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A look back at L&N shops

For many years the largest industrial employer in Morgan County was the Louisville and Nashville Railroad’s boxcar construction shops located in New Decatur – later renamed Albany and then absorbed into the original city of Decatur.  

These shops not only provided jobs for men in the two Decaturs but also men in towns close by, especially Hartselle.  

In their earliest days in the 1890s, before the advent of the mass-produced automobile, many men from Hartselle would rent rooms in homes near the shops and return to Hartselle on weekends in a buggy wagon that made regular runs between Hartselle and Decatur.  

One of these was Will Hartselle, the father of Ollie Belle Hartselle Roan, who older residents will remember as the head bookkeeper at the old Stewart Brothers Motor Company on Bowery – later Sparkman – Street.  

From the time they began operations in the 1890s, the L&N Shops dominated local news: some of it good and some of it not good. 

This week, Labor Day week, we will focus on the positive impact of the shops on the economy of Morgan County and all of its communities. From time to time we will return to the shops and identify some of the problems emanating from them.

Hartselle owes a lot to the L&N, and the reverse is true as well. 

Negotiations to complete the 67-mile gap between the outskirts of the new city of Birmingham and Decatur were heated and extensive. A relatively new book on the history of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad by Maury Klein makes this clear.  

It was the L&N that ultimately built the rail line through Hartselle – at a new, more rail-compatible location – on the basis of numerous contracts signed in April and May 1871. 

Sept. 29, 1872, the first train that had left Louisville bound for Montgomery passed through Hartselle.

Dec. 1, 1888, Decatur and all of Morgan County were excited because the Louisville & Nashville Railroad had contracted with the City of New Decatur to locate the consolidated car construction and repair shops in Decatur. It was expected that when the shops began full operation, they would employ hundreds of men in good jobs at high wages. 

For those who didn’t live in or near New Decatur, such as in Hartselle, it looked to be worth it for them to rent rooms at boarding houses and return to their families on weekends.  

These shops, when fully constructed, were set to occupy 14 very large buildings and, adding in the necessary railroad tracks, cover about 57 acres of New Decatur territory. They would be the largest shops of this kind south of the Ohio River.

Following are a few of the positive stories that were written to give some indication of the positive impact the shops were having on local economies.

Dec. 6, 1896—Plans have been completed for the enlargement of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad Company shops at New Decatur.

Dec. 14, 1896—In the Louisville Times of Tuesday, the statement was made that plans have been drawn up and accepted for the doubling of the capacity of the Louisville and Nashville shops in New Decatur, and that work will begin at once.

June 30, 1903—The mammoth forge shop being built by the Louisville and Nashville Railroad at their shops in New Decatur is almost completed and will soon be ready for operation. These shops are now employing 1,600 mechanics and are paying out in wages nearly $90,000 per month.

April 7, 1908—One hundred and fifty new men were employed by the Louisville and Nashville Railroad Company in the shops in New Decatur this morning, and it is reported that others will be employed in the next few days.

July 10, 1909—Work was commenced yesterday in the planing mill department of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad shops in New Decatur on the material for 80 new box cars which are to be built in the shops here.  

At the present time these shops are working five days a week. Formerly they worked only three.