The first time that I saw the crenelated concrete water tower located in Marvel was about twenty odd years ago. My son and I were traveling the back roads through West Blocton in route to the University of Montevallo. Seeing this tower for the first time, located literally in what seems as the middle of nowhere, leaves you with a lot of questions. Several times through the years I have wondered about this tower and attempted to relocate it.
Recently I found the tower mentioned in an article on the Internet, and looked up the directions to Marvel. The only thing alerting you the name of this old mining town is the Marvel Baptist Church. The present day community is located about 28 miles southwest of Birmingham, at 33 deg 8′ 49.95″N and 87 deg 0′ 7.47″W.
There was a time when all of this land along Cahaba River was considered the Cahaba River Basin Coal Fields. The Roden Coal Company operated the Marvel Mines from 1906 until 1951. This operation was large enough to be served by two separate railroads. Both the Southern and L&N worked these mines using a single line in a joint partnership.
There were many small mining towns that sprang up all along the Cahaba River. Some of these towns were Marvel, Gurnee Junction, Coalena, Piper, West Blocton, Mayberry, Pea Ridge, Dogwood, Boothton, Coalmont, Scratch Ankle, and many more.
The underground mining of coal was hard and often dangerous work. The pay was not great, but there were benefits. The miners were provided with low cost housing, health care and often times the mining companies would build schools and churches. The coal companies also maintained a “company store” in most all of the towns. On Saturdays, most of the stores would stay open late to allow the miners and their families to shop.
As I left, I thought that I could find my way to West Blocton, but I pulled out my ole GPS just to make sure. You know that you are no longer on the beaten path when your GPS show the car moving in the middle of a blank screen. A few miles later as I approached an intersection, I glanced at the GPS and watched as the other road began showing up on my screen. Then later I recognized the entrance to the West Blocton Coke Ovens and the Cahaba River Wildlife Management Area where I photographed lilies last spring.
As a follow up to this post, I would love to revisit this area in the future and search for the remains of the old mine.