It has been 47 years since there's been an active iron ore mine on Red Mountain, and in that time the Japanese privet has grown thick. When given time and a temperate Southern climate, the shrub - considered an invasive species - grows quite large. Together, the privet and the kudzu (that other Japanese plant plague) have nearly encased in a foliage veneer the mine entrances, rail beds and other remnants of a century of mining on the mountain. But David Dionne, the executive director of the new 1,108-acre, four-and-a-half-mile long Red Mountain Park, is OK with that.
"It actually turned out to be one of the blessings of having privet and kudzu - it kept people away from all these old historic sites," Dionne says. "It literally became the armor for this place."
For the past several months, Dionne, park ranger Eric McFerrin and a small but dedicated team of machete-wielding volunteers have been hacking away at that "armor," carving trails through the massive park at the agonizing pace of about 500 feet a day, slowly revealing the rust-colored hematite-rich soil that give the mountain its name. In the process, they've rediscovered hundreds of miles of mine shafts, 140-year-old mine shaft portals, strip mines, ore crushers and multiple tipple sites (structures built high in the sky to pull carts full of mined iron ore, or skips, over a rail car, which the skips are tipped into). They even came across a 400-foot deep vertical shaft mine and its unique early 20th century hoist house, which was built by Rick Woodward (of Rickwood Field fame) in a Mission Revival architectural style.
The park's historical and educational components will extend beyond cataloguing the physical artifacts. McFerrin and some volunteers have been collecting oral histories from former Red Mountain miners and their families, many of whom still live in the neighborhoods around the mountain.
"The stories of the movers and shakers of Birmingham have been told ad nauseam," McFerrin says. "Not to neglect that, but we also want to tell the stories of the actual miners who worked here."
McFerrin reports that former miners and their families have been eager to tell their stories. Dionne, who left a job as chief of trails and natural areas for Anne Arundel County in Maryland to direct Red Mountain Park, seems genuinely impressed with willingness of former miners and their families to tell their stories.
"People in the South are naturally very welcoming, very friendly," Dionne says. "‘Southern hospitality' is not just a phrase. I mean, I've experienced that. People up here, when you talk about telling a story - uncles, fathers, brothers, everybody just clicks."
Dionne's grand vision for the park reflects his prior experience as a park director. Plans include mine shaft tours, a reconstructed mine tipple, a lake and picnic area, a youth camping area, an observation tower and multiple trails including a 6.7-mile long paved, handicapped-accessible walking and biking loop trail laid out on the site's former rail beds.
Unfortunately, all of those things are still in the design phase. The park is not open yet. The Red Mountain Park and Greenway Commission, the 15-member panel appointed to control the park, must approve plans before the park can move to complex construction and development. After that, Dionne says he and the commission will "have a retreat at the end of the month where the commission's going to project out not only what needs to be built and how long that will take, then look at money we need to raise, and then try to pick a date to open."
Dionne knows from experience that projects often face delays due to funding issues, bureaucratic entanglements and other problems. As a result, he was wary of giving a solid date for the park's opening, but he suggested that would likely be a few years from now.
"By picking a date I'm thinking we'll either pick the spring of 2011, or the fall of 2011, or the spring of 2012 - something like that - for having a grand opening," he says.
Nonetheless, it's clear that excitement about the park is running high. More than 1,500 people have signed up for the mailing list of Friends of Red Mountain Park, the non-profit organization that works with the park. In April, 150 people braved a potential thunderstorm ("On a mountain made of iron," Dionne notes) to a tour of some of the park's cleared trails and mining sites.
The enthusiasm of the community about the park is matched only by Dionne's own excitement.
"We're building, I think, a park that will become one of the nation's premier urban parks," he says.
Friends of Red Mountain Park is offering another free park tour on Saturday, May 16, and again on June 14. Hikers can choose from two tours: one is a 30-minute, two-mile hike to the No.13 mine, and the second is a two-hour, four-mile hike to the Songo shaft mine (which includes Woodward's odd Mission-Style hoist house). Participants should meet at the cul-de-sac at the end of Frankfurt Drive (On Lakeshore Drive headed towards Bessemer, go 1.4 miles past West Oxmoor Road Frankfurt Drive is on the right). Arrive about 15 minutes early to sign waivers and meet your guides. Wear walking shoes or boots, dress for the weather and bring water. For more information and volunteer opportunities, visit
Red Mountain Park Concept Plan
Information on the Birmingham Mineral Railway from Bhamwiki.com