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Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park

Article by Thomas J. Straka

Photographs by Patricia A. Straka

There are lots of historical jewels scattered just off the interstates. Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park is one of them, located near Interstates 20-59-459 between Birmingham and Tuscaloosa in Alabama. The park has all the attractions you’d expect at a 1,500 acre state park. Don’t just think ironworks; think also of a pioneer farm, grist mill, cotton gin, country store, sweet shoppe, craftsmen, blacksmith, hiking, camping, and outdoor recreation.

 restored Furnace at Tannehill Ironworks.
The restored Furnace at Tannehill Ironworks.

Blacksmith tending furnace at Tannehill Ironworks State Park between Birmingham Tuscaloosa in Alabama
Tending the furnace was very hot  and
very hard work.
The ironworks data back to 1830. Daniel Hillman, an iron maker who learned his skills in southwestern Pennsylvania, constructed a bloomery forge on Roupes Creek. It was a small operation that is credited as the birthplace of the Birmingham iron industry. It produced only 300 pounds per day, supplying the market from present day Birmingham to Tuscaloosa. The forge became part of the Tannehill Plantation. Tannehill brought in Moses Stroup, perhaps the leading iron maker in the South, to add a blast furnace. In 1857 Tannehill sold the forge to John Alexander, a friend of Stoup’s, who had the financing to complete the blast furnace. By 1858-1859 the operation was producing 6-8 tons per day. The Civil War increased demand for iron and the Confederate government financed two additional furnaces to meet military needs.

Musuem at Tannehill Ironworks State Park between Birmingham Tuscaloosa in Alabama
The museum is broken into segments highlighting various
technologies, processes, or histories. 

At the end of the Civil War Alabama produced 70% of the South’s iron output, most of it going to Confederate Gun Works in Selma. At its height of production Tannehill produced 22 tons per day. The iron was cast into ordinance, skillets, pots and ovens for the Confederate army. The North realized this industry would hasten the war’s end. Selma was second to Richmond as the South’s manufacturing center. General James H. Wilson was selected to lead the largest cavalry raid of the Civil War to destroy the coal mines, ironworks, and war industry of Central Alabama. Wilson had nearly 13,500 troops and most of the southern resistance had moved east to counter Sherman’s March to the Sea. General Nathan Bedford Forrest’s 5,000 man cavalry attempted to block the raid that began March 22, 1865, but most all of Alabama’s war industry was destroyed. On March 31, 1865 three companies of the Eighth Iowa cavalry struck Tannehill. At day’s end the furnaces were no longer operational and the foundry, tannery, gristmill, and warehouses were in ruins.

Musuem at Tannehill Ironworks State Park between Birmingham Tuscaloosa in Alabama
The tool area, most everything is belt-driven and very old.

After the Civil War attempts to rebuild the furnace failed and the areas was used to mine ores. Locals used the furnace site as an attractive recreation area with significant historical interest. In 1976 interest developed to rebuild the furnace around a state park complex as part of the Bicentennial Celebration. Furnace No. 1 was rebuilt and refired to produce 2 � tons of pig iron for the first time in 111 years. Today it is the center of a magnificent` state park.

The park also contains the 13,000 square foot Iron and Steel Museum of Alabama that chronicles the iron and steel industry in Alabama from its beginning to the present day. The early ironwork at Tannehill gave rise to the Birmingham Iron and Steel District, driving Alabama industry and the growth of the Birmingham area.  Exhibits focus on the tools, technologies, and processes of iron-making and related industries beginning in the nineteenth century. Attractions include a mid-1800 machine shop, original parts of the Six Mile Bloomery Forge dating to the 1830’s, a Civil War collection, a history of the Birmingham cast iron pipe industry, and hundreds of other historical items relating to Alabama’s iron and steel industry. Unexpected exhibits are included on topics like geology, furnace fuels, and one of the oldest steam engines in America.

