There is a park growing on top of Red Mountain in Birmingham, Alabama. And not just any park. It is one of the largest city parks in the nation, transforming the Magic City’s former industrial image into one increasingly “green.” Over twelve hundred acres with over twelve miles of trails, zany zip-line adventures (one over 1300-feet long!), rock-climbing towers, vista-viewing tree houses, tree-top rope courses—Red Mountain has a lot to offer both home folks and visitors. But that’s nothing new: the mountain, after all, is what gave birth to a booming Birmingham in the first place.
The pre-Birmingham Creek Indians once native to northern Alabama were a very practical people. And so when the mountain gave them a powdery-fine rusty-red dust, they gave thanks and put it to good use staining their clothes red, their skin red, and all of their other stuff red too. Looked like blood. The white folks who began settling there in the early nineteenth century were practical as well. When farmer-settler Baylis Earle Grace discovered the blood-dust came from hematite (Greek hema = “blood”), a rich iron ore flowing profusely through the mountain’s veins, he also gave thanks and began a mining trend in the 1840’s that didn’t stop for a hundred years or more.
Red Mountain soon became a hot spot for iron ore for the needy Confederacy during the Civil War. In 1871, as the dust settled from the South-devastating conflict, new hopes emerged as the city of Birmingham sprang into being—hopes for a new South boosted by the industrial city rather than one so entirely dependent on agriculture. Those hopes were well-founded: the Red Mountain area was the only place in the world at the time that had such large amounts of limestone, coal, and iron ore—the raw ingredients necessary to the production of iron and steel—all in the same local geographical spot. Birmingham was set for a boom.
And boom it did. By the 1880’s Birmingham was known as “The Magic City,” its growth so remarkable, and by the turn of the century it had multiplied ten times over. In just twenty more years, with a population of 180,000, it ranked among the four largest cities of the South (New Orleans, Louisville, and Atlanta were the other three), and iron and steel were at the undisputed center of the rising Southern economy.
But the highest fall hardest, and when the Depression struck in 1929, steel-and-iron-giant Birmingham crashed worse than any other city in the nation. The following decade saw little relief despite millions of dollars in federal government funding. Apparently the magic was gone.
Then War got into the picture again. As the War Between the States had done for Red Mountain eighty years before, so now the Second World War had the furnaces blazing once again, earning Birmingham another name: The Arsenal of the South. While the cities of Europe were being destroyed, the city in the shadow of Red Mountain was saved and prospered once more as steel and iron needed for airplanes and ships and bombs and rockets flowed forth at unprecedented rate.
Today Red Mountain, tired of working so hard all of the time, is in a more playful mood, and after fifty years of simply growing trees (the last mine closed in 1962) now offers the city and her thousands of annual visitors a fun day in the park, over a thousand acres in concentrated green space, and a lovely and refreshing place for the whole community to come together. Birmingham, for its part, is attempting to pay back the enormous debt owed the mountain through all the preservation, beautification, and education involved in the new park. Red Mountain has always taken good care of B’ham—now it seems the city is reaping big rewards for taking monumental care of the big Red.