Some gods have all the luck.
Others, such as Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and forge, well, not so much. Though he was born to royalty of the Roman pantheon, poor baby Vulcan came out ugly as sin and twice as ornery, a fact that sent his mother into such a shock that she immediately chucked him over the edge of Mount Olympus. Mangled from the fall and homely since birth, Vulcan retreated below the earth, set up camp in a volcano, and forged deific armor and weapons for the remainder of his days.
It was the last bit of this Roman myth that early Birminghamians—fresh on the high of their recent metallurgical success—latched onto: a mighty, fire-forging, Earth-bound god that bent nature to his will. They might have done well, however, to take the god’s luckless run into consideration, since the fifty-six-foot-tall, fifty-ton cast iron statue of Vulcan that they chose to represent the city began its existence almost as luckless as its mythological analog.
Birmingham, the center point in a thirty-mile radius of land thick with all the raw materials needed to produce iron and steel, had been transformed from an isolated wilderness to a mecca of metallurgy virtually overnight. As with many a new kid on the block, Birmingham was eager to prove its chops, and commissioned artist Giuseppe Moretti to create a massive sculpture that would introduce the Magic City at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.
The city’s request was not a small one: to create the largest cast-iron statue in the world (a sculpture that was at once majestic and a depiction of a crippled and notoriously bad-looking Roman god, no less), ship the full-scale molds from New Jersey to Birmingham where the pieces could be cast from local ore, then get the final product to the fair in St. Louis, all in less than five months. Miraculously, Moretti was successful. Mostly, anyways. While the large majority of the statue’s twenty-one pieces arrived in St. Louis in time for opening day, one rather significant piece lagged behind, and as a result, the Vulcan suffered the minor indignity of greeting a modest crowd of 20,000 without his head. Notwithstanding this minor setback, the missing piece arrived in mid-May, just in time to be plunked atop the patiently waiting torso, christened with water from the Cahaba River, and pinned with a blue ribbon, winning first prize in its class.
Despite the fanfare it received in St. Louis, the Vulcan’s homecoming was an occasion marked by furrowed brows, blushing belles, and a certain Southern brand of shocked consternation. Moretti—an Italian by birth—had taken the liberty of rendering Vulcan in true classical form, and the scant strip of loincloth that covered the statue’s front (and that utterly neglected to provide any coverage in the rear) so offended the delicate sensibilities of Birmingham’s genteel population that the suggestion to move the statue to the middle of the city (its originally intended destination) was categorically refused. As a result, the gold-medal-winner of the World’s Fair was opprobriously shunted from his train and sat—dissembled, bare-bottomed, and alone—along the rail track for the next eighteen months.
Eventually, the Vulcan was carted off to the Alabama Fairgrounds, a location that temporarily solved the problem of his public indecency, but that limited the statue’s public-face time to a few weeks a year. Adding insult to injury, Moretti was nowhere to be found during the statue’s construction, and despite the best efforts of workers, the Vulcan was horribly misassembled. Over the years, enterprising fairground vendors took advantage of the statue’s cockeyed carriage, using his splayed arms and empty, grasping hand to advertise pickles, hot dogs, Coke, and (perhaps in a well-intentioned attempt at modesty), a pair of Liberty overalls. Though the fairground residency was supposed to be a temporary fix, the Vulcan remained there, wompjawed and chagrined, for the next thirty years.
In 1939, things began to look as though they might turn around for the Vulcan. The statue was undertaken as a pet project of the WPA and moved from the fairgrounds to a specially constructed park atop Birmingham’s Red Mountain. In the following years, however, the Vulcan was filled with concrete (fifty tons of cast-iron apparently an insufficient anchor), retrofitted with an enclosed observation deck that provided sweeping views of the city (but completely blocked the view of Vulcan from the ground), and—fitted with a torch that glowed red or green to indicate traffic fatalities—repurposed as the patron saint of traffic safety.
By the early ’90’s, the Vulcan was in rough shape. With his insides filled with concrete that expanded at a rate 20% faster than iron, and a head that had been left wide open to the elements, the statue had become covered in cracks and structurally unsound. Fortunately, the city that had cast the iron giant only to cast him out had, despite itself, grown quite fond of the Vulcan. Determined to save what was now largely considered the bare-bottomed mascot of Birmingham, the city began the Vulcan Park Foundation, which raised enough money to bring the statue back to life. After two years of painstaking restoration, the Vulcan was returned to its 1940 glory, christened a second time with water from the Cahaba River, and re-erected in a place of honor high atop Red Mountain, where he still stands, keeping watch over Birmingham today.