Winter Storm Benji, a couple weeks back, draped Birmingham in a surprising blanket of pre-Christmas snow. For a lot of folks in north-central Alabama, it meant a very rare snow day, and a chance to play – briefly – in a winter wonderland.
In the surrounding Parkside neighborhood, downtown Birmingham loft-dwellers made a beeline to Railroad Park, which was already duded up for the holidays and offering its seasonal “Brrrmingham” ice skating rink. It’s not often you get to ice skate, outdoors, with snow falling, in the deep South.
The picturesque landscape of Railroad Park, snow or shine, just a block from the still-being-restored Powell Avenue Steam Plant building, stands in stunning contrast to what the area looked like just a decade ago – let alone at the turn of the last century, when the steam plant was at the very center of Birmingham’s astonishing industrial rise.
Constructed in 1895 and expanded soon after, the steam plant was literally surrounded then by railroad tracks and the accompanying smoke and roar of trains, coming and going, night and day, from the Magic City.
Loaded on those trains were the locally mined natural resources – coal, iron ore, limestone – that were the components fueling Birmingham’s then-soaring iron and steel industry. That iron and steel also was transported by rail, as were the full range of manufactured goods entering and leaving the fast-expanding metropolis.
In addition to the multiple rail lines, in every direction from the steam plant were warehouses and shops servicing the city’s industrial complex. They were powered by Powell’s electric generators, which also kept the city’s (now-gone) trolley system rolling.
It’s safe to say, it was not the section of town for a pleasant and leisurely Sunday stroll.
“The railroad was the center of Birmingham,” explained Alabama historian Leah Rawls Atkins, since the city lacked a navigable river to ship goods in and out. “Now that area is the center of something entirely different.”
Indeed, while two rail lines still cross east-west adjacent to the steam plant and Railroad Park – on an elevated viaduct – the multiple railroad spurs, warehouses and manufacturing shops are no more. Instead, within a short walk of the park and steam plant, are new apartment buildings and condominiums, offices and workspaces, restaurants and brewpubs. The neighborhood is also the site of recently built Regions Field, home to baseball’s minor league Birmingham Barons, and the neighboring Negro Southern League Museum. A few blocks beyond is the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), the state’s biggest employer and home to a major medical center. Also in the medical district is Children’s of Alabama, one of the largest children’s hospitals in the nation. UAB and the city’s related growth as a destination for world-class healthcare and medical and biological research have played a pivotal role in the city’s evolution from the days when its economy was reliant on iron and steel.
One of the long-gone rail lines that ran through the neighborhood, just below ground-level, east of the steam plant, is now a popular greenway and walking path, known as the Rotary Trail. It is part of the Red Rock Ridge and Valley Trail System, a network of trails, sidewalks and bike paths being built across Jefferson County. One goal of the trail network is to eventually connect Railroad Park and Parkside to some of the other notable parks and greenspaces in the city, including Vulcan Park and Museum, Red Mountain Park and Ruffner Mountain.
So, come and stroll the Parkside area this holiday season. The snow may have melted, but you’ll find plenty of other ways to have fun.