Metal & Might: Discover Alabama’s Iron & Steel Heritage
by Jennifer Stewart Kornegay
Pondering Alabama’s rich history often leads to thoughts of the Civil War, the Civil Rights Movement or our literary legacy. But there’s another topic that deserves prime placement on that list: the founding and growth of the state’s iron and steel industries. Metal made Birmingham, Alabama’s biggest city and one that is still a major steel center. It also played a crucial role in the development of surrounding areas. Set aside some time to visit the sites that tell this story, a tale wrenched from the earth and forged into reality with vision, ingenuity and energy.
Visit the Original Iron Man
Cities aren’t born; they’re built. And Birmingham was built on the backs of miners and forge workers and flourished on a foundation of iron and steel. Vulcan Park & Museum (1701 Valley View Dr.; 205-933-1409), with its iconic centerpiece – the statue of Vulcan – and entertaining and informative exhibits, highlights this heritage and outlines the city’s origins. Within a 30-mile radius are all the ingredients needed to make iron and steel, which brought pioneers to this spot in 1871, drawn by the promise and possibility of industry. From the boom their efforts created, a collection of mining towns grew into a metropolis so quickly that it seemed to happen with otherworldly intervention, earning Birmingham its nickname, “The Magic City.”
Today, this history is heralded by Vulcan, a 56-foot, 50-ton metal man and the largest cast-iron statue in the world, who looks down on the city from his perch atop Red Mountain. An artistic achievement on a grand scale, the representation of the Roman god of the forge is a beloved symbol, a hero championing the city’s past, present and future. Thousands visit the big guy each year to explore the 10-acre park and museum and see the city skyline from the top of his observation tower.
After visiting Vulcan, immerse yourself in a floral fantasyland at the Birmingham Botanical Gardens (2612 Lane Park Rd.; 205-414-3950), the most visited free attraction in the state. Resting at the bottom of Red Mountain, this 67.5-acre living museum boasts more than 12,000 different plants among 25 distinct gardens that feature showy roses, colorful native wildflowers, lacy ferns and more.
Feel the Heat
Also in Birmingham is Sloss Furnaces (20 32nd St. N.; 205-254-2025), the only early 20th-century foundry being preserved in the United States. Its labyrinth of pipes and tubes and the smokestacks reaching high into the air are tangible tributes to Birmingham’s industrial roots. It all began in 1880, when Col. James Withers Sloss founded the company and built the furnaces that blasted super hot air – up to 3,600 degrees – to transform iron ore, coke and limestone into iron.
It ceased operations in 1970, and the site – designated a National Historic Landmark – is now a museum operated by the city of Birmingham. Sloss Furnaces first welcomed visitors to see its two 400-ton furnaces and 40 other buildings in 1983. Walk among, under and through steam-powered boilers, blower engines, a water tower and the dark tunnel where workers fed the furnaces. The structures, tools and machines at Sloss offer a glimpse into yesterday’s iron-making techniques and provide an up-close-and-personal experience with this key component of Alabama’s past.
Sloss is still an important part of the community today, hosting events as well as metal arts exhibitions and workshops that allow artists and students to use smaller furnaces and their imaginations to create an array of metal items.
Waiting to be found amid the 1,000-plus acres and 12 trails of the Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve (1214 81st St. S.; 205-833-8264) are bits and pieces of Birmingham’s industrial heritage. They sit in stark contrast to their surroundings, mere shadows of the land’s former purpose and productivity. Mined for iron ore through the mid-20th century, the mountain yielded hundreds of tons to be used at nearby Sloss Furnaces. Follow the Crusher Trail to see a giant rock crusher once used in mining work.
Grab a bite at El Barrio (2211 Second Ave. N.; 205-868-3737), a downtown eatery serving dishes inspired by south-of-the-border flavors and made using farm-fresh ingredients. Munch on warm-from-the-fryer tortilla chips dipped in smoky salsa while checking out the colorful Mexican street art murals covering the walls. Order the fish tacos and wash it all down with a tangy pink grapefruit margarita.
