Special to the Tribune-Courier
Present-day maps of Marshall County show a community named Birmingham. But that’s not the original Birmingham.
Old Birmingham was once a bustling Tennessee River community that was an incorporated city, a center of commerce rivaling any other town in the area. It was swallowed by Kentucky Lake in the 1940s when Kentucky Dam was completed.
To get to the original Birmingham would require a boat when lake levels are at peak, and a long wade at other times. Follow Barge Island Road northeast out of Fairdealing until the road ends, then look out onto the waters of Kentucky Lake where they back up into Bear Creek. About a half mile straight ahead is where Birmingham once stood.
Birmingham was situated on the west bank of the Tennessee about 12 miles northeast of Benton, a little more than six miles due east of a point midway between Briensburg and Tatumsville. According to Lemon’s Handbook of Marshall County published in 1894, the town was founded in 1849 on a tract of land belonging to Thomas A. Grubbs, and in 1858, Love’s Addition was added to the town.
Shortly before the Civil War, the town of Birmingham was incorporated by an act of the General Assembly on Feb. 27, 1860, and a post office was soon designated.
The name Birmingham was chosen for the same reason that Birmingham, Ala., got its name. In both instances, founders believed their town would become New World versions of Birmingham, England; like the English town, there was a thriving iron industry in western Kentucky and north central Alabama.
While the iron and steel industry grew to major proportions in Alabama, Birmingham, Ky., did not turn into a steel city. But with access to river transportation, the town continued to prosper following the Civil War, and in 1867, 467 people reportedly lived there.
A stave mill and timber business employed more than 200 people and the logging industry supplied white oak for barrel staves, red oak for railroad ties, hickory for axe handles and sweet gum for flour barrels. James Love ran a lucrative tobacco business and opened a tobacco stemmery which re-dried tobacco to meet a customer’s specifications. A warehouse built along the river made shipping the tobacco very convenient.
By the 1890s, the town had a Methodist, Episcopal, Missionary Baptist, African American Baptist and African American Methodist churches.
There were two schools, one white and one African American. The town had two hotels, four dry-good and general stores, three grocery stores, one drug store, two millinery stores, two wagon stores, two blacksmith shops and a grist mill. There were two doctors and two dentists.
By 1903, the Bank of Birmingham was organized. In the 1920s and 30s, mussels were harvested and the shells were sent to Metropolis, Ill., to be turned into buttons.
Birmingham was governed by a four-man town of trustees, a city judge and a city marshal. According to “Kentucky Lake History: Old Birmingham,” the town was a busy place, larger at the time than Benton, the county seat.
The town had a large section of African American residents until the turn of the 20th century when one of Marshall County’s most tragic events occurred. On March 10, 1908, an imitation group of Night Riders organized by Dr. Emilus Champion of Lyon County entered Birmingham with the sole purpose of forcefully driving out all African Americans in the town.
The band of Night Riders wrought a night of havoc on the African Americans living in the river city. Many blacks were severely beaten and six were shot. John Scruggs and his 2-year old grandson were killed. The black community was warned to leave or face future raids.
After the riders exited Birmingham, many African Americans took the riders’ advice and left the county as soon as possible, many leaving behind all of their possessions, never to return. Fortunately, those responsible for the raid were later arrested and prosecuted for their crimes.
Birmingham’s most noted resident was professional basketball player “Jumpin’ Joe” Fulks, who was born in the town in 1921.
Fulks played college basketball at Murray State College for two years before leaving to join the Marines during World War II. Following action at Iwo Jima and Guam, Fulks was discharged and returned to the states where he went back to playing basketball. He soon joined the professional leagues when he was signed with the Philadelphia Warriors in 1946.
According to the National Basketball Association website, Fulks is credited with introducing the modern-day jump shot and he is considered the father of the modern game: “Jumping, spinning, and scoring from everywhere, the lanky western Kentucky lad helped pave the way for professional basketball to become the sport it is today.”
On Feb. 10, 1949, Fulks recorded one of the greatest individual performances to date when he scored 63 points, a record which stood for 10 years. It was often said that Fulks was to basketball what Babe Ruth was to baseball. Fulks was elected to the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame in 1978.
The river which had served the town so well also provided one of its biggest threats. The Tennessee, always prone to flooding, inundated Birmingham in the great flood of 1937. That spurred the Tennessee Valley Authority’s program of dams to control flooding and produce electricity.
The Tennessee Valley Authority purchased 35,133 acres and the residents were told to relocate.
Mae Goheen York, now a resident of the Scale community, was born in Birmingham and left when she was 7 years old in 1943.
“We lived beside Jim Lilly’s grocery,” York recalled. “I was so young when we left that I don’t remember much about the old town. I do remember going to first grade at Birmingham and my teacher was Mary Ellen Collie.”
Birmingham Cemetery was relocated to its present location in Briensburg. Many of the residents ended up in that community.
Jackie Clayton Bohannon, now a resident of Briensburg, was another Birmingham native.
“I was 16 years old when we left,” she said. “I went to school at Birmingham and was a cheerleader. Some of my teachers at Birmingham were Hubert Jaco and Robert Goheen.”
There were deep roots for the displaced families.
“My parents, Paul and Laurene Clayton, lived in Birmingham all their lives and my grandfather, Dr. Clayton, delivered a lot of babies in the Birmingham community,” Bohannon said.
“Leaving Birmingham was really hard especially for my parents who had lived there all of their lives,” she said. “When we left for the last time, it was difficult to know we could never go back.”
Today, when the waters are low, remains of foundations and the streets of Birmingham can still be seen under the water off Birmingham Point. The river town of Birmingham has been gone for 72 years now, but those who called this place home still say it was “the best place in the world to have lived.” n