Hiking The Mountain That Made Birmingham

February 25, 2011

Al Letson

Before the civil rights movement that made Birmingham, Ala., a dateline in history, it was a famous steel town. A vast deposit of iron ore lies just outside of town on Red Mountain, and mining operations set up there just after the Civil War led to the founding of vast steel mills.

Today, Birmingham looks to Red Mountain as a place to explore the history of mining and the subtleties of race.

When you drive into Birmingham, one of the first things you see is a statue of the Roman god Vulcan sitting on a hill. It's the largest cast-iron statue in the world and a symbol of the iron ore and mining that helped make Birmingham the Pittsburgh of the South.

The mines have been closed for more than three decades, but in the last couple years, a dedicated group of people have been turning this network of old mines into a large park just few miles from town.

'The Magic City'

Until the end of the Civil War, Birmingham was a place where two trains met and not much more. But all the elements were in place for a mining boom. The city was at the tail end of the Appalachian mountain range. The iron ore was close to the surface; there was a cheap labor force and a nearby transportation hub.

The city seemed to sprout up overnight, giving birth to the moniker, "The Magic City." By the heyday of the 1940s and 50s, thousands of men, both black and white, were working underground.

The park, which will open to the public in a few years, is massive. It spreads out over the wooded expanse of Red Mountain. Park Ranger Eric McFerrin envisions it as part recreational — for mountain bikers, hikers and families — and part memorial to the men that worked in the mines.

Many of the remnants of that time are gone, but a short walk through the woods with McFerrin reveals the past.

"We're on the way to the No. 13 Ishkooda ore mine," he says. "It's one of the older red ore mines here in Birmingham. It dates to 1873."

When you walk out of the forest, Mine No. 13 stands as a monument to a bygone era. There are artifacts scattered around the entrance, like old railroad spikes, a car radio from the '50s — evidence of times past.

The front of the mine itself is plugged with a slab of concrete, almost like a gravestone, with beginning and end dates. While nature has recaptured much of the area, you can still see traces of the operation that once took place here.

"This trail is actually one of our new trails that the Friends of Red Mountain Park have built — our volunteer group," McFerrin says. "Some of the areas that we walked in on are old mining tramways, so we're utilizing those in our trail network."

Time and technology caught up with the mines, and by the early '70s, Red Mountain was shuttered. Many of the miners are gone now, but Eric and his team have collected their stories.

"These guys made history. Really, you know, regardless of a miner's race or his other status in the community, these guys mined 10 percent of our ore."

Black Or White, They Faced The Same Risks

In some ways, life was better for black workers down in the mines than it was above ground in the '40s and '50s.

I met former miners Amos Horton, who is white, and Willie Cammack, who is black, in front of Mine No. 10, where they both once worked. What they told me about race relations in the mines during that era is surprising.

"They had a good relationship," Willie says. "Everybody knowed their job, everybody went on did their work. So it was just nice. I'd rather worked in the mine than anywhere."

"There wasn't no animosity at all between the blacks and the whites," Amos adds. "We worked right alongside 'em just like everybody were the same color."

"Really, everybody was the same color when they come out," Willie says with a laugh. As the miners say, they all faced the same risks underground anyway.

"When you enter that hole right there and go down, everybody's looking out for everybody and you have a bond between everybody," Amos says. "And you carry that with you on the outside when you come out, because you have a feeling for that same person outside that you had down there."

A Community, More Than A Mining Camp

"I think we're kin," Shirley Tipper Crumpton says.

"We all went to school right here," Ethel Dunnagan adds. "We were raised up in the company houses, our father worked in the mine, so we're one big family."

In a parking lot of a church, in what used to be the mining camp, we've met up with Shirley, Ethel and Eloise Lawrence Maston — wives and daughters of miners. Ethel and Eloise lived in the black mining camp, and Shirley lived in the adjacent white one.

Today this area is a part of Birmingham, and really, "camp" is kind of a misnomer. These places, even decades ago, had schools, churches and markets, courtesy of TC&I, a division of U.S. Steel.

"They had their own policemen, their own doctors, the commissary furnished the food, the clothing. All of that was furnished by TC&I," Ethel says. "I feel like that was the best time of our life because we didn't fear one another."

"When you talk to the white kids who grew up in the camps, they say the very same thing," Shirley says. "It was the best time of our lives."

But then Shirley says something that speaks to the complexities of race in the South and the resentment felt by many whites during desegregation in the '60s.

"When the government said, 'We're going to fix this,' and you know, fix what? And then the problems really began," she says. "That's not a very good thing to say, I guess, but, like I said, when they began to legislate that you had to love each other, I guess, you loved each other on a human basis."

An Exception To The Era

What Shirley said really stuck with me, because I can tell you, growing up as an African American in the South, just after the Civil Rights era, her take is not how I experienced the aftermath of that time. But that gets to the heart of race in America.

Each one of us has our own perception of the world and the issues around us; different circumstances that inform our view. After spending some time in Birmingham, you can see the city is dealing with its past, from the Civil Rights Museum to the memorial in the basement of the 16th Street Baptist church. People want to talk about it.

But at times, there's a distance between the way blacks and whites remember it. At Red Mountain Park, most of the people we talked to — both black and white — have good memories about the place; but it still had its issues.

"Blacks, excuse the expression, they caught hell in that mine as far as work is concerned," L.C. Culpepper says. He started working in the Birmingham iron ore mines in 1948. For him, the work was a necessary evil. It was also a very well-paying job for a black man at the time.

"We were happy, 'cause that gave us a little social standing in the mines," Culpepper says.

He says in the mine where he worked, there were few whites underground. Most were supervisors or worked machinery on the surface. But regardless of who was there, black or white, you had to get the job done.

"Whatever, whoever it was, you worked together," Culpepper says. "There was no refusing to work together, you worked. 'Cause the big man expect you to work. They expect you to produce."

Culpepper feels the creation of Red Mountain Park will be an important reminder of the work that went on here. "Red Mountain, to tell you the truth, Red Mountain fought a war. If it had not been for Red Mountain and the steel plants sending that ore out there and making steel and making ships and guns and what have you, no telling what would have happened to America."

A Park To Help Birmingham Heal

Back on the trail, Ranger Eric McFerrin sees Red Mountain Park as a place where the ongoing healing of Birmingham's dark past can continue.

"I think in the future, you're gonna see black, white, rich and poor associated with the mountain again," he says.

"I see it as a future gathering spot, a point of unity for Birmingham," he says. "But, you know, the people here are what made it happen. Red Mountain Park is a celebration of this history, though. It's not a racial thing. I mean, black and white, the people that worked here significantly contributed to the building of a superpower."

"To me, that's something to celebrate." Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.