Underneath the Huntsville courthouse, yawning caverns

Posted by | May 19, 2014

“From the year 1830 to 1840, though embracing a period of great financial distress, yet was included a period of great improvement in [Huntsville, AL] and vicinity.

Madison County, AL courthouse at Huntsville. No date on photo.

Madison County, AL courthouse at Huntsville. No date on photo.

“The old brick court-house on the public square had become dilapidated and insecure, and after discussing ways and means for several years the commissioners finally let out the contract for the building of a new one.

“George Steele, a fine mechanic and a scientific architect, planned the building and drew up its specifications. George Steele had come here from Virginia young and poor, but by his energy and mechanical skill contributed largely to the development of architectural taste among our people and soon made a wide reputation and acquired wealth. He married a daughter of Col. Matthew Weaver and raised a large family, among whom were the accomplished wife of the lamented General E. D. Tracy, Matthew W. Steele the well-known architect, and Col. Jno. F. Steele, a celebrated civil engineer.

“But one of the men who constructed the court-house from corner-stone to minaret still lives in our midst, one of the last survivors of the celebrated mechanics of that era, whose finished and skillful workmanship gave both elegance and stability to our public and private edifices.

“Our fellow citizens William Wilson and Tames Mitchell were awarded the entire contract, and broke ground for the new building in the month of July, 1836, and the first court held in the new court-house in the fall of 1838.

“The excellent blue limestone of the foundation was quarried on Russell Hill. The white limestone of the steps into the hall and of the upper stonework was quarried on the spurs of Monte Sano, and the paving material from Round Top.

“Messers. Wilson and Mitchell’s contract included grading the site of the new court-house and removing the old one, and the workmen, in grading the square and digging the foundation, excavated a considerable quantity of loose flat rocks, which they used in covering fissures in the rocks of unknown depths across which the foundation walls were carried.

Inside the old Three Caves Quarry at Monte Sano Mountain Preserve, which is today administered by the Huntsville Land Trust.

Inside the old Three Caves Quarry at Monte Sano Mountain Preserve, which is today administered by the Huntsville Land Trust. The white limestone of the steps into the courthouse hall, and of the building’s upper stonework, was quarried here.

“To look upon the level green sward of the public square and the substantial basement of the court-house would make it difficult to realize that underneath are yawning caverns reaching down to the hidden waters of Huntsville Spring, with arches cleft by fissures extending up to the foundation walls of the court-house.

“Yet so sure and solid was the foundation laid that there was not on its completion nor has there since ever been any perceptible change or difference in level, except a slight depression of its north-east corner.

“The bricks for the court-house were made by Messrs. Wilson and Mitchell on the lots now occupied by George M. Neely and Fred. A. Howe, which were afterwards graded to the street level and sold for building lots.

“The court-house cost about fifty-two thousand dollars, and when finished it was considered one of the finest edifices of the kind in the Southern States. Messers Wilson and Mitchell quarried the stone in the mountains, made the brick, superintended hauling and transportation of all the material, and also directed and managed the inside work and plastering, and when they delivered the keys of the completed building to the county authorities they left to future generations a lasting testimony of their skill and fidelity as master builders.”

—-Excerpt from Later History Of Madison County,
by Thomas Jones Taylor, The Alabama Historical Quarterly, Vol. 02, No. 04, Winter Issue 1940. Online at http://bit.ly/iI8Y5Q

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