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The Big Gully and The Ravine threatened Tuscaloosa, Alabama


(Partial transcription of a history of Tuscaloosa written by an older resident, Ben A. Green, in 1931 who was the managing editor of The Tuscaloosa News July 31, 1949)

On the night of June 6, 1866, Tuscaloosa was deluged with the heaviest rainfall in the (130 years) history of this community and she bore the scars for 44 years. They might remain with us today but for the vision and courage of four men, William C. Jemison, George W. Simpson, Walter C. Harris and Frank G. Blair. The first three mentioned stood personal surety for the project that tamed the Big Gully and the fourth converted a big ditch into a select residential section 26 years later.

Main Street Tri-Sected

The heavenly downpour of 1866 trisected the war-depressed town of that time, cutting her principal street (Main Street, now Broad and University Avenue) into three ragged parts and very nearly drowning a number of her citizens.

Postcard  of Broad Street Looking West, Tuscaloosa, Ala ca. 1930 (Alabama Department of Archives and History)

The Big Gully

Many residents were caught in the rain and for hours fear was held for their lives, but no fatalities were reported. The Warrior River rampaged for days, sweeping the lowlands many miles.

Those scars of 1866 were the big Gully which ran beyond the spot on which the Alta Apartments now stand (in 1939 22nd Avenue and Sixth Street) to a point below that where a service station is situated (in 1939 Broad Street and 21st Avenue): and the Ravine which was later developed into the Pinehurst and Audubon Place real estate properties.

Born as natural drainage ditches in the early history of the city, it remained for the rain of ’66 to give the Gully and Ravine their capital letters. The Gully was transformed from a small bridge-spanned ditch into a yawning space 30 feet wide, 14 feet deep and more than two blocks long. Prior to ’66 it had shown some sides of widening and the mayor and aldermen of 1863 had asked the legislature to designate a manner of financing a retaining wall to prevent this encroachment. Only a bridge was employed and it left in the big wash-out.

A small foot bridge was immediately placed over the 30-foot cavity but for some time wagons, carriages and horsemen wishing to dare the ride were forced to slide down one side and rush up the other. An easier and less hazardous route was to circumvent the Gully by crossing back by what is now Seventh Street. (1939) The Ravine half-way from town to the University was successfully bridged for the time being and later a trestle was placed over it for the dummy line.

Dollars Thrown in Gulch

Bridge and brick were the fighting weapons that the City of Tuscaloosa threw at the Big Gully for the next 20 years. Thousands of dollars were sunk in these futile efforts and much of the debts which later threatened the city’s credit were accumulated in the one-sided fight. Two Irishmen Zack and Tom Jones laid the first brick retaining wall, but they proved to be only good brick-layers and the job required real engineering.

That engineering skill was applied in 1885 after a new washout when Mayor W. C. Jemison requested Colonel W. A. Hardaway, engineering professor at the University, to suggest a remedy for the problem. The colonel and his son, Ben H. Hardaway, just graduating from the engineering school at that time, filled a role similar to that Dr. George Jacob Davis later took as advising engineer to the city in the great waterworks and wharf projects.

Colonel Hardaway declared that the only solution was an exceedingly heavy brick retaining wall, a conduit running the length of the gully, and the whole thing filled in. The son, Ben H., was at once selected city engineer to manage the project.

Broad Street, Tuscaloosa, Alabama – looking East ca. 1887 (Library of Congress)

Three Endorse Loan

But the city had no money. Her credit was not good for the amount needed on this job. It appeared certain to require some thousands of dollars and the city received only a few thousand each year in taxes and licenses. Mayor Jemison, later a wealthy man for a time, vainly sought a loan for the city. Finally, he was informed that one of the banks would grant the loan if three members of his board would give their personal endorsement. Jemison immediately went to Walter Harris and George Simpson, who readily joined him in the step which placed their personal property as security for the debt of a city which was already in financial straits.

Thus Broad Street in its present form, (in 1939) stands as a perpetual monument to this triumvirate. Mr. Harris, the last surviving member of this trio (in 1939), later lived within 100 feet of the spot where the Big Gully was widest.

Previous attempts did not include the water tunnel

Ben Hardaway did his job well and unnoticed it stands today, (in 1939) as it will likely stand for ages to come. He directed the work which was done by R. C. McCalla & Co., contractors who took a large crew of negroes, a few white men as overseers and literally plowed, scraped and graded with the surplus dirt filling in the Gully on top of the conduit. Previous efforts to fill the big ditch had failed to include the water tunnel and the streets had not been graded.

The bridge which had extended for more than 100 feet, was discarded and the entire Gully section was made a part of the street, at that point. For years’ afterward small boys and some, not so small had much fun wading in the slimy water of the brick-walled lumber-floored conduit which runs for two blocks.

The brick abutment, against which this fill rested, was laid three feet thick at the bottom and was graduated toward the top, where sections of three brick each, were deemed sufficient. This brickwork could be readily seen several years ago before the fill was made on the corner next to the old Y. M. C. A. building. Its basement was really a part of the Big Gully.

Not Yet Paid For (1939)

Now the Gully was filled but she was not paid for. The city sought some means to protect the interests of these three gentlemen who had pledged themselves on the project. On May 26, 1888, a bond issue of $10,000 was authorized to meet this need. Three years before an issue of $4,000 was voted to pay Major S. B. Burman for an earthwork fill that gave way in 1887. A permanent brick project had been proposed by Colonel Hardaway but the city rejected all bids because it could not finance the plan.

