What is it that shapes and builds a city? It could be any number of things, like the geographic location along a river or ocean, or even the geology of a region. The latter was the case for the city of Birmingham.
As entrepreneurs discovered in the 1800s, Birmingham occupied one of the few places on Earth where all three ingredients needed to make iron and steel—hematite (iron ore), limestone, and coke (coal)—existed in close proximity to each other. Once people realized this, mines and steel mills sprang up seemingly overnight, giving Birmingham its nickname, the "Magic City."
Those mines and mills have been silent for decades, but you can still delve into Birmingham’s rich history by exploring trails, parks, and historic sites that range from the heart of the city to neighboring mountains. As you explore tranquil forests, abandoned mines, and silent mill structures, you might find it hard to fathom that Birmingham was once a major player in the steel industry, with Alabama housing more foundries than any other state in America.
Tannehill Historical State Park
There is no better place to start your journey than Tannehill Historic State Park, where Daniel Hillman built a massive forge along Ropes Creek in 1830. While he was attempting to capitalize on the booming steel industry, he passed away before foundry was successful, and a local farmer, Ninian Tannehill, purchased the forge in 1836.
Using slave labor, Tannehill built a total of three forges, and in 1862 fired them up and sold pig iron to the Confederate military. In 1865, however, the Union Army put an end to the venture when they destroyed the forge and killed many slaves in the process.
Jump ahead a century later and the state of Alabama along with area colleges resurrected the site, uncovering the old blower house and main furnace and rebuilt them.
In the park, several easy trails lead to the furnace, a slave cemetery, and Roupes Creek, which helped power the foundry. During your visit, don’t miss the Iron and Steel Museum of Alabama, which reveals the the backstory of the forge and the steel industry.
Red Mountain Park
You’ll immediately notice something unique about the trails at Red Mountain Park—the soil has a red tint. That’s from the dust of iron ore that was mined here from the early 1800s to 1962.
In all, there are 15 miles of trails at Red Mountain that not only pass through beautiful woods, but also visit iron ore mines that were abandoned long ago. Of course, all of the mines have been sealed off for safety reasons, but they still offer a glimpse back to the heyday of Birmingham steel. On the header of each mine is an inscription that tells you the date that the mine was in operation. For example, the Number 13 mine was used from 1873 to 1933, and the Ishkooda Number 14 mine operated from 1895 to 1941. There’s also a beautiful example of Mission Style architecture at the Redding Shaft Mine and Hoist House.
In 2016, the park added a great feature—the TravelStoryGPS app for your phone, which acts as a tour guide and tells you the mining history as you hike.
Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve
The Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve is an oasis for wildlife and plants in the heart of Birmingham, but these woods also hold pieces of Birmingham’s history.
One of the most popular paths in the park is the 1.2-mile Quarry Trail, which climbs to a ridge top and reaches an overlook with a good view of an abandoned limestone quarry.
When you visit Ruffner, be sure to walk the 0.7-mile Crusher Trail (accessed from the Quarry Trail). As you walk down a ridge, you’ll see an object that seems to slowly rise out of the forest. This is a large iron-ore crusher. When the Ruffner mine was operating (from the 1800s to the early 1950s), workers used the crusher to break ore into smaller pieces so they could haul it to the nearby Sloss Furnace more easily.
Brierfield Ironworks Historical State Park
During the Civil War, the Bibb Furnace reached its operating peak as it supplied pig iron to the Confederacy. But, in 1865, the Union Army destroyed the facility. Unlike its sister forge at Tannehill, the Bibb Furnace was not resurrected after the war. However, in 1976, the Bibb County Commission created a park that included 45 acres of land that the furnace occupied, and this eventually became the Brierfield Historical State Park.
If you travel the park’s 1.4-mile Furnace Trail, you’ll pass the remains of the Bibb Furnace, including the brick structure and the reservoir that once powered it.
The original Sloss Furnace was built in 1882 by Colonel James Withers Sloss and quickly became one of the premier blast furnaces in the South. Over time, the furnace continued to grow, until it included the intricate web of pipes, smoke stacks, and water towers we see today.
The furnace operated until 1971, and in late ‘70s, the city launched a conservation project to preserve the historic structures of the furnace complex. In 1981, Sloss became the only furnace in the country to be named a National Historic Landmark.
More of a ramble that a hike, the walk at Sloss is still a fascinating journey, as you wind among the massive and intricate industrial workings, including two 400-ton blast furnaces and several outlier buildings.
Irondale Furnace Trail
In the mid-1800s, the Irondale Blast Furnace complex in Mountain Brook was in full production and sprawled out over 2,000 acres. Today, there is only a hint of the extensive operation that occupied land just off of Stone River Road.
The 1.2-mile out-and-back Irondale Furnace Trail will lead you to the furnace’s recently restored foundation, where historic markers tell the story of the facility’s role in Birmingham’s history.
The Vulcan Trail is a 2.2-mile paved and gravel multi-use out-and-back path that runs just below the ridge of Red Mountain. The trail starts just below the statue of Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and the patron of metal working, which is an appropriate symbol for Birmingham’s steel history.
The footing of the Vulcan Trail was once the route of the old Birmingham Mineral Railroad (BMRR), which opened in 1884 and connected forges and mines throughout the region. In fact, you can walk another part of this line on the BMRR Trail at Red Mountain Park.
Along the Vulcan Trail, you’ll have nice views of the city, and near the trail’s halfway point, you’ll encounter the first of two stone trestle supports, which are the only remnants of the mining trains that traveled through here. Sadly, one of the two is constantly under attack by graffiti "artists," but it’s still worth taking the short walk to see another part of Birmingham’s remarkable mining and steel history.
Originally written for BCBS of AL.