Henry F. DeBardeleben was an anomaly among Alabama industrialists. Not only was he a native of the state, but his roots were rural-neither of these a factor predicting industrial greatness in antebellum America. However, as a ten-year-old orphan and bakery worker in Autauga County, he became the ward of Alabama's pioneer industrialist, Daniel Pratt. Young Henry's ability to observe, absorb, and apply served him well under such a master. But his innate and distinctively Southern tendency toward wild speculations could never be attributed to the tutelage of Pratt, the conservative New Englander who held to the work ethics of his own birth region.
Despite the contrast in their personalities, the two men were more than just close friends and businessmen. After a brief stint in the Confederate Army, DeBardeleben assumed a broader responsibility for the Pratt enterprises that were so important to the Confederacy. Pratt's increasing dependency upon his young protégé had solidified when Henry married Pratt's only daughter, and it intensified when the old industrialist shifted much of his interest into mining.
Pratt's death in 1873 transferred the family fortune to DeBardeleben's control, including Red Mountain in Jefferson County. With radical vision, Henry secured investors and formed the Pratt Coal and Coke Company in 1878- then expanded into other such ventures as the Alice Furnace Company that built the region's first blast furnaces and ushered in Birmingham's golden iron age. His fortunes soared until failing health forced him to sell and retire.
Removing to Mexico to attend his physical condition, DeBardeleben recovered. Returning to Alabama, he found significant competition in the form of a now well-entrenched Tennessee Coal and iron Company. Undaunted, he raised new partners and established the DeBardeleben Coal and Iron Company and the Bessemer Land and Improvement Company. With them, he created both a new fortune and a new city. Under his direction, Bessemer boomed.
Economic historians have labeled Henry DeBardeleben a gambler, in the sense that he was a wild and speculative investor. Yet his risk-taking created, rather than destroyed. A state and a nation benefitted from his endeavors.
Henry DeBardeleben was inducted into the Alabama Men's Hall of Fame in 1998.