Until the latter part of the 20th century, an enigmatic and nearly forgotten rail line snaked for several miles through the quiet backwoods of southern Marion County, Alabama, isolated from its owner’s main line by dozens of miles. It was a small part of an ambitious plan that never came to be, a small reminder of a route that was never actually laid. But most of all, it was a fascinating and essential icon of the history of this area, the lifeblood of a town that still bears the name of the mine that helped it grow and thrive.
The story of this railroad begins in the 1880s, in Mississippi. The Canton, Aberdeen & Nashville was incorporated, as a subsidiary of Illinois Central, in February of 1882 with plans to connect with Nashville through central and north Alabama from its terminus in Mississippi. The route was completed to Aberdeen in 1888, when the ambitious plans cooled somewhat without a connection to Alabama.
When a very high quality coal seam was discovered north of Winfield, Alabama, and a mine built to serve it by the early 1890s, Illinois Central decided to act further upon its ambitious Canton, Aberdeen & Nashville project and tap into the rich coal resources in Alabama. Initially it was planned to build a line from the main near Aberdeen to this mine, by way of a line through Vernon and Winfield, but eventually IC negotiated with Kansas City, Memphis & Birmingham (soon to be fully absorbed into SLSF, better known as the Frisco) for some level of trackage rights on their line from Winfield to Aberdeen, requiring only the construction of a line from Winfield north to the mine at Brilliant. Some grading work was apparently done near Vernon in anticipation for the construction of the CA&N line through this area, but rails were never laid on this grade as trackage rights fulfilled the needs of Illinois Central’s isolated branch.
The Brilliant Branch opened to traffic in June of 1899, though some sources state 1898. It was officially designated the Winfield District by the IC. Brilliant Coal Company operated a profitable coal mine near the town of Boston (which would eventually become Brilliant) and the rails ended in the valley where the town of Brilliant was beginning to grow just outside the mine. A station was constructed and traffic began to run on this line, extending from the mines to the interchange with KCM&B at Winfield, 10 miles to the south. It is not entirely certain whether IC was allowed to operate from Winfield to their connection near Aberdeen on KCM&B/SLSF tracks, or if a locomotive in captive service on the Brilliant branch line had to shift its cargo to a KCM&B/SLSF train to reach IC’s main. Most sources suggest the latter.
The project involving the connection to Nashville using this branch as a launching pad, per se, was not forgotten. In 1903, these plans were still being considered. IC had built south from Nashville and had surveyed all the way to Tuscumbia, AL, in preparation for eventually connecting the Brilliant branch to points north, running through Double Springs, Decatur, and Tuscumbia to eventually connect with IC’s lines in northeast MS and southern TN. The charter for the CA&N regarding this line a few years prior provided for this extension, expecting the Brilliant branch to be only the beginning of the line’s march northeast further into Alabama. However, the coal reserves that IC hoped to tap on this line proved to be far less extensive than they had initially expected, and the plans to extend this line from Brilliant were shelved.
The little line from Winfield to Brilliant thus eventually wound up as the only section of the CA&N/IC-planned route through Alabama that was ever constructed. Its utter isolation from IC’s other routes earned it the nickname ‘The Orphan’, and the branch continued in operation with little change for the next few decades, primarily serving the Brilliant Coal Co. mine and a few other much smaller operations. The entire town of Brilliant moved uphill by the late 1920s, as detailed in the town’s history at the end of this article, but the Brilliant Branch still operated, the very minor revenue from passengers after the station was relocated apparently not being missed. The high quality coal from the seam was used to fuel some of IC’s locomotives in the region, in addition to the revenue from the transport of this coal elsewhere, making the branch fairly important to IC’s operations in the southern states.
Operations on the branch were fairly simple. According to records from 1950, a daily freight served two mines on the branch. Coal was accessed by an electrified drift type mining operation, cutting into the hillside to reach the thin but rich low-ash seam of coal. A low-drivered 4-6-2 steam engine was used on the line, kept at the Winfield terminus when not in use. The locomotive did not rack up an impressive mileage count on this line, traveling on average only about 20 miles per day, the distance from the Brilliant mines to Winfield. Most sources indicate the from the interchange here with the SLSF to Mississippi was accomplished with the SLSF’s own locomotives. The SLSF had to accommodate the movement of the IC’s locomotive when maintenance was necessary. It’s worth noting, though perhaps on an unrelated note, that Illinois Central was one of the last Class 1 railroads of the era to fully dieselize.
