Jefferson Warrior Railroad steeped in history

BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- Few people have ever heard of the Jefferson Warrior Railroad, which works its six locomotives in a small circuit in industrial Birmingham.

Jefferson Warrior's connections, however, stretch throughout the country, the Birmingham News reports.

From its North Birmingham switching yard, this Walter Industries subsidiary does the mail carrier bit for sister companies Sloss Industries and U.S. Pipe and Foundry. Its chief mission is simple and unglamorous: Delivers coal to Sloss and coke to the water pipe plant.

Jefferson Warrior, around for nearly 80 years, is actually one of the city's two short-line companies. The other is Birmingham Southern Railroad Co., which also guides rail cars from industrial sites so that Norfolk Southern, Burlington Northern Santa Fe and CSX Transportation can take goods made in Birmingham to other U.S. cities.

These little railroad companies, attracting hardly any notice outside of rail and industrial cir cles, act as important conduits for old-line manufacturing enterprises in Birmingham, bringing in raw materials and shipping out finished products.

Birmingham Southern serves companies such as U.S. Steel, American Cast Iron Pipe Co. and Hanna Steel. The BS, as it calls itself, goes way back, having been organized March 3, 1899. At one time, it was owned by Tennessee Coal & Iron, which later became part of the giant U.S. Steel Corp.

As early as 1910, Birmingham Southern was serving a large number of industries in western Jefferson County, extending its tracks to match the growth of commerce. It is now part of Monroeville, Penn.-based Transtar Inc., which owns several small rail operations serving industry.

On any given day, big rail carriers pull trainloads of raw products and other items into Jefferson Warrior's interchange yard at Shuttlesworth Drive and 35th Avenue North. The big rail carriers also retrieve cars from Jefferson Warrior that end up going all over the country.

That makes Jefferson Warrior the critical link for its Walter Industries sister companies and their shipments of water pipes, foundry and furnace coke and the mineral fibers used to make ceiling tile.

Jefferson Warrior works from the confines of Sloss Industries, which operates a plant that turns coal into coke, and hauls the coke to U.S. Pipe's plant just a few hundred yards away. "We're the only railroad to serve Sloss," said Mike Adams, Jefferson Warrior's general manager.

The short-line company ties those factories to the extensive rail systems operated by Norfolk Southern and CSX. "We take cars from the big railroads and they'll give us a train of, say, 30 cars," Adams said.

Full, empty cars

Some of the arriving cars may be full of coal and some may be empty. A job for Jefferson Warrior's yard workers is to divide the cars for delivery to one of the three Sloss plants - coke, chemical or mineral fiber - to which they are destined.

Sloss sends some of the coke it makes to automotive parts foundries and ships mineral fibers to makers of ceiling tiles. Some of the chemicals are ingredients in detergents, medicines and plastic housings for computers, said Charles Jones, Sloss' general manager of chemicals.

Carrying the coal

Jefferson Warrior, which celebrated its 75th anniversary two years ago, began as the Marylee Railroad.

Marylee's trains carried coal from West Jefferson mines - including Nebo, Bessie and Flattop - to Sloss in North Birmingham so it could be turned into coke. The coke, which helps melt iron, was taken to Sloss Furnaces downtown. Marylee was operated with Sloss as divisions of U.S. Pipe. Jim Walter Corp. - now known as Walter Industries - inherited the railroad company when it bought the U.S. Pipe group in 1969. In 1985, the name was changed to Jefferson Warrior, and it began operating as a common carrier, meaning it charges for its services. That was a big change for the little rail line.

"We became our own company, with our own management, our own set of books," Adams said.

At the time, Jefferson Warrior employed about 15 people. Today, it has 22 workers - managers, engineers, switchmen, machinists and car repairmen. It has six locomotives, the same number it's had for years. They run over tracks that would extend 15 miles if stretched from end to end, Adams said.

In addition to switching cars, workers also inspect cars for defects, Adams said. Repairs are made before deliveries to Sloss. Jefferson Warrior has a contract with Sloss for switching and moving cars within the plants.

Jefferson Warrior is also going after other work. Its yard has a bulk handling facility where it receives railroad cars with aggregates - crushed stone used in construction - that are unloaded for delivery to area industries.

"That's a business we're trying to grow," Adams said.

Customers for Fairfield-based Birmingham Southern include steel mills and processing plants, pipe makers, coal-related companies, and scrap and waste processors, according to Transtar. (Birmingham Southern officials declined comment.) Port Birmingham It also provides rail service to Port Birmingham, where shipments from barges on the Warrior River are loaded and unloaded onto rail cars. The company's 1966 acquisition of the 18-mile Barge Line Railroad made this possible.

While Jefferson Warrior trains never leave their yard, Birmingham Southern lines run from Burlington Northern Santa Fe's yard off Finley Avenue to Bessemer through East Thomas, Ensley, Fairfield and Woodward.

The major traffic rolls on a spur from Port Birmingham to Fairfield, said Ronald Mele, author of The Birmingham Southern Railroad - The First Cen­tury, a book released last February. The two-way traffic brings in iron ore shipped from South America and other places and takes coal from U.S. Steel's Oak Grove mine to put on barges, said Mele, a BE&K estimator.

Birmingham Southern plays a major role in ensuring that one of the city's largest employers keeps humming, showing just how vital a short line railroad company can be.

"Essentially, it is a lifeline for U.S. Steel for incoming raw materials and also outgoing products," Mele added.

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January 13, 2000
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© 2000 Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers