Worse, many judges had been elected with railroad support. At the time, both case law and statute law were partial to the rights of employers, manufacturers, and large property owners; and as Mayor Skaggs put it, "Federal and State Judges were very liberal in issuing injunctions at the request of big corporations." So, in the summer of 1890, when the City of Talladega began to lay down sewer pipe as the final stage of completing a new waterworks system, the E.T., Va. & Ga. saw no need to cooperate. Instead, it sent word to Mayor Skaggs--probably through lawyer Sydney J. Bowie, who had recently been elected to Talladega's city council--that no pipe would be laid under its tracks.
The right-of-way bisected the town, and Skaggs wrote that "while I was not surprised at the audacity of the suggestion, it made me furious."
It was poor policy to make Skaggs mad. Not yet thirty years old, he was serving his third term as mayor and had earned his reputation as boy wonder. Arrogant enough to run as the candidate of youth against the "old fogy" element, he had pushed through an array of reforms which included paved streets, waterworks, an ambitious public school system, and improved police and fire protection.
At the start of the 1880s, Talladega had been a moderately prosperous town of twelve hundred souls; by the end of the decade it had acquired new industries and businesses, including two new banks, had experienced a real-estate boom, and now boasted a population of more than two thousand. Skaggs, who was quite willing to take credit for the improvements, hoped to make Talladega into another Birmingham, or at least another Anniston. But the cost of progress was high--the city was financing its sewers with a $35,000 bond issue--and his popular support was faltering. The railroad's attitude was a godsend for a beleaguered politician.
The cost of progress was high--the city was financing its sewers with a $35,000 bond issue--and Mayor Skaggs' popular support was faltering. The railroad's attitude was a godsend for a beleaguered politician.
Bowie (or other railroad men) pressured the aldermen, but Skaggs secured a delay by begging the council "not to get down on its belly and crawl before the railroad company." As he well knew, most merchants "had a real or imaginary grievance" against the E.T., Va. & Ga., and citizens whose services might be cut off were furious. He "walked the streets," and soon public anger immobilized the council. In the meantime, Skaggs had consulted with city engineer S. M. Neff, who assured him that his men could tunnel under the rails without disrupting traffic; the job would take five hours. Skaggs told him to load the necessary materials on wagons kept at "some secluded place" and to keep his best men on call.
Pondering his options, Skaggs knew that the railroad would counter any move on his part with legal action. He also knew that the judge who had authority to issue an injunction, Samuel K. McSpadden of the chancery court, was known to be in Anniston, county seat of Calhoun County. Surely it was best to wait until McSpadden was in transit between two courthouses, on the way to his home in Centre--or was in any case "the greatest distance from Talladega that he would probably be." It was no problem to keep a watch on McSpadden's movements; Skaggs probably relied upon the friends or contacts of city attorney Cecil Browne (who was later paid for work performed during the sewer dispute).
Mayor Skaggs thought he had taught the E.T., Va. & Ga. railroads a lesson, and he may have thought that he had assured his election to a fourth term, yet he was wrong on both counts.
Now Superintendent Bridges in Selma, who had been firing off telegrams threatening "injunction, mandamus, and several other kinds of damuses" became more conciliatory. Skaggs ignored him, and the road's local representative withdrew at 9:30 p.m. By 2:00 a.m. the work was done, and Skaggs and many well-wishers adjourned to his house for a celebration (he had thought of that too). There were no further legal consequences from the sewer war. Indeed, Skaggs recalled that there was little further trouble of any sort from the railroad.
Skaggs thought he had taught the E.T., Va. & Ga. a lesson, and he may have thought that he had assured his election to a fourth term, yet he was wrong on both counts. There is no way to prove that the railroad worked to unseat Skaggs. But it is only reasonable to think that friends of the road rejoiced in 1891, when lawyer E. H. Dryer, who ran with the blessing of the "old fogy" element, narrowly defeated Skaggs in a municipal election of "exceeding bitterness."
Skaggs, to be sure, was not without hubris; a combination of pride and overreaching plans contributed to his defeat. He would go on to a career as a reformer, working for populist and progressive causes and ending up as a writer, a critic of what he called the "Southern Oligarchy."
Skaggs' glory years were those spent as mayor of Talladega. In 1928, at the request of Talladega historian E. Grace Jemison, he sat down to write a long "Memorandum" of the time when the world seemed to be spinning his way. If his self-assurance was still strong, so was his sense of humor when he declared that "the citizens had never before had so much respect for me as they had the morning after the sewer pipe[s] were laid under the tracks . ... "
This feature was previously published in Issue #46, Fall 1997.
Paul M. Pruitt Jr. is a special collections librarian at the University of Alabama School of Law.