Things were to change significantly as the 1950s carried on. Brilliant Coal Company ended its Brilliant operation during this period, taking with it the primary source of revenue for the railroad branch. In July of 1954, IC sold the Brilliant Branch to SLSF, the company that had transported coal from the mine on its own tracks for half a century. This sale left the Corinth to Haleyville branch the only IC property in north Alabama. But despite the closing of the productive mine at Brilliant (or, perhaps, operation under a different company on a smaller scale) the new owners did not abandon this branch. Enough mining still existed on the short branch that SLSF continued to ship coal out of the mines that remained for many years. This was perhaps even more easily done now that the SLSF owned the branch and there was no longer an interchange between two different railroads that had to be consummated in Winfield.
Incredibly, despite the upheavals and abandonments that punctuated the railroad newswires through the 60s and 70s, the branch continued to operate under the SLSF into the modern era. According to some who actually worked on this branch during the later SLSF years, the branch was in fairly poor condition, and significant speed restrictions were in place. A single road engine would slowly ply its way to the mines to pick up a string of coal hoppers from the mines a few times a week, leaving the cars in Winfield to be picked up by a northbound freight. The line had clearly seen far better days, and it wouldn’t have surprised many if the announcement came that abandonment would soon be upon the Brilliant Branch.
And so it was. By the time the SLSF was absorbed by Burlington Northern in 1980, the line was in little use. With little fanfare, in 1983 the Brilliant Branch was formally abandoned, and shortly thereafter, the rails were removed along the entire route, including the road grade crossings. The only possible exceptions to this were the left leg of the wye interchange with the BN (now BNSF) in Winfield and perhaps one or two of the small trestles over the creek that the route crossed multiple times on its way to Brilliant.
The lot that contained the southern terminus of the Brilliant Branch in Winfield, according to reports, became the home of a wood yard briefly, with either the left leg or the wye or a new, straightened spur built by BN used as a loading spot for pulpwood through the 1990s. This spur, and the associated wood yard, was abandoned sometime around 2000. The line through Winfield is now controlled by BNSF, with little trace of the IC branch that led to the mines at Brilliant. However, the original CA&N/IC station, constructed in 1898, still exists in a small park on the northern edge of Brilliant. It was moved there more than 70 years ago when the town relocated and now houses a small mining museum.
THE REMNANTS TODAY: THE ROUTE MAP
A few weeks ago, I went to Winfield to try to find evidence of where the line once lay. Using Google Earth and historical maps, it was possible to trace out the entire route. This is laid out in the associated zip file, which can be loaded in Google Earth with waypoints and photos throughout.
The line began at the wye in Winfield, between modern AL 118 and the BNSF mainline, south of Apache Street. This lot contained the wye and later a wood lot and a BNSF spur, today containing just the abandoned spur. There are few traces of the original wye that led to Brilliant at this location, but still a lot of interesting railroad history here.
The wye formed the edge of the lot, still visible in the arrangement of mature trees north of the BNSF main here. The wye legs connected to form the single-track Brilliant Branch just south of AL 118, which was the first road crossing on the branch’s route northward. From AL 118, the line moved just east of due north across a lot between buildings to a grade crossing on Apple Avenue.
From the Apple Avenue crossing, the line continued nearly due north along what is now Community Street. The rails once laid where this road is now; indeed, Community Street was laid over the abandoned railbed. Note that there are two parallel roads labeled Community Street; the one to the west – left if facing north – is where the rail line was. My guess is that the railbed was paved over to provide better access to the school and relieve congested traffic near the core of the quickly growing town.
The rail line continued north under what is now (the left alignment of) Community Street, just to the east of Winfield City Middle School, crossing what is now Anchor Drive. Another crossing follows on Cemetery Street, where the north-south road paved over the railbed shifts and the railbed becomes part of a paved walkway connecting the middle school and the elementary school just west of Park Drive.
The next four-way is at at Berkley Avenue, when Park Drive turns right and the north-south road becomes Community Street once more. It should be noted that these roads are relatively new; in the heyday of the Brilliant Branch before the 1970s, there were no major road crossings between Cemetery Street and CR 14.
Community Street veers into CR 14 shortly thereafter. North of the street, and parallel to CR 14, the railbed is fairly easy to follow on Google Earth as it veers NE, through what today is woodland, curving north to cross CR 14 just east of its junction with CR 47.
North of this crossing, there is a private road blocked off by a gate that utilizes the old railbed through young second-growth trees as the former line moves nearly due north; this should be easily picked out from the ground if the landscape doesn’t drastically change soon. This trail is easy to pick out from the air as it leads through fields and young timber east of CR 47 for about half a mile before the route made its first crossing of a branch of Luxapalilla Creek. A small trestle existed here, or may still possibly exist in dilapidated condition.
