History · Other Stuff

Museum Visit: Iron & Steel Museum of Alabama

Okay, this one’s kind of cheating. I volunteer here several times a month, so it’s not like I’m going in as a newbie. However, it’s a pretty cool place and it’s worth a visit if you’re interested in the area or any of the topics it covers.

Yes, the sign has the wrong name.
Yes, the sign has the wrong name.

The museum focuses on 19th century iron making in the Roupes Valley Ironworks, now in the Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park. The site is unique because it encompasses several important historical periods. The ironworks operated beginning in 1830, and was later an important battery of charcoal blast furnaces during the Civil War until it was destroyed in Wilson’s Raid. The ironworks in this area eventually gave birth to the Birmingham Iron & Steel District, and Birmingham’s rapid growth based on that industry gave it the nickname The Magic City.

The museum incorporates artifacts from the Tannehill site itself, as well as representative artifacts from other locations on the general topics of ironmaking, iron and other minerals, the Civil War, lifestyles of the past, steam-powered machinery, slave labor in the South, the modern steel and pipe industries, the archaeology of the site, and other exhibits on a rotating basis. (For instance, the museum has housed displays of modern artistic blacksmith creations, and is currently showing an exhibit on early mining towns in Alabama).

Tannehill Museum, interior
Tannehill Museum, interior

The museum went through a big exhibit renovation in 2004-2005, and those exhibits include one of the oldest steam engines in America (the 1835 Dotterer engine, on loan from the Henry Ford museum) and a collection of more than 70 Civil War artifacts, some of which were found in the park.

Dotterer Steam Engine
Dotterer Steam Engine

The richness of the history in this specific location makes it a remarkable opportunity for education and experiential learning. Historical interest is unified with family-friendly events and outdoor recreation in the park, so visitors can appreciate the area for what it was and for its present-day beauty–if you’re interested in the topics and area, you really want to wander around the park, not just the museum. If you’re really interested, come on a day when they’re doing Civil War reenactments in the park.

The furnace post-Wilson's Raid destruction and pre-1970s renovation.
The furnace post-Wilson’s Raid destruction and pre-1970s renovation. It’s been rebuilt and you can now see a single and a double furnace as they would’ve been in use, and there’s a walkway at the top of the hill to look at the chimneys.

I clean things and help with paperwork at the museum, and I’ve also been helping graduate interns catalog the artifacts in storage for about a year. They were kind of in a big pile in the back room. A lot of the stuff remains unidentified and with no provenance, but the place is organized now and the stuff is tagged and recorded! I’ve also put together databases of the current exhibits and back-room collections of old photographs and documents. That helped make the mining-town exhibit possible, my boss could mine the data (ha!) to find appropriate items and photographs, which is super awesome!

Catalogued artifacts
Cataloged artifacts

Iron and steel are Birmingham’s claim to fame. If you’re interested in Southern history, the Civil War, the 1800s, steam engines, or the iron and steel industries, this is a cool place to see.

Pics are from the official museum blog: http://tannehillmuseum.wordpress.com/.

And here’s the official website: http://www.tannehill.org/museum.html. Museum admission is $2 for adults and $1 for kids — it’s a few dollars to come in the park, too.

7 thoughts on “Museum Visit: Iron & Steel Museum of Alabama

  1. Reblogged this on Cartography of Dreams and commented:
    An important part of world building is research, especially research of the real world. It’s not all about medieval places and faraway planets. Sometimes, what we need is right in our backyards.



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