Over the years there has been considerable talk that Birmingham, Alabama sits over a large underground stream. It is reported that early settlers of Birmingham were told by the Native Americans that an underground river ran the full length of Jefferson county and often spoke of traveling down the stream in a canoe from the Warrior River.
When new buildings were being constructed in Birmingham in the 1880s, there were numerous reports of people encountering this underground stream, but none would ever top the report made by a visitor named Prof. Joseph Mulhattan.
Joesph Mulhatton/Mulhattan was connected with various papers that kept the public aware of new inventions. One day on a visit to Birmingham in 1883, he read with interest an article in a Birmingham newspaper a story about some men who were engaged in boring an artesian well in town and had encountered an underground stream. It seems they had struck what seemed to be a small flowing stream of water at a depth of three hundred feet. Shortly afterward, the following thrilling story by Mulhatton appeared in the Louisville Courier-Journal to the effect that “an immense underground river flowed under Birmingham, Alabama, and the entire town was in danger of falling in and being swept away. While excavating for the foundation of a large building, the stone crust that supported the few feet of earth above the river had been pierced, and it was breaking and giving way all over the city. Several buildings had fallen down, and one corner of the City Hall had settled four feet into a fissure which was rapidly widening, and soon the entire building would go down into the dark, underground river.”
The story made an immense sensation when it was printed. For two days the telegraph-office at Birmingham was flooded with telegrams from all parts of the country, asking if there was any truth to the story.
In the Birmingham newspaper the Weekly Iron Age of 8/28/1884, the following article appeared:
The Great Kentucky Scientist and Cave Expert Gives His Impressions of Our Subterranean River
To The Age:
The discovery of the great subterranean river under Birmingham has been the great topic of conversation the past week. Great excitement has prevailed, and so great was the interest taken in it the Dr. Jos. R. Smith, W. S. Brown, Wm. Hood, T. J. Brown, Wm. Berney, Geo. C. Kelly, J. B. Earle and other leading citizens held a meeting at which it was decided to telegraph Prof. Joseph Mulhatton, the great scientist and cave expert the facts in the case and urge him to come at once to give it a thorough exploration. The result was that Prof. Mulhatton arrived from Louisville on Friday evening, and a party composed of the above-named gentlemen spent all day Saturday exploring the great subterranean wonder.
Strong boat was made to explore cave
A strong boat was quickly improvised in the cave from lumber which was lowered through the narrow inlet and the party proceeded down the river for at least fifteen miles before there was any obstruction to prevent them from going forward, and that was only a narrow formation of recent origin that can be easily cleared away. The natural tunnel through which the river flows is of almost uniform width, and say about 300 feet for the distance of the fifteen miles navigated, and the height is at least 150 feet, so that a steamship of the largest class could navigate it with ease; the depth of the stream varies from 45 to 70 feet. It is connected with tide water, and this will give Birmingham a wonderful and cheap outlet to the sea, for the products of its furnaces, its mines, and industries generally.
The above is Mr. Mulhatton’s first impression of the wonder, which is fully corroborated by all of his party of daring explorers. But this is not all Prof. Mulhatton has this to say about it: “The great subterranean river recently discovered under the city of Birmingham is undoubtedly the most remarkable discovery ever made on the American continent. The river is greater in volume than the mighty Mississippi. Its vast subterranean bed is undoubtedly due to the grinding and cutting of immense icebergs during the glacial period. Then at a subsequent Preadamite period violent upheavals of the earth toppled over the mountains which forms the present grand archway through which the icebergs continued to cut leaving it as it is now—a natural ship canal to the Gulf of Mexico. A prehistoric race undoubtedly utilized it for the transportation of metals from this section to the sea where they were transported to various parts of the world. Furnaces on a scale scarcely so magnificent yet as satisfactory in results to these prehistoric people undoubtedly existed on the present site of Birmingham, as ruins of these, and of ancient sun-temples are found in various parts of this county.”
“Added to this,, ” says Professor Mulhatton, “we discovered niches of the cave numerous articles of bronze, also statuary, numerous masonic emblems, and mummies with sandals on their feet—all in a perfect state of preservation. We also discovered the remains of many marine monsters of the dias or old red sandstone period, prominent among them the huge ICHTHYOSAURUS, which was undoubtedly used by these pre-historic races to drag their ships from what is now Birmingham to the Gulf of Mexico. These extinct sea monsters were docile and harmle and were harnessed to the ships laden with pig iron, which they pulled to the sea with the greatest of ease. They were more powerful than the most powerful locomotives of the present day. Hulls of these ancient ships are scattered all along the banks of this great subterranean stream.”