While you’re there, check out the rest of this trendy Second Avenue North section of downtown and its hip, locally owned offerings: What’s on Second, a quirky collectibles shop; The Collins, a craft cocktail haven; and Urban Standard, a coffeehouse/hangout with an industrial yet comfy vibe.
Where To Stay
When you’re ready to call it a day, check into Aloft Birmingham Soho Square (1903 29th Ave. S.; 205-874-8055). This chic, contemporary hotel is near many of downtown Birmingham’s attractions, shops and restaurants.
Hike Through History
With 1,500 acres of forests, fields and streams, Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park (12632 Confederate Pkwy.; 205-477-5711) in McCalla is an outdoor lover’s paradise. But it offers much more than access to Mother Nature; it boasts a wealth of iron industry artifacts too. The focal points of the park are the remains of giant stone furnaces that started smelting in 1830 and, at the height of their operation, turned out 22 tons of iron a day to be fashioned into tools needed to further the Confederacy’s fight in the Civil War.
The Tannehill Ironworks are among the oldest and best-preserved industrial landmarks in the Southeast and are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Civil War Discovery Trail. Interpretive exhibits at the on-site Iron & Steel Museum of Alabama explain 19th-century iron-making technology. Scenic trails in the park trace the old roadways used to transport raw materials and finished goods. Two of the most popular are the Iron Haul Road, which winds past a slave cemetery, and the Furnace Trail that leads to the now-dormant furnaces on the banks of Roupes Creek. A cotton gin, country store, working gristmill and craft demonstrations (spring through fall) open a window on the way life was when the furnaces burned bright.
Where to Eat
Satisfy any appetite with what could be considered the state dish: barbecue. There are plenty of places in the area to pig out on pork, but Bob Sykes Bar-B-Q(1724 Ninth Ave. N.; 205-426-1400) in Bessemer, not far from Tannehill, is an Alabama institution. Open since 1957, the family run restaurant is known for its slow-fired meats but famous for its rich, rust-colored sauce with a bit of both sweet and heat.
Small but Special
Due to scavenging during the mid-20th century, little remains of the brick furnace built in Brierfield by the Bibb County Iron Company in 1862. Yet the Brierfield Ironworks Historical State Park (240 Furnace Pkwy.; 205-665-1856) tucked in a hollow near Centreville is well worth a visit.
In 1863, the company was coerced into selling the furnace and its operations to the Confederacy, making it notably the only ironworks owned by the Confederate States of America. After the war, the furnace was beset with bad luck. A series of ownership changes and accidents finally led to its closing in 1894. It sat abandoned until the park was created in 1976. View the crumbing ruins of the original ironworks, stroll through pioneer homes and buildings, and then hike the park’s nature trails. Watch for wildflowers and wildlife too; the spot is a stop on the West Alabama Birding Trail.
While you’re in the area, stop by the Cahaba River National Wildlife Refuge, a 3,577-acre site outside of West Blocton that protects a section of the Cahaba River, the longest free-flowing stream in the state and home to several endangered species. Along this area of the river grows the largest grouping of the Cahaba lily, a beautiful bloom that is found only in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina.
Armed with the knowledge gleaned at Vulcan Park & Museum, head over to Red Mountain Park (2011 Frankfurt Dr.; 205-202-6043). Follow its tree-lined trails to view several historic mine sites where workers tunneled deep into the ground and extracted the raw materials that made the area a mining and metal-making mecca. End on a high note and fly through the forest canopy with a pulse-quickening ride on the Red Ore zip line.
Related Road Trips
Selma to Montgomery: Crossing a Bridge into History
The Edmund Pettus Bridge, spanning the Alabama River in Selma, has become one of the most iconic symbols of the modern struggle for civil and voting rights in America. It is also a focal point for the 54-mile route now memorialized as the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail.