There’s something very….American about a city founded with the express purpose of becoming an industrial giant. Birmingham (named, confidently, for the industrial city in England) was founded in 1871 at the site of a planned railroad crossing in an area rich with iron, coal, and limestone–the three materials which, it just so happens, are the main raw ingredients in steel. And the rest is a rather complicated history.
The remains of this industrial past that built Birmingham (its rapid growth around the turn of the century earned it the nickname “The Magic City”) make it an ideal destination for a family with a pack of kids. Remains of industry is kind of our favorite.
Birmingham is another one of those places that we had never been to, even though it’s less than three hours from home. So when we found ourselves with some Hilton points to use and a trailer sitting all sad and winterized in the driveway, we decided to take the long Presidents’ Day weekend to check it out. It would be an even more ideal destination for a weekend getaway if we didn’t have to navigate Atlanta’s Friday rush hour to get there. Sigh. But we finally made it latish Friday night and checked into a Homewood Suites a bit south of town.
We’re generally fans of Homewood Suites because, well….suites. And also because of the free breakfasts and afternoons snacks/light dinners (although not on weekends, so it didn’t help us out on this trip). This one was a particularly nice example of the chain, with two good sized rooms and a more or less full kitchen (fridge, microwave, and two burner stove, but no oven). We took advantage of the kitchen and the breakfasts to limit eating out to once a day. So, since the hotel was covered by our points, it was a pretty inexpensive weekend.
We made things more exciting by calling it a “mystery trip” and not telling the kids where we were going beforehand. Admittedly, we did this primarily because they don’t have fond memories of our trip to Huntsville, AL last year and had decided to dislike the entire state of Alabama as a consequence. So we figured they’d give Birmingham a fairer trial if they didn’t have any time to prejudge it. And it worked! Everyone likes Birmingham! Well, everyone in our immediate family, at least.
Vulcan Park & Museum: Saturday we started the day by checking out the largest cast iron statue in the world!
Vulcan, Roman god of the forge, overlooks Birmingham from the top of Red Mountain, a constant reminder of the city’s roots. The book in our hotel room told us it was a great way to start our visit to Birmingham, and we have to agree.
Here’s Gus, literally jumping up and down while shouting, “interpretive signs!” That’s my boy.
There’s a small museum on the site that tells the history of the statue and of Birmingham’s industrial roots. Admission to the observation tower and the museum is $6 for adults, $5 for seniors, and $4 for kids 5-12.
They had some cool things at the gift shop (adorable stuffed Roman god of the forge, anyone?), but we left with just a magnet and pressed pennies:
(My camera was doing strange things for much of this visit, and I couldn’t figure out what was wrong for the longest time. Eventually I realized I’d accidentally switched it to the macro setting. So some of these pictures are weird (and that penny is incredibly shiny) because my camera thought everything was a flower).
There’s a big wall with all sort of examples of things made out of iron. Gus is not made out of iron, but maybe he was pretending to be:
The general store exhibit was lots of fun:
We have these exact same canisters! It’s just like we’re living in a company town in Birmingham in the late 19th century! Except with less mining:
Vulcan was made for the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. After the fair, he came back to Birmingham and hung out, incorrectly reassembled, at the Alabama State Fairgrounds for 30 years until Vulcan Park was built, with the help of a WPA grant to make his pedestal, in 1939. There he stood until 1999, when the city started to get worried that his head might fall off and land on some unsuspecting tourist (that’s not quite what the museum exhibits said. It said he had been filled with concrete which was expanding and contracting at a different rate than the iron shell and that there were concerns about safety. But it’s more exciting to imagine his head dramatically wobbling back and forth and then detaching and crashing to the ground). Vulcan was completely restored (along with his pedestal, which had been subject to some unfortunate “modernization” in the 60’s) and the park reopened in 2004.
He has a big foot:
After touring the museum as thoroughly as we could with Abe around, we went over to the statue itself. You can either take an elevator up to the observation platform or climb the 159 steps inside the tower. Abe really wanted to do the elevator, so Dave took him that way while the older kids and I climbed the steps. The first couple of floors of the inside of the tower are lined with Alabama marble:
The high was in the low 40s that day, and it was really cold and windy on the observation tower. But we got a nice view of Birmingham:
And the backside of Vulcan :):
Our other Saturday stop was the Ruffner Mountain Nature Preserve. I came across this place when I was researching for the trip, and wasn’t sure exactly what to expect….it turned out to be a really great stop. It’s right in the city, but there’s tons of space and feels very remote. There’s a suggested donation of $2/person here, and that’s a bargain. They have a small visitor center with a few animal exhibits (Abe was really fond of the turtles) and then 12 miles of trails on the site, making it the perfect place for us to get in hike #4 of our 52 Hike Challenge.
We decided to hike the 1.2 mile (each way) Quarry Trail, which runs along the top of a ridge and take you close to the old limestone quarry on the property. From there we took the .4 mile Overlook Trail to get a (terrifying!) view of the quarry from above:
Then we came back down and took another trail that led us into the quarry itself. Which was really fun. In quarries, there are lots of rocks to play with:
And this mysterious, rickety wooden platform to stand or sit on or jump off of:
We probably spent half an hour or so hanging out in the quarry, which was just the break we needed before the return trip:
All told the hike was right around four miles, with moderate elevation changes (mostly you climb up to the ridge and then it’s relatively flat until you start going back down near the quarry); it was a great length and level of challenge for everyone except Abe….who got carried a lot (we accidentally left the Ergo in the hotel, which was too bad). We’d love to go back sometime and explore some of the other trails.
And, with that, I’ll save the rest of our trip for the next post!