City History

Birmingham, The Magic City, is a unique blend of the old and new, of the south and north, of manufacturing and service based business.  A product of the post Civil War, New South, Birmingham did not exist prior to 1871.

Birmingham began as a land development venture, but a venture tied to grand hopes for an industrial center in the New South.  Driven by interests that began before the Civil War, the City was to be founded at the crossing of two new railroads, in order that some of the South's best entrepreneurial spirits might develop the mineral wealth that had been recognized, but untapped, for a number of years.

The opportunity that led to the development of the Magic City was a completely unique geological phenomenon that was unmatched in the new world.  The proximity, literally within 5 miles, of the three main ingredients needed to make iron: iron ore, coal, and limestone.  This unique natural condition was unable to be tapped until the transportation and capital came together in the deep south, a region of the new United States that was generally tied to an agricultural economy.

By the time of the Civil War, there was a fledgling iron industry in the north central Alabama region.  These early efforts were more of an art form than an industry.  However, the Civil War pointed out two things.  The lack of industrial development in the South, and the need for transportation, rail transportation, as the emerging, modern way to move raw material, finished goods, and people.  During the War, the South struggled to make enough of the weapons and armor needed to fight.  The natural resources, in the area that became Birmingham, could not be easily moved to the manufacturing center at Selma, the arsenal of the Confederacy.  As the War dragged on, both sides fought for, destroyed, rebuilt and fought again for the railroad system that controlled the ability to make war, and to support the war effort.

So, the City of Birmingham, although different from the Birmingham of today, was based upon the dream to develop one of the most unique geological conditions in the country, and upon the understanding that the economy of the New South would be tied to the railroad.  Thus it was that in 1871, a land development company was working to lay out a plan for a new City to be built at the junction of the South and North Railroad, with the East and West Railroad.  That City, known originally as Elyton, became the City of Birmingham, the Magic City.  This unique City, in the deep South, but driven in many ways by fortunes from outside the South provides a fascinating story about industrial development, politics, and salesmanship that has led today to a City that may be one of the best kept secrets in the Country.


Early map of the original City Limits indicating the Railroad Reservation: Reserved for Mechanical Enterprises (UA Map Archives)

Birmingham's first railroad station (Alabama Dept of Archives and History)

Birmingham's Relay House Hotel (Alabama Dept of Archives and History)


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