Blue Mountain blew up twice. Once in 1865 when Union soldiers lit 25 railcars full of Confederate ammunition parked on train tracks adjacent to a rebel depot. And again in 2000 when ire over an ill-fated occupational tax led to the sad death of the Calhoun County mill town.
Flames from the first explosion could be seen 13 miles away.
Fallout from the second explosion exists today. Blue Mountain isn’t a town, Blue Mountain’s residents aren’t Blue Mountainers — they’re Annistonians, whether they embrace that label or not — and the whole escapade illustrates what can happen when activists and politicians believe their actions are immune from unwelcomed byproducts.
Put bluntly, cities can die.
Granted, that’s not going to happen to Anniston should the nonprofit Forward 4 All succeed in persuading Alabama Sen. Del Marsh, R-Anniston, to shepherd a deannexation bill through the state Legislature. Anniston would be trimmer and tighter, with more than 9,000 residents shipped to Oxford, and would feature truncated budgets, fewer city employees, a rewritten political roster, an endangered pension program for its police and fire department retirees and an unfairly tainted reputation, but it would survive nonetheless.
The nonprofit’s draft bill drips with everything Anniston should shun: hints of elitism, ward-line paternalism and the notion that Sam Noble’s weakened creation is no longer worth the effort. If a rewritten and improved version of that draft bill reaches Marsh’s desk, I have no doubt it will be just as flawed.
What Blue Mountain’s story teaches is a lesson on the side effects of activism and politics — a lesson that highlights the need to have enough street sense to predict how opponents may react to news that upsets their world.
Blue Mountain was never much of a town, anyway. Its heyday was during the war — yes, that war — when a terminus of the Alabama and Tennessee River Railroad made the tiny place a key training and storage facility for the Confederate army. The textile foundry that propped up the town’s finances for nearly a century was its main, and often only, real employer.
Without it, Blue Mountain had no chance.
Blue Mountain’s population in 1960 was 446. It fell to 284 by 1980. And that’s roughly where it remained through the 1990s when then-Mayor Joe Mundy decided a 1 percent occupational tax would soothe Blue Mountain’s habitual financial woes.
If town officials anticipated the fallout, it didn’t show, given that nearly all of Blue Mountain Industries’ 450 employees lived outside of Blue Mountain and weren’t keen on being taxed in a desperate attempt to keep the lights on in a city in which they didn’t live.
The Town Council passed the tax in January 1997, and the fallout was swift. Some mill employees sued the city over the tax. Blue Mountain Industries requested the state Legislature to deannex it from the town — which, if the request was granted, would protect its employees from the tax and prevent the town from collecting tax revenue it needed to survive.
U.S. Rep. Mike Rogers, R-Saks, then a state representative with a personal connection to Blue Mountain, made deannexation happen. Mill workers didn’t have to pay the tax. The town missed out on the revenue.
Three years later, on a Tuesday in December 2000, 61 Blue Mountainers voted on a proposal that would annex Blue Mountain into Anniston. Barely $100 sat in Blue Mountain’s general fund. The merger passed, 44-17.
The town of Blue Mountain, incorporated in 1907, was gone, its 300 or so residents sent figuratively south.
That lesson is instructive.
Among Forward 4 All’s public message is the notion that it has empirical suggestions, if not solutions, to the financial ailments Anniston may suffer from deannexation. “We do not believe that de-annexing east Anniston and Golden Springs will render the city unable to pay its debts,” Forward 4 All’s Charles Turner wrote in an Aug. 7 op-ed in The Star. One of Turner’s suggestions is for the city to sell Anniston Regional Airport.
On that, cue the laughter at City Hall.
Annistonians are under no obligation to meekly accept Forward 4 All’s proposal as a foregone conclusion any more than Blue Mountain Industries’ employees were expected to pay an occupational tax to Blue Mountain without complaint. Those mill workers’ objections ignited a response that led not only to the failure of Mayor Mundy’s plan to save the city’s finances but also to the death of the city itself.
Forward 4 All won’t kill Anniston. But shining light on its flawed proposal has ignited a similar response — one of emotion, yes, but also one of passion and civic pride. Those discussions are welcome. They may prove invaluable to Anniston’s future, certainly more than a cockamamie idea to split the city and enrich others.