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April 22, 1997

Mobile: Then and Now

Then Now

by Tom McGehee

Commission merchant Daniel Wheeler built a handsome brick townhouse in the 1850's on the south east corner of Government and Lawrence Streets. His grandson would gain fame as Admiral Julian Wheeler of the cruiser "Mobile."

In the 1880's this became home to the family of Colonial Edward Lafayette Russell who had risen from Confederate poverty to General Solicitor of the profitable Mobile and Ohio Railroad.

Russell became legendary to Mobilians for his generosity. When hundreds of Mobilians were stranded after the 1897 yellow fever quarantine was lifted he provided free transportation home. He gave rescue officials free use of the lines after the hurricane of 1906 to provide supplies and medical aid to the many victims of the storm.

Mobile adored Russell, naming a school on Broad Street for him and crowning him Mardi Gras Emperor before the title King Felix III had come into use.

Russell was active in political circles and made frequent trips to Washington, D.C. Oddly enough, his only son, his wife and ultimately Russell himself would die of various illnesses in the nation's capitol on different trips.

A private train with five passenger and one baggage car arrived in Mobile draped in black in January of 1911. The station was mobbed. Flags flew at half mast throughout the city as well as on every ship in the Bay. The funeral which followed was legendary.

Mobile literally closed down for the event. The courthouse, the city offices and downtown businesses shut their doors. As Russell's casket was taken from 455 Government Street down to Christ Church, the street was lined with onlookers, the men dutifully holding their hats in respect.

The church was overflowing with mourners and several carriages were employed to haul the floral tributes. There were 36 honorary and 6 active pallbearers. At the close of the service specially arranged streetcars were quickly filled for the trip to Magnolia Cemetery. Private carriages brought the rest.

As the long procession made their way up Government Street two camps of the United Confederate Veterans marched with muffled drum rolls. There was a police guard of honor and the Alabama National Guild to provide the "crack of rifles and mournful bugle notes" as the Confederate flag-draped coffin was lowered.

The large house on Government Street went to Russell's only surviving child, daughter Eoline. The years went on and Eoline never married. She dabbled in investments and slowly lost the Colonel's fortune. By the early twenties she was selling off her parents' fineries to make ends meet. By 1926 she had lost 455 Government Street and died in impoverished obscurity in 1954.

By the mid-twenties fashionable Mobile was moving into the new streetcar suburbs of Ashland Place and Flo Clare. Houses like the former Russell home went commercial as the street traffic steadily increased.

A series of physicians used 455 Government Street for their office until an urban renewal project demolished the block in anticipation of a motel which was never built. The unique carriage steps that Eoline Russell once used on the Lawrence Street side of the house were taken to a quiet garden in Spring Hill and survive.

The block on Government Street stood vacant for years until filled with the Mobile Area Chamber of Commerce.


Above Left: photo courtesy of the University of South Alabama Archives.
Above Right: photo by Kevin Marston.


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