Jeff Newman, hobbyist mine historian, walks along one of the trails at Red Mountain Park in Birmingham, Alabama, where the Birmingham Mineral Railroad used to run. He pushes fallen branches out of the way, a habit learned from years working maintenance at the park. “I’m here to make the park look good, no matter what it takes,” he says.
Fifty years ago, long before the Red Mountain Park and Recreational Area Commission established the park to memorialize the pivotal role the area played in the creation of the “The Magic City”, Newman set out to find the hidden mines along the Red Mountain Ridge from Trussville to Bessemer. For him, locating the overgrown mine portals gave voice to a remarkable time in Birmingham’s history.
Newman first became fascinated with mines in grade school, when he stumbled upon the Valley View Red Ore Mine behind his house in the Glen Iris neighborhood in Birmingham. The long-shuttered mine rose out of the northern slope of Red Mountain, a dark hole of a playground that was intriguing enough to captivate a young and adventurous Newman.
He visited the library and gathered information about the mine, quickly learning about the many other mines in the area. By the time he was old enough to drive, Newman began charting the location of the abandoned mines from Trussville to Bessemer, setting out to visit them all over the course of five years.
What makes Red Mountain remarkable, Newman explains, is that it is the only place in the world where all the raw ingredients to make iron – ore, coal and limestone – can be found in close proximity. Entrepreneurs saw dollar signs when they discovered the wealth of resources at Red Mountain in the mid-1800s during the height of the U.S. Industrial Revolution when iron was in high demand.
The construction of the Louisville & Nashville’s (L&N) Birmingham Mineral Railroad soon followed, encircling the mineral-rich land and subsequently putting Birmingham on the map. The railroad’s primary purpose was to connect the ore mines in Red Mountain to the nearby cooking furnaces located along the edge of the Warrior Coal Fields in Jones Valley.
As the mining industry grew, so did the population of Jefferson County, surging from 11,000 people in 1860 to more than 140,000 by the turn of the century. By 1920, Birmingham was producing one-fourth of the nation’s foundry iron. But, increasing air quality requirements, foreign competition, and the rise of ductile iron made from scrap led to the shutdown of foundry iron furnaces and the coal and ore mines in the 1970s. The history was left to be told in the old, abandoned mine portals, most of which have been sealed with concrete or at the hands of Mother Nature with overgrowth and dirt.
Decades after the mines were closed, U.S. Steel generously sold 1,200 acres at a discounted price to the Red Mountain Park and Recreational Area Commission, leading to the park’s creation to memorialize the pivotal role the area played in the creation of the “The Magic City”. Covered with remnants and artifacts, as well as informational signage, the park provides a series of hiking trails and zip line adventures, but its primary goal is to honor the significant contributions to Birmingham’s economic and cultural development made by iron and steel workers, their families, and the communities in which they lived.
I see the importance of this area,” Newman says. “I see the vision.”
Over the years, Newman volunteered to assist the nonprofit organization, devoting hours of his time to help locate mines and cut trails. He later landed a spot on the Board of Directors as the Land Steward and was such a resource that Friends of Red Mountain Park offered Newman the park maintenance job. Since then, he has been instrumental in keeping up the grounds, along with support from corporate partners, like Protective Life, which built a picnic area in the machine shop where mining carts in the Ishkooda mine area were repaired.
Newman and his wife, Janet, donated a bench and a picnic table placed at Mine No. 13, one of the first mines he visited over a half century ago. She’s also a regular volunteer at the park, often doing anything needed from trimming branches along the trail to planting flowers at the entrance. They are both invested in restoring the mines and making sure the story of the mines continues to be told in the city.
“We believe in the vision,” Newman says. “And we believe in what the park and the mines here mean to Birmingham.”