northwest of Birmingham, Jefferson County. (The Oxmoor experiments determined that the high-quality bituminous coal from the Warrior Field could be converted to coke, a desirable fuel product.) With assistance from mining engineer Joseph Squire, Aldrich searched for mineral deposits suitable for coal and iron production. The Warrior Field offered thick seams of coking coal in sufficient quantities for economic extraction and close proximity to the Oxmoor coke ovens. Tapping the (Daniel) Pratt Seam (named for the cotton-ginning magnate), the three businessmen opened slope and shaft mines at Pratt City to supply the growing iron industry in Birmingham. Forming the Pratt Coal and Coke Company (PC&CC) in January 1878, the owners shipped their first coal 13 months later.

At Pratt Coal and Coke, Aldrich served as superintendent and mine manager. In that capacity, he supervised the miners, managed production, and coordinated transportation assets such as railroad service. In addition, he supervised maintenance of the machinery and equipment, conducted various surveys, and implemented numerous engineering projects. He resigned in 1881 to form the Cahaba Coal Mining Company (CCMC). PC&CC would be absorbed by the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company (TCI) in 1886.

Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Co. Based at Blocton in Bibb County, the CCMC supplied coke to furnaces at Oxmoor, Jefferson County, and Anniston, Calhoun County, and provided coal to railroads operating out of New Orleans. Aldrich financed the company by selling shares, capitalizing his new company at $1 million and controlling more than 12,000 acres in Jefferson, Shelby, and Bibb Counties. Blocton operations shipped their first coal in 1884, with 467 beehive ovens producing 600 tons of coke daily. The CCMC quickly became the largest supplier of coal and coke in Alabama. In 1888, Aldrich formed two other enterprises: the Excelsior Coal Mine Company and the Export Coal Company. The former eventually combined with the CCMC, but the latter developed a niche market, transporting coal to Mexico, the West Indies, and Central and South America. In 1892, Aldrich sold his interests to the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company (TCI) and became its second vice president and general manager. He resigned, however, after the economic depression of 1893 to try his hand at politics.

Aldrich accepted nominations for the U.S. House of Representatives from both the Republican and Populist Parties in 1894. He lost a close race to future political powerhouse Democrat Oscar W. Underwood, just then entering politics, but he filed an official challenge over voting irregularities. Winning the challenge after more than a year of deliberations, Aldrich took his seat in June 1896. His victory was of little consequence, however, as his term ended less than one year later, in March 1897.

Returning to his business interests, Aldrich organized the Southern Mining Company, served as president of the Sloss-Sheffield Steel and Iron Company, and operated the Virginia Mines in Jefferson County. In the early twentieth century, he formed a partnership with his son, T. H. Aldrich Jr., to form the Hillabee Gold Mining Company of Tallapoosa County and to open coal-mining operations in Marion County. He also purchased his former holdings in the Montevallo Coal Company in 1905, an interest he had sold to brother William Farrington Aldrich, in 1880. He was appointed the Birmingham postmaster by Pres. William H. Taft in 1911, serving until 1915.

During his life in Alabama, he collected some 20,000 fossil shells and published several manuscripts on Alabama geology. In 1932, Aldrich received an honorary doctor of science degree from the University of Alabama (UA) and donated his shell collection to the Alabama Museum of Natural History, housed at UA. According to state geologist Eugene Allen Smith, Truman Aldrich ranked as one of the world's most eminent paleontologists of the Cenozoic Era. He was also an expert in Alabama's mineral resources and extraction industries. Aldrich died on April 28, 1932, and was buried in Birmingham's Elmwood Cemetery. The Aldrich Coal Mine Museum interprets the industrial and cultural history of the community named for him.

Further Reading

  • Adams, Charles Edward. Blocton: The History of an Alabama Coal Mining Town. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2012.
  • Allen, William Bullard. “Memoirs—Truman Heminway Aldrich.” New York: American Society of Civil Engineers, March 7, 1933.
  • Armes, Ethel. The Story of Coal and Iron in Alabama. Birmingham: Birmingham Chamber of Commerce, 1910.
  • Day, James Sanders. Diamonds in the Rough: A History of Alabama’s Cahaba Coal Field. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2013.
  • Emfinger, Henry A. The Story of My Hometown, Aldrich, Alabama. Montevallo, Ala.: n.p., 1969.
  • Lewis, W. David. Sloss Furnaces and the Rise of the Birmingham District: An Industrial Epic. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1994.

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