Although Fort Payne [†] was founded in the first half of the 19th century and has served as the DeKalb county seat since 1876, Fort Payne remained a small rural farm community of approximately 500 people until the late 1880s. At this time C. O. Godfrey, a New England businessman, tried to promote the town as a manufacturing center due to its proximity to untapped natural resources. Godfrey formed the Fort Payne Land and Improvement Company in 1887 and solicited the northern states for investors. The company, however, had little success.
The promotion did Interest W. P. Rice, a New England capitalist and banker. Rice, along with several other investors, saw the great mining and manufacturing potential in the area and formed the Fort Payne Coal and Iron Company in November 1888. The company actively campaigned in the New England states to promote Fort Payne as an ideal manufacturing center surrounded by an unlimited wealth of iron ore and coal. The company was able to sell 50,000 shares of stock at $100 per share in just five days.
The Fort Payne Coal & Iron Company purchased vast amounts of land surrounding Fort Payne in hopes it contained a high yield of iron ore, coal, kaolin clay, and lime. The company Invested $1,900,000 in industrial plants, coke ovens, and other equipment. The company began to construct a mineral railroad that was designed to link the rich coal regions of the South to the Atlantic Ocean. Only 14‑1/2 miles of the line was completed, however.
Fort Payne attracted other speculative manufacturing companies during this period, such as the Bay State Furnace (1889); Fort Payne Furnace (1890); Fort Payne Mill and Steel Company (1890), the largest of its kind in the South; the Alabama Builders' Hardware Company; and the Fort Payne Stove Works (1890) among others.
But the largest speculative business remained the Fort Payne Coal & Iron Company. The company took the lead in preparing the small community for the horde of Investors and speculators who descended on Fort Payne. The 1889 population of 531 dramatically increased to 2,698 in just one year. The company spent $1,250,000 to develop Fort Payne as an attractive and modern community. New improvements included designing the gridiron street plan, surveying lots, grading streets, and building water and sewage systems. The Company hired Charles Landstreet of Fairfax, Virginia, to beautify the city. Landstreet's projects included designing public parks, planting trees and flowers, and developing the Maniton Caves as a dance hall and social center. Other private investment companies developed the Fort Payne Opera House (NRHP 4/28/70), and the grand Fort Payne Hotel (demolished)
† Steven M. Kay/Cultural Resources Coordinator, Alabama Historical Commission, Fort Payne Residential Historic District, nomination document, 1987, National Regisster of Historic Places, Washington, D.C. District placed on the Register in 1988.