Many influential people shaped and developed Mobile into a prosperous city. Albert Carey Danner, an adopted son of Mobile, certainly ranks high among them. He first came to defend the city as a Confederate officer during the American Civil War. After the war, the “penniless and homeless” Danner would go on to become one of Mobile’s greatest business, church, and civic leaders.
Born in Winchester, Virginia in 1843, Danner moved at a young age with his family to Knoxville, Tennessee. As a teenager he went to Missouri to live with a cousin. After Lincoln was elected, he joined the Missouri state guard at eighteen years of age. When the Civil War broke out, Danner served as quartermaster with the Missouri Brigade of the Army of Tennessee. He participated in many of the principal battles of the western theater, including the long siege of Vicksburg. General Francis Cockrell described him as a “most faithful, reliable, energetic, efficient and intelligent officer,” adding “a gentleman of strictly sober and exceptional habits.” These qualities would continue to serve him well in the post war years.
His final military assignment was in the 1865 defense of Mobile, Alabama. It was here he was promoted to the rank of Major. Despite the promotion, he remained affectionately known as “Captain Danner” for the remainder of his life. After the fall of Mobile, he was among the soldiers surrendered by General Richard Taylor at Citronelle, Alabama and then paroled near Meridian, Mississippi. “I did my duty,” wrote Danner. “I consider the four years that I have passed the discharge of the duty filled with hardships, danger and toil, the best four years of my life.”
Missouri had never officially seceded from the Union. After the final surrender, the Confederate soldiers from that state were not allowed to return to their homes. Those that sided with the Confederacy stayed in a federal camp near Demopolis as the U.S. government decided what to do with them.
Undaunted, Danner and his friend Captain Robert Maupin decided to stay in southern Alabama. The duo first went into business together in Marengo County. Maupin went on to become a Judge, while Danner went to Mobile and established “A.C. Danner & Company.” He became a pioneer in Mobile’s lumber industry, one of the few growing sectors in the local economy besides cotton. Described by one reporter “as a very aggressive, clever, energetic, economical businessman,” Danner quickly built the largest lumber firm in Mobile. His company started by exporting yellow pine and cypress lumber to Europe. This venture continued to grow, compelling Danner to purchase four mills to accommodate the demand.
Later he expanded his business into coal. In fact, Danner was the first to introduce Alabama coal to the Port City, which he exported to places like New Orleans and Galveston. One industry publication described Danner’s business: “For size and equipment the yards, docks, and storage plants of this Mobile Coal Company are perhaps unexcelled by any retail concern in the south.” Danner employed “100’s” of Mobilians, greatly aiding in revitalization of the post-war economy.
Eventually “A.C. Danner & Company” became known as the “Danner Land & Lumber Company.” His firm acquired “all pine lands of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad Company in Mississippi and Alabama.” At one point, Danner’s company controlled nearly a million acres of long-leaf pine land. His object was to have plenty of timber to supply his mills. “I wanted enough timber to last me my lifetime,” said Danner, “and now I have got it.”
He is credited with introducing the first telephone to the Port City. While abroad in Europe, Danner heard a lecture by Alexander Graham Bell describing the telephone. Upon his return to Mobile he purchased two phones to link his office on Royal Street to his shipping yard near the Mobile River. Later he became instrumental in the expansion of the telephone in the city. Together with other investors, he started Mobile’s first telephone company in 1879 with 32 subscribers.
After a business trip to the Birmingham area, he applauded their “energy and push” to attract new industries, while complaining of those monied men who said “Oh! Mobile’s doing well enough.” At the age of 40, Danner was elected President of the Bank of Mobile and had become the leading spokesman for a “new Mobile,” urging aggressive promotion of the city and attacking its complacency.
“Everybody in Alabama knows Captain Danner, and they know that he is reliable and worthy of confidence,” declared Alabama Senator John Hollis Bankhead as he introduced him before the United States Shipping Board Emergency Fleet Corporation (created by Congress to confront the rising demand for ships and waterway improvements). His subsequent work led to the improvement and deepening of the harbor, greatly aiding shipping commerce and the post war economic recovery of Mobile.
“In all situations, whether good or bad fortune, Captain Danner remained unchanged – simple in life, unaffected in manner, as he begun [sic], giving the impression that he sought to do what was right and was happiest when able to perform kindly act for others’ pleasure and benefit.” Danner was known in the community as a generous philanthropist. A devout Methodist, he was an active member of the Government Street Methodist Church. Danner made a substantial contribution toward the purchase of a large organ which is still used by the church. He also donated money and was chairman of committees that helped construct a Sunday School building and renovations that greatly increased the seating capacity. In a resolution honoring him, the church officials wrote “that we wish for Brother Danner many more years of usefulness to this church and to God, praying that he may full enter into the inheritance of favor with God and man, and enjoy through the years the abounding graces of Christianity, and a hope of immortality that shall grow brighter a brighter unto the perfect day.”
Captain Danner died on May 5, 1921. His gravestone at Mobile’s Magnolia Cemetery reads “A Christian gentleman, A confederate soldier, A good citizen, A loving father,” indeed he was an uncommon man. He came to this city “a broken-down ex-Confederate soldier” and through hard work, unmatched shrewdness, and dogged determination he prospered as one of the most successful businessmen Mobile has ever known. A model citizen, Danner left his beloved Mobile a stronger and more prosperous city.