Rarely do I venture forth into places where I wonder if I should have brought my own pit bull or mean dog for company. But last week’s survey of property along Reichhold Road in Holt spooked Angie enough for her to say, “Alina, I’m not going on this road with you and the kids again unless you have some protection.” The kids agreed.
Our first stop was the old Empire Coke Company, where Arthur, Angie’s dad, worked for a period of time. Angie reminisced about climbing the old fence and playing the shrubs while waiting for her dad. Those days are over, as Empire Coke no longer appears to be operating. The site is fairly desolate.
One of the first stops along the way was the old Reichhold Chemicals headquarters- now deserted and ripe for the possible poetic plucking. Something about the building brought the rich history of Tuscaloosa’s early industrialization to mind. The style of the roof resembles Jack Warner’s oriental-inspired architecture at Northriver Yacht Club and the Westervelt headquarters.
Back in 1942, when the Tuscaloosa plant for Reichhold Chemicals was constructed, World War II loomed large. The plant was constructed “primarily to serve the war effort through the manufacture of synthetic phenol”, a chemical used in the manufacture of munitions and plastics. Personal history intersects with Reichhold history in 1960, when Thomas P. Shumaker was named the Corporate VP of Sales for Reichhold. My early memories of childhood include growing up in the old Shumaker home, fascinated by the woodturning lathe in the basement- a hobby that must have been part of Thomas Shumaker’s life.
In 1968, the Geological Survey of Alabama (GSA) and Deep Well Pollution Control Corporation published a preliminary study for a deep dispersal well at Reichhold- “Study of the Potential of Subsurface Disposal in Tuscaloosa Area” dated Sept. 30, 1968. At the time, environmental industry leaders and the EPA were seeking ways to dispose of industrial waste deep below the surface of the earth. Ultimately, this search would lead them to drill dispersal wells over 8,000 feet into the ground on the Reichhold site. After Reichhold abandoned its Tuscaloosa plant in the early 1990’s, this experiment in waste disposal remained. I hoped this little drive would help me to discover where the underground wells could be found.
As we continued a little further along the road, we noticed a large red clay field to the right. I stopped the spaceship and jumped out, hoping to catch a glimpse of a company name or associated business. Alas, no proper nouns could be discerned.
A quick hike led me to a clearing in which trucks were excavating what appeared to be red clay dirt. When I realized that a man was standing nearby smoking a cigarette- “H–e-ey miss, whutchalookinfor?”- I smiled nervously and scurried back to the van. Angie laughed and rolled her eyes, warning me that she would soon start making calls for protection.
Across from a loop with one residential home owned and occupied by the Corder family, we found a locked gate near the location where the deep dispersals wells are rumored to lie. Again, I jumped out of the car, snapped a few photos, took note of the jeep with an Obama bumper sticker and Auburn decal parked in front of the locked gate, and vowed to return to solve the mystery of the road leading up the hill. I will have to hike this one on my own.
The road ends with the intersection to Merichem Chemicals and Southern Ionics, a mysterious corporation which currently owns parts of the property formerly held by Reichhold Industries. To the left of this dead end lies one branch of Merichem with extremely high security and a no-visitors policy. To the right, the road extends for some ways until it meets up with a timber industry and an old house at the end of a driveway marked with an “M”.
The homes range from barely-standing to well-maintained. The house above even had a nice set of hens running around the driveway alongside the multiple signs warning of guns and danger to trespassers. My adventures along Reichhold Road deserve a sequel- as well as a Bruce Springsteen song. There is so much history to be mined here.