The Big Guy Up There


If there is anything iconically “Birmingham,” it has to be Vulcan.

Written by Phillip Ratliff; Photography by Beau Gustafson

There’s no better place to begin a tour of Birmingham than at the home of the city’s civic icon, Vulcan. He’s a giant, cast in iron, built to embody and embolden another giant in iron, the city herself.

Vulcan began flexing his muscle around the same time Birmingham began flexing hers. Just as Vulcan trained his steely gaze on his handiwork, so Birmingham resolutely set her sights on supplying America’s growing demand for iron and steel. Vulcan is a practical god, homely by some accounts—a fitting parallel to the niche Birmingham filled furnishing the nation with cast iron pipes, stoves, and frying pans.

Yet he’s also forged in ambition. He was built out of local pig iron, cast to stand 56 feet tall. He weighs 120,000 pounds. Vulcan is the largest cast iron statue in the world.

The idea for Vulcan materialized in 1903 out of the vapors of civic boosterism. A group of Birmingham businessmen decided that Birmingham needed a presence at the upcoming 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. To complete the colossal statue on time and under budget, they turned to Italian-American artist Giuseppe Moretti. As a sculptor and businessman, Moretti was resourceful and intrepid—a real hustler. Moretti designed the fierce bronze panthers crouching at the entrance to Pittsburgh’s Schenley Park. While living in New York, Moretti carved marble statuary adorning several of that city’s Beaux-Arts buildings.

Whether making bank in the Gilded Age or designing mass-produced Civil War monuments, Moretti was not the sort to turn down work. His initial design, a model the height of an above average adult male that only vaguely countenances the features we see in the final product, came quickly. Scaling this into separate true-to-size castings is where Moretti’s moxie was on splendid view. Moretti divided Vulcan into 29 separate castings, to be bolted together with a flange system, and shipped to St. Louis one piece at a time. Once assembled, Vulcan stood—unsupported!—in the fair’s Palace of Mines and Metallurgy. The organizers of Portland’s 1905 Lewis and Clark Exposition made a play for Vulcan. So did San Francisco. Leaders from that city envisioned Vulcan standing in the San Francisco Bay as their answer to the Statue of Liberty.

Life after the St. Louis World’s Fair was less heady. Vulcan lay in pieces in a Birmingham railyard for a couple of years before he was assembled, incorrectly, at the Alabama State Fairgrounds. His new life at the Fairgrounds represented a humiliating defeat—for Vulcan, for Moretti, and for Birmingham. Vulcan went from civic icon to advertising gimmick. He held not a spear, proudly, (it was lost in transit from St. Louis) but a jar of pickles or a bottle of Coca-Cola, sort of—well, wantonly. He sometimes wore Liberty overalls. Because he was near the Fairgrounds Speedway, there are photos of Vulcan standing forlornly in the background of a motorcycle or automobile race, a stalk of timber steadying his awkwardly reattached arm. This was not the Vulcan Moretti envisioned. Moretti died in 1935, regretting having ever made him.

Enter Tom Joy. A successful contractor and member of the Birmingham Kiwanis Club, Joy was dismayed to see what the once proud symbol of Birmingham had become. Joy challenged his fellow Kiwanians to build a permanent home for Vulcan on Red Mountain that would include a pedestal and surrounding park. Vulcan needs the distance and height the pedestal and placement affords. As Graham Boettcher of the Birmingham Museum of Art once told me, Vulcan deserves a proper plinth, not only to elevate him but to relate him properly to his city.

With help from the Works Progress Administration Joy and his fellow Kiwanians were able to complete the project in 1939. Last March, Vulcan Park and Museum and the Kiwanis Club, with assistance from the Freshwater Land Trust, cut the ribbon on the latest addition to the site, Kiwanis Centennial Park. The list of new features is impressive: a two-mile trail for jogging and biking, a fountain and plaza, a southern entrance to Vulcan Park, additional parking, and new interpretive sites, including Lone Pine Mine.

The most significant accomplishment is probably not readily apparent right now, but it one day will be. Once separated from Jones Valley by a treacherous strip of chert-laden dirt, Vulcan Park is now accessible via two pedestrian corridors. Pedestrians (and experienced cyclists) can now enter Vulcan Park from Southside and UAB. Vulcan Park is now positioned as a hub for a planned 750 miles of trail along Freshwater Land Trust’s Red Rock Ridge and Valley system.

Vulcan has been a magnet ever since Joy and the Kiwanis Club placed him on Red Mountain. (Vacationers driving along old U.S. 31 would stop off for a glimpse, occasioning an American diaspora of Vulcan memorabilia.) As Birmingham develops into a walkable city, locals and out-of-towners in Jones Valley will now have an easier time paying a visit to their civic icon.

 

 

 

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