By the tracks
How the railroad helped shape Hartselle
By Jennifer L. Williams
For the Enquirer
Editor’s note: This article is the second in a series to commemorate Hartselle’s Sesquicentennial in 2020.
Popular local lore says the community of Hartselle was established a bit north of its current location, with the first work train passing through June 18, 1870. The story goes that once passenger trains started running on the completed line in 1872, the trains had a tough time stopping and starting on the steep hill, so the entire town was moved further south to a more desirable – and its current – location.
“While these long-held traditions are founded in truth, the actual story of Hartselle is somewhat different,” said David Burleson, treasurer of the Hartselle Historical Society and member of one of the oldest families in the community.
Burleson recently published a brief historical look at the earliest days of the community, titled “Hartsell…Before the ‘E,’” as part of commemorating the city’s 150th anniversary. He said he had worked on compiling the information for a Historical Society Lunch and Learn and decided to print copies for those who are interested.
While the first tracks were laid in 1870, plans for the rail line came, in fact, much earlier.
Hartselle’s railroad history began in 1853, when the Tennessee and Alabama Central Railroad was incorporated with the intent of constructing a rail line from Montgomery through Decatur and north to eventually link up with a line to Nashville. The company did complete the planned line north from Decatur to the Tennessee line and had just started preliminary work in the Hartselle area on the line headed south from Decatur in January 1861.
All work stopped in April of that year with the start of the War Between the States, Burleson said. It was not until 1869, four years after the end of the war, that work resumed on the line.
By this time, the South and North Alabama Railroad Company had assumed responsibility for completing the line.
Financial issues in 1871 forced the South and North Alabama Railroad Company to hand over its operations – and a group of New York bankers wanted to give control to the Nashville & Chattanooga Railroad Company, which was working on a line from Birmingham to Chattanooga and likely would have halted all work on the line south from Decatur.
“If this had happened,” said Burleson, “the story of Hartselle would have ended before it got started.”
But the L& N Railroad came to the rescue in May 1871, taking on the South and North Alabama Railroad debts and securing a 30-year lease on its rail lines.
Once all construction was complete – at that point, the rail line had been extended about 20 miles south of Decatur, well past the town of Hartselle – L&N had a line from Louisville,
Kentucky, all the way to Montgomery. From there, L&N had agreements with another rail line that went south from Montgomery to the Gulf of Mexico.
As for the initial location of Hartselle, there was a railroad work camp established roughly three-quarters of a mile north of the current depot. This work camp, which popped up just prior to the first work train coming through, was home to a saloon and general store operated by Maj. Daniel Downs.
The story goes that once the passenger trains started running in 1872, the town was relocated because of difficulty starting and stopping on the steep hill near the original work camp site, called Hartsell’s Station.
“It is feasible that the topography was an influence in where to locate the original depot,” said Burleson, “however, the decision to move was made more than a year before, which leads me to believe there was never any intention by the railroad to allow the original Hartsell’s Station site to be more than a work camp.”
Burleson said the decision to locate the depot in its current location might have had a lot more to do with the construction of a new road to connect Moulton and Somerville, crossing the Flint Bridge – thought to be Woodall’s Bridge today – and becoming a main crossroads.
Minutes from an 1857 Morgan County Commission meeting show not only the plans for this Moulton-Somerville Road but also mention a new road from the east end of “Hartsell’s Tan Yard” north to Red Bank Road and another road going east to Shoal Creek Church. Burleson said the mention of the Tan Yard indicates the existence of a business enterprise well before the work camp set up north on the rail line route.
“Some sort of community called Hartsell’s already existed well before the railroad line was completed,” said Burleson.
While popular stories of the town’s history run deep, the truth, as they say, can be much more interesting