Sunday, September 26, 2010

When in Birmingham...

...some creativity may be required.  There is no automatic "Oh, I'm going to Paris? I can't wait to see the Louvre" kind of reaction that takes place when one is informed that they will have a full day to kill in Alabama.  There is only a quiet dread and visions of wandering aimlessly through a Cracker Barrel.  Perhaps this is only me, but the problem is I hate Cracker Barrel and am much too restless to sit in a hotel room watching reality tv, so obviously something had to give.

That something was a fortuitous combination of an article on one of my favorite websites, Roadside America, and some suggestions from my uber-cool friend, Julie.  They both pointed me in the direction of Vulcan, the largest cast iron sculpture in the world, which is perfect as the promise of the largest anything is usually enough to get my attention.  His story is also pretty great.
Today, the big guy sits atop Red Mountain, overlooking the entire city of Birmingham.  He is surrounded by a nicely tended small park and a museum explaining both his and the city's histories.  It is all very lovely and idyllic, but this being Alabama, that has not always been the case.

Originally built for the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis, the Roman god of Forging was intended to make an unequivocal statement about Birmingham's might as a steel and iron producing powerhouse. An Italian artist was brought in to design and create the 56 foot statue to be displayed in the Palace of Mines and Metallurgy.  According to the displays at the Vulcan Center, he was an instant hit.  In a World's Fair that saw the introduction of the hot dog, ice cream and ice tea, Vulcan was a blue ribbon winner (although it is not mention where exactly they pinned said ribbon).  As to his size, one of the principle backers for the project, James A. MacKnight boasted "A full sized man could be buried in one of the beautiful feet of the colossus, and a company of four could sit down to luncheon in his head.  Two men could lie at full length inside of his right arm, and a dainty dancer might do her stunt on the nail of his right toe."  

If ever there was a statue that had earned a hero's welcome, it was Vulky, as I now like to call him.  But this is Alabama after all. Following the World's Fair, he was dismantled and put on a train back to Birmingham, where he found himself unceremoniously ditched on the side of the tracks due to unpaid freight bills (which to be fair could not have been cheap at a weight of approximately 120,000 pounds).  Further indignity awaited him when an attempt was made to install him in the center of downtown.  The fine citizens of Birmingham were aghast that, blue ribbons be damned, you could see his cast iron ass (or as my friend Matt put it, his buns of steel).

He was carted off to the Alabama State Fairgrounds, where the public outcry was resolved by painting a pair of blue coveralls onto the gargantuan offending buttocks.  Seeing that this was an acceptable solution, I guess one should be grateful that Michaelangelo's David never fell into the hands of an Alabamian. So much attention must have gone into the panting of Vulky, that no one bothered to check if his arms had been installed correctly. They hadn't.  And his spear had been lost somewhere between St. Louis and Birmingham (seriously, the thing has to be the size of a one story building, at least, it is not an earring, how do you manage to lose what is probably the world's largest cast iron spear?)  So, instead of re-casting a new spear, the powers of capitalism kicked in.  He now proudly held aloft, at different times, an ice cream cone, a bottle of Coke and a jar of pickles.

In 1936, he was on the move again. As part of the WPA work creation projects, his current home was created atop Red Mountain.  Luckily, the height of the hill, combined with a 124 foot pedestal, made his nudity now acceptable, since by this time the paint (and resultant pants) had worn off and he had been repainted to a grayish color.  He was also given back his dignity by virtue of a new spear.

The dignity part was to be short lived.  In the 40's, it was decided that he would be put to work as a giant public safety announcement and was then fitted with a neon cylinder that would glow green unless there was a traffic fatality and then it would switch to red.

But time was on his side, after a series of restorations and renovations, he and the park where he stands were restored to their 1936 appearance, providing him with a brand new spear and the distressed traveler to Birmingham with a much needed plan that thankfully does not involve Cracker Barrel.

Check out the bird that manages to look like a mosquito next to his hand.
But the best part of the story, guess what souvenir is most prominently displayed in the gift shop....

That's right, literally big ass magnets. Now that's more like it...


  1. Surprising they didn't make a battleship out of him during WW2. Did you get the name of the Italian artist that created him?

  2. True, all things considered, Vulcan probably made out ok. The sculptor went by the very Italian name of Guiseppe Moretti and according to Wikipedia was known for always wearing a green tie.

  3. ive got a mini statue of this guy from the 1904 world fair that i can find zero information on.

    after the 1904 fair the transport company that was shipping him wasn't paid so they dumped the whole thing in pieces on the side of the tracks! Then, after they put him together(improperly), some genius decided to fill him with concrete and he almost exploded from the inside!