Musuem at Tannehill Ironworks State Park between Birmingham Tuscaloosa in Alabama
A wild camera shot to show the expanse of the museum. It is easy to spend hours in the large museum.
What makes this park a gem is the variety of activities and attractions that are spread over a huge park. The trail system connects it all, in a wonderful meandering way, as two creeks intersect in the park and actually control the patterns of things. There is a pioneer farm that is a collection of 19th and 20th century farm buildings, including the blacksmith’s shop. There are craft cabins located on a plank road. They are open weekends from March to November. Artisans produce pottery, quilts, cane chairs, and art work. Visitors are welcome inside the cabins: Dunkin House (1871), Wendell Stewart House (1877), Stamps Cabin (1870), Crocker House (1884), and the Gott House, built by noted Appalachian Mountain cabin builder Peter Gott as part the “Alabama Reunion” in 1989. 

Musuem at Tannehill Ironworks State Park between Birmingham Tuscaloosa in Alabama
An overhead shot of the museum

With around 50 historic buildings in the park, it seems like there is a “discovery” around every corner of the trail. The John Wesley Hall Grist Mill and Cotton Gin operated at this site from 1867 to 1931. It was the successor to one of Alabama’s earliest grist mills located a mile west on Mill Creek. The original mill was torched by federal troops during the Civil War. Hall’s Mill was rebuilt in 1976 and today grinds out the corn meal sold in the country store. The grist mill dam is an interesting spot due to the Tapawingo Iron Truss Bridge (1903). The May Plantation Gin House dates to 1858. It houses cotton ginning equipment, including a rare 1881 Gullette gin head with feeder and condenser. The gin house utilized mules or horses to turn its machinery beneath the structure. The park’s headquarters and welcome center is the 1879 Edwards House, once the home of one of Trussville’s first physicians. Abandoned for many years as a ghost house along Highway 11, it was moved into the park in 1993 and fully restored. The collection of restored cabins and buildings makes the visit seem like stepping back in time.

Blacksmith shop at Tannehill Ironworks State Park between Birmingham Tuscaloosa in Alabama
The Blacksmith Shop.

Not everything is historical. There is a miniature railway for the kids with over a mile of track. The train features an 1800’s style engine and riding cars. The two creeks provide fishing.

Gristmill at Tannehill Ironworks State Park between Birmingham Tuscaloosa in Alabama
The Grist Mill

The park is a small community. There are a few of the cabins for rent, but most of the “community” are campers.  There are 195 improved campsites that handle trailers “large and small,” plus another 100 primitive camp sites. The park has a full schedule of events throughout the year and if often full for prime events, like Halloween or Trade Days. The third weekend each month (Mar. – Nov.) is Trade Days when shoppers and swappers come in search of tools, clothing, jewelry, knives, furniture, and other treasures. There is a dulcimer festival each year, a Civil War reenactment, a woodcarving show, a gem/mineral/jewelry show, and lots of educational programs.  On Labor Day the park hosts Alabama’s largest moon pie eating contest. There is a Fall Festival in the Pines that showcases the Southeast’s finest artists and crafters. Plus, Halloween and Christmas are special with the whole park taking on the theme. We happened to stop at Halloween and by custom the entire camping area was decked out in a wonderful scary lightshow. Each camper was trying to outdo the next.
Campground at Tannehill Ironworks State Park between Birmingham Tuscaloosa in Alabama
The campground at Halloween.  Daylight does not do it justice.

The park’s trails are intertwined with historic buildings and cabins. Creeks wind through the park breaking it into sections. The trail system combines it all into a fascinating pattern of history, entertainment, and community. This is a state park well worth the stop and just a few miles off the Interstate.

 

Authors: Tom Straka is a forestry professor at Clemson University in south Carolina. His wife, Pat, is a consulting forester. Both have a keen interest in history.

 For a  Virtual Personal Tour Any Where in The World

 For books on Tannehill Ironworks

For more information:   

Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park

http://www.tannehill.org/

 

Iron and Steel Museum of Alabama:

http://www.tannehill.org/museum.html

 

Encyclopedia of Alabama: Iron and Steel Museum of Alabama:

http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/face/Article.jsp?id=h-2513

 

Encyclopedia of Alabama: Tannehill Ironworks:

http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/face/Article.jsp?id=h-1616

 

Encyclopedia of Alabama: Wilson’s Raid:

http://www.encyclopediaofalabama.org/face/Article.jsp?id=h-1375

 

 





 

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