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FW: ANB - Bio of the Day [H.F. DeBardeleben]

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  • A.J. Wright
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      Sent: Sunday, April 25, 2004 1:50 AM
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      Subject: ANB - Bio of the Day


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      American National Biography Online


      DeBardeleben, Henry Fairchild (22 July 1840-6 Dec. 1910), industrial
      entrepreneur, was born in Autauga County, Alabama, the son of
      Henry DeBardeleben, a South Carolinian who moved to Alabama in
      the 1830s to become a cotton planter, and Mary Fairchild of New
      York. Upon the death of her husband in the early 1850s, Mary
      and her three children moved to Montgomery. In time, the family
      joined the household of a friend, Daniel Pratt, a former New
      Englander who had accumulated one of the largest fortunes in
      antebellum Alabama through cotton gin manufacturing. A free spirit
      who loved the outdoors and was never fond of formal schooling,
      the young DeBardeleben gladly left school as soon as his guardian
      would allow and became superintendent of Pratt's gin factory.

      Although DeBardeleben, like Pratt, opposed secession, he enlisted
      as a private in the Confederate army but was soon drafted to
      supervise a Confederate factory. In 1863 DeBardeleben married
      Pratt's only surviving child, eighteen-year-old Ellen, with whom
      he had eight children. Increasingly, Pratt depended on his son-in-law
      to assist him in his business ventures.

      After the war, Pratt, then ill but with some remaining capital,
      ventured into the mineral district of Alabama with DeBardeleben
      at his side. Although Alabama's antebellum economy was predominantly
      agricultural, limited industrial development had taken place
      by the time of the Civil War. In the postwar period, speculators,
      promoters, prospectors, and railroad men--attracted by iron ore,
      coal, and limestone--purchased land in Jefferson County and in
      1871 laid out a new town named Birmingham after the English industrial
      city. In the spring of 1872 Pratt acquired a controlling interest
      in the Red Mountain Iron and Coal Company and placed DeBardeleben
      in charge of the enterprise, now renamed the Eureka Mining Company.

      Although he succeeded in placing the war-damaged furnaces at
      Oxmoor back into operation, DeBardeleben's ignorance of the coal
      and iron industry, combined with the limited market for iron
      in Alabama, inexperienced labor, and the panic of 1873, spelled
      doom for the venture. DeBardeleben later declared, "And I came
      in and took charge of what I knew nothing about!" (Armes, p.
      239). By the end of 1873 DeBardeleben submitted his resignation
      and the Oxmoor furnaces closed. With a cholera epidemic adding
      to the woes of Birmingham, activity in the district was at a
      standstill by the beginning of 1874.

      But DeBardeleben had caught the speculative fever; with the
      death of Pratt in May 1873 and Pratt's wife less than two years
      later, he had access to an estate estimated at $250,000 with
      which he could begin to build his own fortune. Turning his back
      on the cotton gins of the Old South, the young man staked his
      future on the industry of the New South.

      DeBardeleben's demeanor and speculative ventures mirrored the
      raucous, frontier atmosphere of early Birmingham. Described as
      a "dashingly good looking" man with a "hawk-like look," DeBardeleben
      had a "savagely energetic, restless, impatient" manner and appeared
      to always have one foot "in the stirrup, and to be itching to
      mount and be off and away" (Armes, p. 239). Exulting in the opportunities
      of the New South, he declared, "There's nothing like taking a
      wild piece of land, all rock and woods . . . and turning it into
      a settlement of men and women, making pay rolls, bringing the
      railroads in, and starting things going. There's nothing like
      boring a hillside through and turning over a mountain. That's
      what money does, and that's what money's for. I like to use money
      as I use a horse--to ride!" (Armes, p. 343).

      Even in the depression years DeBardeleben was busy. When the
      ownership of the Oxmoor furnaces reverted back to him, he helped
      to sponsor an experiment in February 1876 that resulted in the
      first iron made in the district with coke rather than charcoal.
      But his main passion was to ride the hills and valleys searching
      for land to buy. Utilizing the expertise of one of the few mining
      engineers in Alabama, Joseph Squire of the Lancashire coal pits
      of England, DeBardeleben bought extensive coal lands. In 1878
      he joined with Truman H. Aldrich, a mining engineer, and James
      W. Sloss, a developer of railroads, to organize the first big
      coal concern in Alabama, the Pratt Coal and Coke Company.

      The three men placed all their assets in the project. DeBardeleben,
      as president, had the responsibility of obtaining money and land
      and promoting the endeavor; Aldrich took charge of the technical
      aspects. Opening the first mine in October 1878, the company
      also built coke ovens and constructed a rail line from the mines
      into Birmingham. In 1879 shipments of high-grade coking coal
      from the Pratt field brought life to the district's economy,
      but in a pattern that would be repeated, the headstrong DeBardeleben
      did not work well with his partners, who withdrew by 1881.

      With Pratt coal fueling the great iron boom, Birmingham flourished
      in the 1880s. Known as Birmingham's biggest booster, DeBardeleben
      invested in a number of other ventures, including the Henry Ellen
      coal mines in the Cahaba River basin and the Alice Furnace Company,
      which erected the first blast furnace inside the city limits
      of Birmingham. By late 1881 DeBardeleben, exhausted and fearing
      that he had tuberculosis, decided to move to the drier climate
      of northern Mexico. In the first million-dollar deal of the district,
      on 29 December 1881 he sold the Pratt company to Enoch Ensley,
      a "moneyed man" from Memphis who headed a group of Tennessee
      investors. Subsequently, the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad
      Company (TCI) absorbed Pratt Coal in 1886 in a $2.25 million
      stock deal and became the giant of the district.

