25 Things You Should Know About Birmingham, Alabama
Birmingham packs a lot of history into its relatively short 140 years. Below, a few things you might not know about the Magic City.
1. Although Hernando De Soto journeyed through Alabama in 1540, the area around Birmingham wasn’t settled until about 1813. For almost 60 years, only farm towns populated the area around the railroad crossroads. In 1871, the Elyton Land Company merged several of these to create Birmingham. In the early 20th century, other surrounding towns were annexed by the city, leading to the substantial growth that inspired its nickname, “The Magic City.”
2. Birmingham was named after Birmingham, UK. Last year, the BBC published a roundup titled "10 British Things About Birmingham, Alabama," calling out, among other things, the city's Doctor Who fan club, The Jane Austen Society, the Etiquette School of Birmingham, and the Birmingham Museum of Art's collection of Wedgwood pottery—the largest in the world outside Britain.
3. Birmingham is the only place in the world where all three raw ingredients for steel (coal, limestone, and iron ore) occur naturally within a ten-mile radius.
4. Sloss Furnaces produced pig-iron for almost 90 years. Although nothing remains of the original furnace complex, it’s the only facility of its kind preserved anywhere in the world. It’s a National Historic Landmark and is run as a city-operated museum. But if you’re catching a show there or wandering the grounds, watch out for ghosts: It’s been listed as one of the top 100 places in the world for paranormal activity.
5. Vulcan, the Roman god of the forge, watches over the city—and moons one of its suburbs. The statue was originally commissioned to advertise Birmingham’s industry at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair.
The Divinity of Light (although most people just call her Electra) stands atop the Alabama Power Building. In 1926, a writer for the Birmingham Post began publishing installments of the love story of Electra and Vulcan, attributing the potholes downtown to their footsteps from their trips to see one another.
7. Downtown's Kirklin Clinic was designed by noted architect I.M. Pei, the man behind the National Gallery of Art's East Building and Paris' Grand Louvre.
8. Frank Fleming’s The Storyteller was created to celebrate Southern storytelling traditions. Colloquially, the installation of the ram-headed man and his friends is referred to as the Satanic Fountain.
With a population of approximately 212,000, Birmingham is Alabama's largest city—for now. According to census projections, Huntsville is expected to take the top spot within 10 years.
10. No need to head all the way to New York City to feel like you're in the Big Apple: there's a replica of the Statue of Liberty on the city's outskirts. It was originally commissioned by the founder of Liberty National Life Insurance Company in 1956, and stood proud over the company's downtown headquarters until 1989.
11. Barber Motorsports Park, located just outside city limits, boasts the world's largest motorcycle museum. Guinness World Records made it official last year.
12. It's home to Rickwood Field, the nation’s oldest baseball stadium. In its heyday, Rickwood hosted greats of the game such as Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Dizzy Dean, and Willie Mays (who just so happened to be a native Birminghamian).
14. Other famous folks from Birmingham include Emmylou Harris, Courteney Cox, rapper Gucci Mane, authors Fannie Flagg and John Green, who lived there as a kid, and Condoleezza Rice.
15. The city of Birmingham underwent two separate prohibitions. Jefferson County banned the sale of alcohol from 1908 to 1911, and a 1915 statewide law rendered the state totally dry up until 1937—four years after the Twenty-first Amendment ended nationwide prohibition.
16. Not surprisingly, there was a lot of bootlegging happening in 'Bama. (As the Associated Press reported in 1937, "'Bone dry' Alabama led all states in the number of illicit distilleries yielded into federal agents during the month of November, according to Joe Rollins, state head of the federal alcohol unit.") One popular watering hole: Bangor Cave in Blount Springs, which served as a glamorous casino and speakeasy for Birminghamians looking to let loose, just as the formal ban on booze was coming to an end.
17. The oldest and largest Veterans Day celebration is in Birmingham, which is also known as the holiday’s founding city.
19. One of early Birmingham's unsung heroes: a prostitute by the name of Louise Wooster, who helped convert the town's brothels into clinics and nurse citizens back to health during the deadly 1873 cholera epidemic. A few years later, she opened her own brothel and amassed considerable wealth—large amounts of which she donated to charity.
20. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute—both, as its website notes, "a time capsule and a modern-day think tank"—is the permanent home of some of the Civil Rights movement's most powerful images, including photojournalist Spider Martin's pictures of the march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama.
21. Even some native Birminghamians don't know that the Birmingham Jail—where Martin Luther King Jr. first drafted his now-legendary missive in the margins of The Birmingham News—still occupies the same spot it did in 1963, on 6th Avenue South. But you'd be forgiven for driving past without giving the unassuming structure a second look: The sign outside identifies it as simply the Birmingham Police Department Detention Division.
Birmingham is said to be home to the "Heaviest Corner on Earth." That nickname came courtesy of an admiring early 20th century magazine article about the corner of 20th Street and First Avenue, where four massive skyscrapers—then the South's biggest buildings—had recently been constructed.
23. The multi-colored dance floor at The Club in Birmingham was director John Badham’s inspiration for the flashy set-up in Saturday Night Fever.
24. The annual Miss Apollo Pageant, held in November, is the second-oldest continuously running drag queen pageant in the country.
25. The city's Red Mountain Park, a 1200-acre public space, is one of the biggest urban parks in the country and a full 40 percent bigger than New York City's Central Park.