Further explorations will be made today by Prof. Mulhatton and his scientific party; and their next report will be eagerly looked for by the readers of the AGE as the wildest excitement now prevails over these latest developments. Thousands of people have been crowding around the entrance to the river clamoring for admission. Prof. Mulhatton saw numerous eyeless fist and eyeless sea-monsters of the shark species; also eyeless amphibious animals of the alligator and reptile tribe. He says a company should be formed at once to clear the river of any obstructions, and that boats and barges to navigate it should be constructed at once. As the entrance to it is on one of the streets of the city, it will, therefore, belong to the city and cannot be claimed by any private individuals.
This discovery is of paramount importance to Birmingham, to Alabama and to the entire scientific world, and is worthy of the greatest enthusiasm.
Newspaper discovered Mulhatton told lies
By October 16, 1884, the Weekly Iron Age realized they had been ‘taken in’ by Mulhatton’s wild story and it was full of lies. The following article appeared in the newspaper.
The October 16, 1884, edition of the Weekly Iron Age wrote quite a different story about Prof. Joe Mulhatton from the Louisville Courier-Journal. At the time Mulhatton was nominated for president by the drummers’ national convention, held in Louisville, Kentucky. The news article calls Mulhatton the greatest living romancer and one of the ‘Most Genial”, but clearly states that he was a liar. Rather than being a Professor and a scientist, he was a drummer. In explaining his wild stories to a reporter, Mulhatton said, “People haven’t time to read books now-a-days, yet they must be entertained from the newspapers. So I write short novels of the Jules Verne order and they are talked about everywhere. I never do any harm by my stories—any harm, you known, and I write for the amusement of myself and others—for amusement.”
Joseph Mulhatton became known as the richest, most popular, and best commercial traveler in the United States as well as a champion liar. Sadly, later in life, Mulhatton became an alcoholic and in 1891, he was placed in a Chicago detention hospital for the insane because of his drunkenness. His health continued to decline after he was released and he died in Kelvin, Arkansas in 1914.
However, reports of an underground stream under the city of Birmingham continued to persist and there may be some truth to the rumor. After a flood on April 1, 1886, the Weekly Iron Age reported that early settlers of Birmingham remembered a spring on the corner of where 4th and 20th street. Also, in the center of the street where 2nd and 21st intersect that a deep well suddenly went dry. It was reported that a business man went to the well for water and the bucket was dry because the bottom dropped out of the well, supposedly due to the underground river.
An October 22, 1885, edition of the Weekly Iron Age reported that 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.”
Another report similar to Mulhattan’s earlier efforts appeared in the May 29, 1886, edition of the Birmingham Age, “under the cryptic byline “H”. It told 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 in Tuscaloosa. The group supposedly continued as far as Tuscaloosa where they spent the night before taking a train back to Birmingham. The entrance at Avondale Park was sealed in the 1930s but re-discovered later. A group of trained spelunkers mapped as much of the flooded cavern as they could in 1983, finding most of the passages disappearing quickly into mud-filled crevices.”
According to Bham Wiki, “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.
Reports of this underground river still persist. A sinkhole, reportedly more than 100 feet deep, appeared near the intersection of 15th Street and 3rd Avenue South during the construction of Regions Field and a proposal to construct a pedestrian tunnel under 10th Street South connecting the Alys Stephens Center to the Abroms-Engel Institute for the Visual Arts was abandoned because “a river bed flows under the street.”
- Bham Wiki
- Alabama Department Archives and History
- Weekly Iron Age
Read more lost stories in Alabama Footprints Confrontation- a collection of lost and forgotten stories that reveals why and how the confrontation between the Native American population and settlers developed into the Creek-Indian War as well as stories of the bravery and heroism of participants from both sides.
Some stores include:
- Tecumseh Causes Earthquake
- Terrified Settlers Abandon Farms
- Survivor Stories From Fort Mims Massacre
- Hillabee Massacre
- Threat of Starvation Men Turn To Mutiny
- Red Eagle After The War
Read Alabama Footprints Series by author Donna R. Causey to discover lost stories that you don’t find in most history or textbooks. Makes great Christmas gifts!
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