In view of the fact that Tuscaloosa would today be a distorted, viaducted town with a creek near the heart of her business section, this may well be called the most important single revenue bearing project in the history of the town. The great waterworks, electric, lateral sanitary sewer and similar enterprises have their revenue characteristics which would permit their development as private projects but such an improvement as making Broad Street was a matter only for the city itself. The 9-mile main sanitary line to the U.S. Veterans’ Hospital and serving half the town might well take a place beside the Gully project.

Apparently, the Big Gully never became a political issue of note. It was a case of Man against Nature and Man cooperated to the utmost, a somewhat rare occurrence for that time when full-hearted cooperation was a pretty scarce article. The faction fight then breeding later burst into the open with the prolonged political dual between two banks. This duel has long since happily disappeared.

Became a Professor at the University

Bob H. Hardaway later became a professor at the University and subsequently achieved southwide prominence in the engineering profession, handling a number of major railroad projects and other construction work. He erected the steel superstructure for the $40,000 M. & O. railroad bridge across the Warrior River here in 1898. His lengthy service in Georgia ended with death two years ago, after a brief illness.

Of course, there were other gullies, ravines, and gulches and plenty of mudholes in this community’s streets, which had no semblance of storm sewers to prevent such an occurrence today. The sandy soil was easy digging for ditches but was also easy for rain to distort these ditches and shoot them off in the most unlooked for angles. When water fell in quantities, it immediately sought the lowest level and sped toward the river.

The natural drainage system left gullies which cut cross-wise into most of the principal streets, making ditching almost impossible except where bridges were available. One of the larger gullies appeared on the edge of the University where the Union Building, Bibb Graves Hall, and the Gorgas Memorial Library now stand. Another large and troublesome gully raged near the belt line tracks on 25th Avenue.

Ravine Remnant Remains

But the Ravine at Pinehurst was second only to Big Gully in its complications. True the property through which it coursed was not considered valuable or necessary as that cut by its companion. A small section of the Ravine may be seen today (in 1939) just to the left of the home of Dr. Alston Fitts.

A long bridge crossed the Ravine and satisfied the needs for years. When the horse car line was built to Lake Lorraine, the bridge could not carry the horse cars so the railway line was laid out Eighth Street, and crossed back in University Avenue at a point beyond the Ravine. Thus Eighth Street was originally a street car track and property lines were adjusted for the narrow strip which remains today, (in 1939), one of the narrowest paved streets in the community.

In 1887 when the dummy line was established by the Tuscaloosa Coal Iron and Land Company and Belt Railway, the line places a trestle over the Ravine, sinking long pilings into the gulch which was 40 feet deep at points. This trestle was located on the south side of the street with a fil and footpath south of it.

The Ravine met its fate in 1910, the street fill and the Pinehurst fill being accomplished simultaneously. The Pinehurst Co., was composed of its president, the late Frank G. Blair, Dean Charles H. Barnwell of the College of Arts and Sciences and Dean B. Kay of the Engineering School at the University. Professor Kay, a man of rare engineering and artistic ability designed the “lay-out” of Pinehurst. Mr. Blair chiefly financed the project which called for a considerable outlay of money. The Ravine extended to where 17th Avenue now runs. The columns at the Pinehurst entrance were placed then filled around, and extend deeper in the ground than they do above it. For some time most people laughed at “Blair’s Folly,” but these gentlemen showed it was no “Wildcat Scheme” by building their own homes in Pinehurst as the first step in its residential development.

Pinehurst Private Project

Subsequent events proved the money was well invested. As the Pinehurst private project took form, the city street fill also gained momentum. This was in the last year of the mayor and alderman form of government here, with Mayor Zimri Shirley and eight aldermen representing four wards. W. H. Nicol was city engineer, a position he held almost without interruption for 30 years. The interruptions were chiefly when the city decided to economize, abolishing the position of city engineer until new public projects forced re-establishment of the office

The dummy line tracks were placed in the center of the street, the old trestle was removed and the entire passageway was filled in with a culvert to prevent wash-outs such had occurred in the Big Gully years before. Cement sidewalks and curbs were laid at this time but the street was not paved until a later date.

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About Donna R Causey

Donna R. Causey, resident of Alabama, was a teacher in the public school system for twenty years. When she retired, Donna found time to focus on her lifetime passion for historical writing. She developed the websites www.alabamapioneers and All her books can be purchased at and Barnes & Noble. She has authored numerous genealogy books. RIBBON OF LOVE: A Novel Of Colonial America (TAPESTRY OF LOVE) is her first novel in the Tapestry of Love about her family where she uses actual characters, facts, dates and places to create a story about life as it might have happened in colonial Virginia. Faith and Courage: Tapestry of Love (Volume 2) is the second book and the third FreeHearts: A Novel of Colonial America (Book 3 in the Tapestry of Love Series) Discordance: The Cottinghams (Volume 1) is the continuation of the story. . For a complete list of books, visit Donna R Causey

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One comment

  1. My mother once told me that in about 1930 or thereabouts, my father would zoom through the ravine on Broad St/University Blvd in his Ford runabout. Ha Ha. Long before I was born. Obviously, people in the forties or later have no clue about this!

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