BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — The word synonymous with the state’s largest city is “red.”
That comes from Red Mountain, a long, steep solid ridge running southwest to northeast along the southern side of the city. Birmingham is at the southern end of the ridge-and-valley region that runs into the Appalachian Mountains.
It’s chock full of iron ore, hence the name. Red Mountain Expressway cuts directly through the ridge. Iron is an ingredient for steel. Along with the water and limestone of Jones Valley, in which most of Birmingham sits, the mountain’s iron made the region a great place to forge steel. That’s the backbone on which Birmingham was formed. The city was incorporated during Reconstruction and quickly grew, its population jumping with each census which gave it the official nickname of “The Magic City.” It wasn’t until the 1970 census that population declined. One of Birmingham’s unofficial nicknames is the “Pittsburgh of the South.”
All that iss to say iron ore is a major part of the city’s history and it pays homage in a cool way. (Now we’re getting to the mooning part.)
They do it with a gigantic statue of Vulcan, the Roman god of fire.
Giuseppe Moretti, a sculptor and immigrant to the city, made the statue to represent Alabama at the St. Louis Expo of 1904. He came back home the following year and, frankly, was neglected: left in pieces for a bit, reassembled for a time.
He finally found a home at Vulcan Park atop Red Mountain overlooking Birmingham during the Great Depression as part of the W.P.A. He’s visible from a good part of the city and he’s served a pretty interesting purpose in the past: He once held a lighted beacon that would glow red at night if there had been a traffic fatality in the city. (Here’s a full timeline.)
They’ve had to do some work on him, repairing him several years ago and remounting him on his pedestal, slightly adjusted, some say, so his exposed posterior wasn’t mooning the city. Now, he basically moons Homewood, the suburb just over the mountain from Birmingham. Knowing the relationship between the two cities, you can’t wonder whether that was partially on purpose. I kid, of course.
There’s a museum at the base telling his story and the tale of Birmingham’s steel history, and a spacious meeting room with floor-to-ceiling windows. In front is a map inlaid in the pavement of the Birmingham area and where it’s resources are.
A ticket to the statue and park is good all day, and the night views are priceless. (Night views also are very popular — it’s a couples’ spot.)
I made it a point to visit Vulcan frequently. He was kind of a good luck charm for me while I lived there. When I recently passed through town I made sure to stop and say hello.
Another thing to mention is the Birmingham metro area has worked hard to develop a network of greenways and hike-and-bike trails connecting the area’s cities. One part of that, Vulcan Trail, traces along near the summit of Red Mountain from just below Vulcan toward Red Mountain Park. It’s a great tree-shaded walk with neat vistas of Birmingham.