      Sheep ranching in Mexico, DeBardeleben not only recovered his
      health but also made contacts in Texas that would bring new capital
      to Birmingham. With a Kentucky lawyer, William Thompson Underwood,
      DeBardeleben constructed the Mary Pratt furnace (named after
      his daughter), which went into blast in 1883, but his largest
      new venture involved founding a city that he intended to rival
      Birmingham. Together with David Roberts, a young Welshman who
      secured additional investors from Charleston, Baltimore, and
      London, DeBardeleben incorporated DeBardeleben Coal and Iron
      Company in 1886 in Jefferson County, Alabama. Although he named
      their new town Bessemer after the English steel maker, DeBardeleben
      never realized his dream of establishing a steel plant; however,
      he fostered industrial development in western Jefferson County,
      continued to raise capital, and developed more companies.

      By 1891 TCI officials feared DeBardeleben Coal and Iron Company
      as a rival. On 18 March 1892 an agreement was reached that merged
      the two companies, kept the TCI name, placed DeBardeleben and
      his associates on the board of directors, and made TCI the largest
      iron and coal company in the South. Content to serve as the first
      vice president for only a year before attempting to gain control
      through stock manipulation, DeBardeleben found himself defeated
      by the "Wall Street wilderness," lost most of his fortune, and
      was forced to sell his shares to his chief rival, New York speculator
      John Inman. He remained vice president until compelled to resign
      on 22 October 1894.

      Although DeBardeleben continued to promote new industries and
      founded the Alabama Fuel and Iron Company, he never regained
      his fortune or a position of prominence in the district; the
      time of the freewheeling, laissez faire entrepreneur had passed.
      He suffered a heart attack while visiting his Acmar Mines and
      died three days later at his Birmingham home.

      Once proclaiming that life was "one big game of poker" (Armes,
      p. 343), DeBardeleben was one of the first "big moneyed" men
      of Birmingham. Later judgments have held him at least partly
      responsible for the unstable boom or bust nature of Birmingham's
      early growth. Not an iron man, he was a speculator, promoter,
      and booster, responsible for bringing capital into the district.
      An investor remarked, "It's many a man has been lured upon the
      rocks of Alabama by that siren tongue of DeBardeleben!" (Armes,
      p. 331). Milton H. Smith, president of the Louisville & Nashville
      Railroad, declared that DeBardeleben was "the darndest man I
      ever knew in my life! Why, I've spent thirty millions following
      that man!" (Armes, p. 343). But he was a builder, and ultimately
      his properties became the center of the Birmingham holdings of
      the U.S. Steel Corporation, which took over TCI in 1907. By then,
      the times had passed DeBardeleben by, but the city he helped
      develop became the industrial capital of the New South.


      Bibliography

      Business records of the DeBardeleben Coal Company (Collection
      No. 914) are in the Birmingham Public Library. The records of
      the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company, U.S. Steel Corporation
      Records, Fairfield, Ala., contain information on some of the
      DeBardeleben companies that were absorbed by TCI. An early typescript
      history of TCI is W. B. Allen, "History of TCI," in U.S. Steel
      Corp. records. For vividly descriptive, contemporary accounts
      of DeBardeleben and other early entrepreneurs of the Birmingham
      district, see Ethel Armes, The Story of Coal and Iron in Alabama
      (1910), and Armes, "The Spirit of the Founders," Survey 27 (6
      Jan. 1912): 1453-63. Candid comments on DeBardeleben and other
      Birmingham industrialists are in the diary of James Bowron, Jr.
      (a TCI official) in the James Bowron Papers, the University of
      Alabama Library, Tuscaloosa. Uncritical but interesting information
      is in George M. Cruikshank, A History of Birmingham and Its Environs,
      vols. 1 and 2 (1920). A comprehensive survey of DeBardeleben
      is Justin Fuller, "Henry F. DeBardeleben, Industrialist of the
      New South," The Alabama Review 39 (Jan. 1986): 3-18. DeBardeleben's
      efforts to enter the steel business are described in Fuller,
      "From Iron to Steel: Alabama's Industrial Evolution," The Alabama
      Review 17 (Apr. 1964): 137-48. Fuller, "History of the Tennessee
      Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company, 1852-1907" (Ph.D. diss., Univ.
      of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1966), contains information
      on the various mergers. Furnaces built by DeBardeleben are discussed
      in Joseph H. Woodward II, Alabama Blast Furnaces (1940). General
      overviews of DeBardeleben's role in the industrial development
      of the Birmingham district can be found in Leah Rawls Atkins,
      The Valley and the Hills: An Illustrated History of Birmingham
      and Jefferson County (1981), and Wayne Flynt, Mine, Mill and
      Microchip: A Chronicle of Alabama Enterprise (1987). An obituary
      is in the Birmingham News, 7 Dec. 1910.

      Marlene Hunt Rikard



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      Citation:
      Marlene Hunt Rikard. "DeBardeleben, Henry Fairchild";
      http://www.anb.org/articles/10/10-00389.html;
      American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
      Access Date:
      Copyright (c) 2000 American Council of Learned Societies. Published
      by Oxford University Press. All rights reserved.





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