The southbound road from downtown Birmingham led us up a ridge called Red Mountain, so named for its red iron deposits and the suitably colored surfaces. Atop one particular crest there’s a park centered around what’s billed as the world’s largest cast-iron statue, molded in the likeness of Mount Olympus’ most underrated resident, the Roman god Vulcan.
Previously on Midlife Crisis Crossover:
This year’s trip began as a simple idea: visit ostensibly scenic New Orleans. Indianapolis to New Orleans is a fourteen-hour drive. Between our workplace demands and other assorted personal needs, we negotiated a narrow seven-day time frame to travel there and back again. We researched numerous possible routes, cities, and towns to visit along the way in Kentucky, Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi. We came up with a long, deep list of potential stops, but tried to leave room for improvisation…
This version of Vulcan began life as a commissioned piece on behalf of Birmingham for the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. After the fair, he stood proudly at the Alabama State Fairgrounds for a few decades until his permanent relocation to Red Mountain in 1936. As designed by sculptor Giuseppe Moretti, Vulcan and his accessories weigh over sixty tons and stand fifty-six feet tall atop a twelve-story pedestal. For comparison’s sake, the Statue of Liberty from torch to dress hem sans pedestal is fifteen stories.
The elevator and observation deck are 21st-century finishing touches, added after his most recent restoration. From beneath his feet you can see the rolling hillsides and greenery in the surrounding neighborhoods…
…the paths and trees that lead up to this towering figure, as seen here through his elevator’s panes…
…the courtyard connecting Vulcan’s perch to the adjoining museum, as well as the faraway head of the kindly docent who helped the park open earlier than their posted hours this day…
…and, if you zoom just right, variegated downtown Birmingham, where we spent the previous eight chapters walking and learning.
Part of the museum is naturally dedicated to Vulcan’s history, former pieces of it as well as this giant replica foot that gives you a more immediate idea of the immensity of his mighty toes alone.
Much of the museum covers the history of Birmingham with an emphasis on local industries. Upon entering your first sight is a ceiling-to-floor sculpture grid called “The Material of Success”, sort of a workingman’s collage.
Several sections catalog the city’s notable history with confronting racism in too many forms and pay tribute to various communities that call Birmingham home.
The commemoration of the blue-collar ethos exemplifies personalities such as average guy James Purdue, a boilermaker who, far as I can tell, has no overt historical connection to our own Purdue Boilermakers back in Indiana. Frankly, I have questions about this.
And yes, there is a gift shop where visitors can purchase all the Vulcan merchandise they’ll ever need. Pick up a Vulcan doll for the kids so the god of fire can watch over them while they sleep and vanquish the monster under the bed in thunderous combat. Or have cute Roman tea parties with him, whichever.
Vulcan was our last stop before we left Birmingham, a city with more dimensions than we expected, a mixture of legacies and blights, of victories and tragedies, of progress and pride. Like any other American city it has a long “needs improvement” checklist to work through. The long path that led us from the shade of Kelly Ingram Park to the shadow of Vulcan showed us numerous snapshots of where Birmingham used to be and what it hopefully keeps aspiring to become.
To be continued!
[Link enclosed here to handy checklist for previous and future chapters, and for our complete road trip history to date. Thanks for reading!]