There has been a median on Spring Hill Avenue since at least 1860 when Col. Lorenzo Madison Wilson incorporated the Mobile and Spring Hill Railroad. Wilson, who had made a comfortable fortune in the wholesale grocery business, had built his home Ashland (the property would later become Ashland Place) a year or so earlier.
The house sat on 40 acres, which stretched from Old Shell Road north to Spring Hill Avenue.
Mules drew small trolley cars along rails set down the avenue’s grassy center. In the early years, these cars were far smaller than their 20th-century electrified descendants. It was not uncommon for the cars to jump the track, leading to an evacuation while able-bodied passengers lifted the car back into place.
The mules resided comfortably in a barn, which stood on the south side of the thoroughfare between Lafayette and Ann streets. The animals quickly learned the routine, knowing to slow down when they heard the conductor click the brake and start up as soon as they heard its release.
The line ran west where it cut south to the foot of Old Shell Road. There the mules were given a rest as a team of oxen pulled the cars uphill, stopping at the gates of Spring Hill College. On the return trip, the trolley gave a memorable ride via gravity down to the foot of the hill where the mules were re-hitched.
In 1892, J. Howard Wilson, a Kansas transplant and no relation to the colonel, purchased the line. A newspaper account in September of that year noted that he “and his associates, all outsiders, are erecting an electric street railway so the public will soon have a new method of locomotion.”
The mules vanished, along with the familiar sound of their hooves methodically treading down the city’s streets. Electric trolley cars, reminiscent of those still operating on St. Charles Avenue in New Orleans today, traveled the grass median of Spring Hill Avenue. Period photographs of other streets in Mobile reveal that the tracks were set within pavement, not sod.
During the 1920s, the number of privately owned automobiles skyrocketed, and ridership on trolleys declined nationwide. In 1939, it was announced that “a fleet of modern buses” would replace all of Mobile’s electric trolleys. The final run came on March 10, 1940 as passengers ripped the last car to shreds for souvenirs.
The trolley tracks were soon removed for war-time scrap drives and their space filled with asphalt. Just what saved Spring Hill Avenue’s median from annihilation is unclear, but it survived and was ultimately planted with azaleas. By the 1950s, tourists by the thousands would ride down that street to admire the blooms each March.
The Median Declines
By the 1980s, those azaleas and the grassy median along Spring Hill Avenue had seen better days. In 1987, engineers at the Alabama highway department began removing crossings, and the median west of Lyons Park running east to Lafayette Street vanished under a layer of asphalt. Azaleas were removed due to “line of sight” worries.
Ultimately, Spring Hill Avenue’s shrinking median caught the attention of the state’s preservationists. In May of 2000, the city’s once picturesque Spring Hill Avenue was placed on the list of “Places in Peril” by the Alabama Historic Commission due to “rampant demolition and poor planning, which have eliminated much of (its) character and eroded the historic resources along much of its stretch.”
In recent decades, planting efforts in the vicinity of the former site of Col. Wilson’s Ashland have been successful. Medians further to the east survive in grassy boredom. As national experts continue to promote the installation of medians as a way to calm busy traffic, it can only be hoped that one day this grand avenue’s missing median will return, along with those signature blooming pink azaleas.
text by Tom McGehee