The extensive woodlands that house deer and even a wild boar population, used to be forbidding to all but a few humans willing to dare the expanses of kudzu and poison ivy. But the land that is now Red Mountain Park also holds much of the human history of Birmingham, with numerous mineshafts and mining structures still intact near the three mining towns that used to lie on the property, and cemeteries that still hold the remains of the original miners.
What is now Red Mountain park also embodies the origins of the Civil Rights movement, and holds the history of the first strike that happened in the new industrial town of Birmingham, as workers held out to be paid in U.S. currency instead of company script redeemable only in the company stores and commissaries.
As part of the documentation of the sweep of urbanization, industry and technology in Birmingham, an oral history has also been collected that will appear in Yore + Lore from time to time. It is also the subject of an exhibition opening at Vulcan Park Museum on August 17. It tells the tail of the meteoric rise of Birmingham, a town that did not exist at the time of the Civil War and became an overnight industrial giant, and the growing pains it experienced.
By the 1840s, however, a pioneer farmer named Baylis Earle Grace—probably the first person in the area to identify the red rock as hematite—began to strip the ore from his land and send it to a forge in nearby Bibb County to be smelted for use by local blacksmiths.
During the two decades prior to the Civil War, others recognized the economic potential of Red Mountain ore. As war became imminent, speculators bought up large tracts of land in Jefferson County, aiming to supply iron for making armaments and meeting other needs of the Confederate army. Frank Gilmer and John T. Milner founded the Oxmoor Furnaces and opened Red Mountain’s first commercial ore mine in late 1863. This mine became known as Eureka 1 and is located on Red Mountain Park.
Red Mountain developed at steadfast pace. Pioneer industrialists such as Henry F. DeBardeleben, James W. Sloss, and T.T. Hillman ushered in an explosion of ore mining activity to support Birmingham blast furnace operations as they developed. Jones Valley’s first blast furnace, Alice, was partly supplied with iron ore from the Redding mines that will be an extensively developed part of Red Mountain Park. Iron ore flowed from the new mines over freshly laid rail of the Alabama Great Southern Railroad, and later via the Louisville &Nashville’s (L&N) Birmingham Mineral Railroad that first reached the Redding area in 1884.
A major change in Birmingham’s corporate landscape came in 1907, when United States Steel acquired Birmingham’s largest manufacturer, Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Company (TCI). After the arrival of U.S. Steel, boom times continued in Birmingham for another two decades. By 1920, the city alone boasted a population of nearly 180,000, making it the fourth– largest Southern city, behind New Orleans, Louisville and Atlanta.
Iron and steel remained the unrivaled linchpin of the local economy—a reliance upon a single industrial sector that came to haunt Birmingham with the onset of the Great Depression in 1929. Hard times came to Birmingham earlier, and left it later, than in virtually any other city. President Franklin Roosevelt’s administration was moved to refer to Birmingham as “the worst-hit town in the country.”
Birmingham’s suffering was relieved mainly by the demand for iron and steel brought on by World War II. After the war, Birmingham remained one of the nation’s leading iron and steel centers, but change was on the way. Changes in the manufacturing, difficulty in accessing ore seams, and increased foreign importing contributed to the decline of what had been Birmingham’s lifeblood since its founding. The last active ore mine on Red Mountain Park property closed in 1962.
Much of the land that comprised the company’s former mining sites remained untouched for almost 50 years. Then, in 2007 through the efforts of the Freshwater Land Trust and through the ideas of park neighbor Ervin Battain and a dedicated steering committee, U.S. Steel made one of the largest corporate land donations in the nation’s history, selling over 1,100 acres at a tremendously discounted price to the Red Mountain Park and Recreational Area Commission.
That transaction made possible the creation of Red Mountain Park, the opening of which will make Birmingham the “greenest” city in America in terms of public park space.