Leeds is a tri-county municipality located in Jefferson, St. Clair, and Shelby Counties in the State of Alabama. It is an eastern suburb of Birmingham. As of the 2010 census, the population of the city is 11,773.
Leeds was founded in 1877, during the final years of the post-Civil War Reconstruction Era. It housed the workers and their families of Lehigh, a Portland Cement manufacturing plant. Leeds has always been a major export of limestone and cement. Also, Lehigh was the first cement plant in America to sell bagged cement, beginning a new type of revolution in the America's cement industry.
Leeds benchmarks in history
The War of 1812, geography, geology, and three cultures shaped the history of Leeds. Lying at the crossroads of ancient Native-American paths in the center of Alabama, Leeds drew European, Cherokee, and African-American settlers to a land of fertile growing seasons and rich sources of coal and mineral ore. The early settlers built churches and schools and left the influences of Cedar Grove, Oak Ridge, Ohanafeefee, and Mt. Pleasant abundantly evident in current Leeds. The principle survey of Leeds was entered into Jefferson County Map Book 10, page 21, in 1908. The settlement, dating to 1818 and incorporating to 1887 as "Leeds", has existed along the banks of the Little Cahaba River; beside an historic stagecoach route; and along two large railroads for the greater part of American History.
James Hamilton, a Scottish-Irish American veteran of the War of 1812 and first sheriff of Shelby County, settled in Cedar Grove in 1816. John Richard Ingram Pashal Stewart, a Cherokee English teacher and American veteran of the War of 1812, settled at Ohanafeefee Village c.1840. At Oak Ridge in 1820 or 1821, European Settlers formed Shiloh Cumberland Presbyterian Church, the first CPC congregation in middle Alabama. By 1887, the original railroad pioneers included free African-American settlers who came to work at the Leeds cement plant and the Central of Georgia as the Georgia Pacific railroads. Some gravitated to historic Mt. Pleasant Church where a handful of freed slaves had founded Scott City, Hillard Holley, Ciscero Davis, Jeff Harris, and Bill Johnson started Leeds Negro/Primary School in 1921.
The tale of John Henry was believed to have originated in Leeds, Alabama. In this folk story, John Henry, the "steel-drivin' man", raced (and won against) a steam engine in the laying of railroad that penetrated the Oak Mountain Tunnel in Leeds. Retired chemistry professor and folklorist John Garst, of the University of Georgia, has argued that the contest happened at the Coosa Mountain Tunnel or the Oak Mountain Tunnel of the Columbus and Western Railway (now part of Norfolk Southern Railway) in Leeds on September 20, 1887.
Based on documentation that corresponds with the account of C. C. Spencer, who claimed in the 1920s to have witnessed the contest, Garst speculates that John Henry may have been a man named Henry who was born a slave to P.A.L. Dabney, the father of the chief engineer of that railroad, in 1850. Since 2007, the city of Leeds has honored John Henry's legend during an annual September festival, held on the third weekend in September, called the Leeds Downtown Folk Festival & John Henry Celebration.