In 1886 iron and steel magnate Henry Fairfield DeBardeleben founded the City of Bessemer. DeBardeleben’s dream was to make the City a steel center that would attract companies and people from all over the United States. He founded the Bessemer Land and Improvement Company to facilitate his vision. With $2 million in starting capital, he built several blast furnaces for his Coal and Iron Company. In 1887 DeBardeleben bought 4,000 acres of land and marked off blocks for a new town along the rail lines of the Alabama Great Southern Railway.
Henry DeBardeleben believed that the town’s name should reflect an economy that was built on the iron ore and steel industry. He named the community “Bessemer” in honor of Sir Henry Bessemer who invented the open-hearth method of steel producing. In April of 1887 the first commercial lots were sold and the town of Bessemer began to grow.
The dream of Henry DeBardeleben began to take shape and the town experienced a boomtown effect. Within only a few months the city’s population reached a total of 1,000 citizens. In less than two years the population soared to 4,000. The cities growth was so phenomenal that it was nicknamed the “Marvel City”. The 1880 census ranked Bessemer’s population as the eighth largest in the state. It was predicted that the city would become the fourth highest by the 1890 census. In fact the city did reach the fourth largest mark long before the predicted date and it stayed there for quite some time.
By June of 1887 the town of Bessemer saw the need for an established court. The first meeting of this court was held the last week of June with Justices McAdory and Jones presiding. The town also saw the need for a jail and, at the insistence of W.D. Mills, a framed building near the Rolling Mill was rented for this purpose. Due to the unsecured nature of building (with its single plank floors) a new building was rented at a cost of $360 a year.
The town of Bessemer also began to see an increase of its middleclass families. These families produced the first political leaders of the town. R.M. McAdory was elected as mayor of Bessemer and eight councilmen were elected to assist him. These men voted to incorporate the City of Bessemer on September 9, 1887. The town of Bessemer had become a city.
The city elected D.B. Stapp as its first town marshal by a vote of the town council during the city’s first council meeting on September 13th of that same year. At the next council meeting three men were elected as policemen at a pay of $50 per month. One of the first duties of the town marshal and his men was the inspection of privies once a week.
On April 17, 1889 the city council approved the city seal and an ordinance authorizing the sale of city bonds. The funds obtained through this sale allowed Bessemer to build its first city hall. The new building would include city offices, a courtroom, the city jail, the engine house for the soon to be created fire department, and a few markets. The building was designed by the famed architect G. M. Torgenson and was to cost about $16,000.00. The building, although incomplete, was dedicated on August 1, 1889.
The building of a new center for a fire department meant that the city now needed to invest in fire equipment and an organized fire brigade. Citizens had been asking for better fire protection and they received it. Many men volunteered for the new fire department and on December 16, 1888 it received it first call. Ironically the city hall building that housed the fire department was destroyed by fire many years later. The present city hall facilities stand in its location.
This rapid growth inspired DeBardeleben into searching out new ways to hasten the community’s growth. He purchased buildings that were used in the 1884 Cotton Exposition in New Orleans and had them shipped to Bessemer by rail. One of the structures, a three-story Victorian building, named the Montezuma building and had been Mexico’s exhibit in the fair, served as not only a hotel in Bessemer but also later as Montezuma University as well until it was later destroyed by fire. Montezuma University boasted the Birmingham area’s first medical school. The Jamaica building was used as a part of the rolling mills.
The social, cultural, and academic life of Bessemer flourished during its formative years. Schools, churches and civic organizations emerged with the population increase. A new library was constructed with funds from the famed industrialist Andrew Carnegie. Music and theater groups held regular performances from Birmingham while musicians like W. C. Handy, the “Memphis Blues” composer who worked at the U.S. Pipe Bessemer foundry early in his career, entertained with brass band sounds.
In 1898 City Attorney J. K. Trotter proposed the founding of a court of Inferior Jurisdiction in the city of Bessemer with jurisdiction similar to the Inferior Court in Birmingham. It took a while for this petition to come to fruition but in 1915 the City of Bessemer saw the construction of a county courthouse situated directly across from the City Hall. Bessemer now had the court facilities for all of the needs of the Bessemer Cut-off area.
The mining and steel based economy attracted a great number of laborers to the city and by the 1920s Bessemer was the fourth largest city in Alabama. The City’s reliance on the limited industry in the area caused the city to suffer during the recessions of 1893 and 1907. Unemployment rose and consumer purchases fell during these periods but the recessions were short lived and each time the City rebounded with greater productivity and increased employment.
The recession of 1907 left the area’s largest corporation, the Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company, saddled with a $5 million debt, which it was forced to alleviate through a stock sell to United States Steel. When the USS Company took over the steel operations of the TCI plant, company officials committed USS resources to the development of the Bessemer area. The TCI subsidiary of USS established a welfare program for sick and injured workers (including the formation of a medical clinic headed by Dr. Lloyd Noland, a physician instrumental in discovering the cause of the Yellow Fever virus which plagued Panama Canal workers), constructed houses for workers (many of which are still standing), planned and paved roads, installed drainage and sewage systems, and built playgrounds and recreational areas. They even established their own school system, which won national praise for academic excellence (a salary subsidy from USS enabled the school system to successfully recruit college-educated teachers).
To supplement Jefferson County’s main courthouse in Birmingham, the county constructed a satellite courthouse in Bessemer in 1915 to serve the needs of the Bessemer area. The county built a new courthouse in October 2009. After the decline of the mining and steel industry during the last two decades of the twentieth century, the city diversified its economy to include industrial parks, professional offices, retail centers and recreational facilities.
For additional information on Bessemer’s History: Link