The city of Birmingham, Alabama, may not spring to mind as a vacation destination, especially with many fine destinations like Atlanta or New Orleans nearby. Yet, this wonderful and historic city is full of interesting places to see, things to do, and has a cultural heritage that surpasses many more popular places.
If you have read up about Birmingham, you may have seen it nicknamed ‘The Magic City’. Many people wonder why this is, and it’s an interesting and important story. We begin our tale in 1865, in a small settlement known as ‘Jone’s Junction’, with a population of around 100 people.
Jone’s Junction was a typical rural settlement in its day. Yet, despite its apparent normality, it was actually a very special place; two of the officers who were involved in its capture during the Civil War were astute enough to recognise that the local mountains were rich in iron ore. Furthermore, they also discovered that there were plentiful supplies of both coal and limestone in the nearby vicinity.
What is the importance of these minerals? Quite simply, they are the three elements needed to produce steel, which was in high demand around the middle of the 19th century.
Steel plants were not new, but they usually required transport from distant mines and quarries to get enough of the materials required to make steel. Jone’s Junction had one major advantage: it was so named because it sat at the junction of two important railroads.
North to South ran the railroad from Nashville, Tennessee, to Mobile, Alabama, an important port then and now. East to West ran rails from Atlanta, Georgia, and Vicksburg, Mississippi. They crossed at Jone’s Junction.
The benefit of this was not lost on the men who had noticed the mineral supplies. Jone’s Junction was practically unique in that it had direct access to all the required materials to make steel, and the transport infrastructure required to get it to customers.
The two astute men went forward and contacted the existing steel and iron companies, mainly in Pennsylvania, and it was nor surprise when these companies agreed to back them financially in setting up an iron works. The result was rapid expansion to a degree that was simply astonishing.
By 1878, just 13 years later, the town had been named Birmingham. This was in deference to the iron-making city in the midlands of England of the same name. The name was partially due to the fact that many of the new settlers were from the UK. The population of Birmingham in 1878 was close to 200,000 – a long way from the 100 people who inhabited Jone’s Junction.
Furthermore, the iron and steel industry had experienced rapid growth in Birmingham, and in Jefferson and Shelby counties in Alabama. In 1878, there were more than 20 – some say 25 – major steel and iron making companies and blast furnaces in the region. Birmingham was now the largest city by population in Alabama.
It is this quite astonishing growth in both population and industry that led to Birmingham being nicknamed ‘The Magic City’. There was in fact a large sign erected reading ‘Birmingham The Magic City’ at the railway passenger terminal, close to the original Jone’s Junction.
More Birmingham Magic
The growth of the steel and iron industries continued well into the 20th century, despite a number of economic depressions. The major player in the business was one James W. Sloss, a man considered to be a visionary in the industry at the time. In times of depression in the 1890’s, he bought failing steel works and expanded them. The result was a massive portfolio of such plants, which he ran under the eventual company name of Sloss-Sheffield Iron and Steel Company, with Sheffield being the major manufacturing center of steel in the UK.
The industry prospered throughout the 20th century until overseas competitors became more economical, and Birmingham began to move into other areas of commerce to keep up with the times. Sloss closed down in 1970, leaving only one major iron and steel works in the region.
While this could have been the downfall of the Magic City, today Birmingham is a thriving town with much to offer visitors, and there is one aspect of its history we have yet to mention.
Birmingham Culture and Heritage
Take the time to visit the Sloss museum, where you can see the only remaining blast furnace of its kind in the world, but also take the time to visit the Civil Rights Institute, where you can find a fantastic and very engaging museum covering the city’s part in reforming the public segregation that had been the norm until the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964.
With a variety of attractions – the zoo is a favourite with families – and great places to eat or enjoy a drink. It’s just a few minutes away from downtown in Mountain Brook.
Another great spot is Regions Field. If you’re a baseball fan, check out the schedule to see if any games will be playing while you’re in town. And don’t forget to walk over to Good People Brewing across the street to try a Snake Handler Double IPA.
Birmingham is one of the hidden gems of the Southeast. So, check it out further, and book yourself a holiday in what is one of the most intriguing cities in America. With top restaurants, local beer, and plenty to do, it’s easy to see why we’re still ‘The Magic City’.