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Capital City Cleaners | Photo © 2019 Bullet, www.abandonedalabama.com

Capital City Laundry

City/Town:
Location Class:
Built: 1938 | Abandoned: 2008
Status: Abandoned
Photojournalist: David Bulit
C M Smith
Charles Milton Smith

Capital City Laundry was established in 1887 as the Capital City Steam Laundry with their facility located at 116 Dexter Avenue in Montgomery. Although it was originally owned by E. G. Tatum & Bros., the business was quickly bought out by William Tatum, the latter of the two brothers, and shortened the name to Capital City Laundry. In July 1895, it was announced that the Capital City Laundry Company was shutting down likely due to the immense amount of competition at the time. The business remained operating though under the same name and at the same facility, but under the ownership of W. A. Patrick of Patrick’s Steam Laundry. It was not long after that it was bought by the Empire Laundry Company.

Charles Milton Smith was born on September 19, 1869, in Lebanon, Ohio, but soon moved with his parents to Terre Haute, Indiana. At 15-years-old, he operated cigar and newspaper stands in hotels before moving to Wabash, Indiana, to work as a clerk at the new Lutz Hotel. After working there for one year, he moved back to Terre Haute to take a position as a clerk in the National Hotel where he remained for the next four years. Having learned much about the hotel business, he moved to Hendersonville, North Carolina in 1889 to operate his own summer resort. In 1890, he moved to Birmingham, Alabama, where he took a position at the Hotel Morris and remained there for the next six years.

A close friend of Smith’s recommended that he take a position at the Empire Laundry Company of Birmingham for the purpose of learning the laundry business. He was soon sent to Montgomery to manage the newly-acquired Capital City Laundry. According to Smith, he managed the business so well that Empire Laundry presented him with a gold watch and chain. In July 1889, he secured a new building for the business located on the corner of Montgomery and Moulton Streets, which was built for the Montgomery Natatorium Company. New equipment was installed and the laundry from the old Dexter Avenue facility was moved. A month later on August 15, 1899, Smith purchased the entire plant from the Empire Laundry Company and became the sole proprietor of Capital City Laundry.

copy photograph of the capital
Capital City Laundry, c. 1900. Alabama Department of Archives and History
1910 sanborn capital city
1910 Sanborn Insurance Map for Montgomery, Alabama. Library of Congress

By 1915, the three largest laundry businesses in the city were Blue Ribbon Laundry, Empire Laundry, and Capital City Laundry. After World War I, the former two businesses were consolidated in order to compete with Capital City Laundry whose operations were immense, the first in the South to offer complete family service and always the first with new, state-of-the-art equipment. They were always ahead of the competition such as when they eventually moved away from the “family wash” for more individual, detailed service, they advertised that Empire Laundry’s service was not only outdated and inadequate, but they also claimed that their employees would regularly wear their customers’ clothing.

At its height, Capital City boasted eleven locations throughout the city of Montgomery while Empire Laundry only had eight. The company’s main plant was According to property records, this Capital City Laundry location, the subject of this article, was constructed in 1959. However, evidence suggests that the building dates back to 1938 and was built as the new plant for Troy Laundry. Troy Laundry was established in 1919 by Orville Scott Shivers. In 1929, Troy Laundry purchased Dixie Cleaners along with their plant at 505 North Decatur Street.

That same year, it was announced that Charles Milton Smith Jr., son of Capital City Laundry founder Charles M. Smith Sr., had bought an interest in Troy Laundry and Dixie Cleaners and assumed a role in their management. Smith Jr. was born on November 27, 1903. He graduated from Sidney Lanier High School in 1920 and received a bachelor of science from Alabama Polytechnic Institute in 1924, majoring in chemical engineering. He also received a master’s degree in the same subject from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1925 and taught chemical engineering for a year and a half at MIT after graduating. He worked for a short time at the Wallace & Tiernan Company as a technical specialist to perfect the formula of laundry cleaning solutions and advise the company’s engineering force on laundry equipment.

1910 sanborn capital city laundry
1950 Sanborn Insurance Map for Montgomery, Alabama. Library of Congress

In 1938, Troy Laundry had a new plant built by the Bear Lumber Company at a cost of $14,000 at the site of the current Capital City Laundry. Charles M. Smith Sr. died on January 26, 1958. Two days later, Orville Scott Shivers died. Following their deaths, Charles M. Smith Jr. assumed his father’s position as president of Capital City Laundry, and his son Charles M. Smith III was put in charge of Troy Laundry. Under their leadership, the old Troy plant was renovated and expanded

Donald R. Davis established Davis Cleaners in 1970 and purchased Lorren Cleaners in 1981 which occupied the red brick building across the street. By the 1990s, Capital City Laundry only operated two locations having been beaten by the competition such as Jim Massey’s Cleaners and Worthpoint Cleaners. Capital City Laundry was eventually sold to Donald Davis who operated it under the same name while the location across the street operated as Davis One-Hour Cleaners. In October 1998, it was reported that Capital City Laundry had accumulated 39 Better Business Bureaus complaints in the past three years, most of which had gone unanswered. Along with all the bad press they were getting, these locations were often broken into with thousands of dollars in clothing being stolen. While these are definite factors in why Capital City Laundry and Davis Cleaners eventually closed down, there was probably one other factor.

1950 sanborn troy laundry
1950 Sanborn Insurance Map for Montgomery, Alabama. Library of Congress

In 1993, construction workers discovered contaminated groundwater during the construction of the RSA Tower energy plant. In the late-1990s, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) became involved, and in 2000, The Capital City Plume Site was proposed to be put on the National Priorities List (NPL) officially labeling it as a superfund site. Although proposed, the city managed to avoid having the Plume labeled a superfund site by taking responsibility for the site and its cleanup.

The Downtown Environmental Alliance was created consisting of multiple state government agencies whose responsibility was the planning and the cleanup costs of the site. Through testing, the EPA concluded that the contamination was likely caused by the commercial printing industry that resided in downtown Montgomery in the late-1800s and early-1900s, mainly the Montgomery Advertiser. The Montgomery Advertiser did their own tests which concluded that the contamination was most likely caused by nearby gas stations and dry cleaners. No matter what the source of the contamination was, the cleanup of the Plume is an ongoing process even to this day. While most of the affected areas went along with business as usual, some businesses shut down adding to the blight that affects a large portion of Montgomery.

Since 2015, the Alabama Department of Environmental Management (ADEM) has overseen the cleanup of the site. In July 2020, the ADEM recommended that the EPA withdraw its listing of the site, a decision the EPA agreed with, and the site was removed in September 2020. In recent years, Montgomery has seen a massive resurgence with the restoration of many abandoned structures located downtown and the construction of new hotels, restaurants, retail, and tourist attractions such as a 120-acre waterpark being constructed off of I-65.

Capital City Laundry closed down in 2008 followed by a tax sale conducted by the State of Alabama due to unpaid taxes. The following year, Davis Cleaners was shuttered and sold at a tax sale as well. Both properties are currently owned by the State of Alabama. The former Capital City Laundry building remains vacant and is still regarded as a superfund site by the EPA.

David Bulit

My name's David Bulit and I'm a photographer, author, and historian from Miami, Florida. I've published a number of books on abandoned and forgotten locales throughout the United States and advocate for preserving these historic landmarks. My work has been featured throughout the world in news outlets such as the Miami New Times, the Florida Times-Union, the Tampa Bay Times, the Orlando Sentinel, NPR, Yahoo News, MSN, the Daily Mail, UK Sun, and many others. You can find more of my work at davidbulit.com as well as amazon.com/author/davidbulit.

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