The rail line curves NE from this crossing, forming the border between forest and field, still clearly defined as a rural trail on private property. Aerials indicate hay bales or other farm items stored on the railbed here. The line then crosses CR 173 at a kink in that road, a decent visual clue.
The rails made their second crossing of the branch of Luxapalilla Creek just north of the CR 173 crossing. The ROW then winds NE then eventually N through what is now second growth forest about halfway between and roughly parallel to CR 47 and Riley Harp Rd for about a mile before crossing CR 47. The ROW is a farm road here to the south, and visible in the gap of slightly younger trees in the forest to the north, next to a power line cut. The road seems to have been recently repaved here.
The rails continue due north (with a slight left bend about midway, returning then to due north) through woodland for about 1.5 miles between the crossing and new US 78, crossing the branch of Luxapalilla Creek a remarkable three times in only half a mile. The rails thus do not necessarily follow the lay of the land here, probably built up on slight fills and cuts and crossing the creek more times than would be usual to allow for a level, due north route instead of following the sinuous creek.
The railbed where US 78 is now is very hard to decipher from the ground, as construction has obliterated most of it, but could possibly be seen to the south as a gap between larger trees. The Brilliant branch crossed the site of modern US 78 at nearly a right angle, then curved NE north of the site of the highway.
The railbed is nearly impossible to follow in this day and age for about 1.7 miles to the northeast, as heavy logging and, probably, surface mining operations have erased the former grade nearly completely. The rails crossed what’s now CR68 and continued NE then NNE through rough terrain before becoming visible again just south of AL 44 in the Pull Tight community.
The rails crossed AL 44 in a still-visible gap in the trees half a mile west of AL 44’s junction with AL 129. Once across the road, the ROW veers sharply east-southeast to parallel AL 44 to its junction with AL 129, about where the western edge of the ‘old’ town of Brilliant was before it was moved uphill and north.
It’s worth noting that aerial imagery revealed the presence of a turning wye in roughly the same alignment as the junction with AL 44, AL 129, and Main Street; this, I assume, was used to turn the locomotives for their trip back to the Winfield interchange. This turning wye appears to have been abandoned quite a few years before the rest of the line, and there seems to be little if any evidence of its presence today. It is located just above where Main Street splits to merge into AL 44 and AL 129. There may still be a slight gap in the trees today.
The line then crossed Main Street right after the wye and turned more southeasterly into what was once Brilliant, where the station was located. The line then continued through the valley that old Brilliant was built in and curved to the south to reach the mines that inspired the construction of the line, the rich Black Creek Seam. The line’s distance past the wye was somewhere around two miles to its terminus, probably slightly less. The extension northeast to Double Springs and Decatur from here never happened, though there may have been grading done. The ROW through the valley where old town Brilliant stood is somewhat difficult to pick out from aerial imagery, but may still be visible from the ground, along with artifacts from the town that sprang up in this valley over a century ago. This valley is abandoned today, home again only to the forest and the creatures that called it home, as it was before the iron horse first pulled into the Brilliant station more than a century ago.
Brilliant, Alabama is a small town located in rural Marion County, several miles north of Winfield. Its history is rich, and its story is one of changes – of names, of economic forces, and even of physical location.
The story of the town begins in the late 19th century, when the town of Boston was incorporated, named for the Bostick family. The Aldrige brothers operated the Aldrige Mining Company just south of town, which became the Brilliant Coal Company before the turn of the century when it was sold to Birmingham investors. This mine would become the catalyst for the growth of the area and the rail line that once led to the community.
What, though, does the town of Boston have to do with the article, and how did the name Brilliant originate? An interesting series of events in the early part of the 20th century provides the answers to both. The original town that became Brilliant was located at the bottom of a hill, where the rail line ran to the mine. When the mine shifted location, and the post office moved to the top of the hill in Boston, the name of that community was changed from Boston to Brilliant both because there was already a Boston post office in the state and in order to honor the coal company that brought economic development to the area. The name Brilliant was given to the original mine because of the quality of the coal produced – the low ash and sulfur coal had a brilliant glossy appearance. The seam, known as the Black Creek seam, is said to have produced some of the highest quality coal available in the country at the time.
A map of the Brilliant Branch and associated placemarks has been created and made available for download. Check back for updates and corrections on the map and the article.
This article is a work in progress, and further information, corrections, or any insight would be greatly appreciated.
SOURCES, REFERENCES, AND FURTHER READING