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The Historic Red Ore Express tells the story of Birmingham. Founded in 1871, Birmingham quickly grew to become one of the country's largest producers of iron and steel. The artifacts of industry are all around Birmingham — in old factories, mines, mills, and machinery.
When you take this tour, you'll hear not just about places and processes but about the people who built Birmingham -- the workers and entrepreneurs, artists and educators, reformers and civil rights leaders, migrants and immigrants who made the dream of Birmingham a reality.
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Narrator: It's been sealed off for decades, but Big Spring once anchored Avondale's park and community. It ran from the baseball field, through the park and down Avondale's main drag, 41st Street, known at one time as Spring Street. Nearby residents once got their water for washing and drinking here. So did one famous animal -- more on that later. Children played in the spring. At one time, locals believed the opening to Big Spring was a portal to a vast underground river flowing beneath the entire city of Birmingham. That turned out to be a hoax. Starting in the early 1800s and continuing through the American Civil War, Big Spring was a watering hole for travelers traveling by horseback along the old Huntsville Highway. In 1865, during a cavalry operation called Wilson's Raid, a skirmish erupted here, between Union soldiers watering their horses and some of the local guard. By 1885, Birminghamians were traveling to Big Spring by mule-drawn streetcar. In 1887, Avondale incorporated as an independent community and remained so until the city annexed it in 1910. At almost 40 acres, Avondale Park ranked, at that time, as the largest public green in the city. Looking around, you can discern a variety of architectural styles and functions. Avondale built the library in 1908. In the 1930s and '40s, the Works Progress Administration gave the park its prominent sandstone features and brick community events building. From 1911 to 1934, the park was home to the Avondale Zoo. There was a monkey house on the western boundary of the park. Squirrels, a bear, a wolf, and birds were housed further in. You can still see the footings of their domiciles. The Avondale Zoo's most famous resident was an Asian elephant named Miss Fancy. The year was 1913, and like many notable Birmingham residents, Miss Fancy entered the city under some controversy. Miss Fancy had spent her young adult years as circus elephant. Her handler claimed that she had killed a man and injured another -- though this may have been fabrication to keep her new custodians on their toes. By the time she came to Birmingham, she had mellowed and could now safely offer rides to school children. Fans kept her well fed, supplementing her daily allotment of 150 pounds of hay with peanuts, apples, and watermelons. During her time in Birmingham, Miss Fancy packed on a few pounds -- about four thousand, actually. At the end of her 20 year run in Birmingham, Miss Fancy weighed in at a pavement-crushing 8500 pounds. Those would be white school children and fans. Avondale Park was off limits to black citizens until 1936. Miss Fancy was long gone by then. The sole African American who had any regular interaction with Miss Fancy was her handler, John Todd. Todd slept near Miss Fancy in her domicile. He treated her bouts of constipation with a quart of whisky and something known to us only as “elephant medicine.” When he left the Avondale Zoo to serve in World War I, Miss Fancy grew deeply depressed, lost her once robust appetite, and shed about a half ton of weight. There are several newspaper accounts of Miss Fancy and they tend to be, well, fanciful. The most oft-told stories are of Miss Fancy's escapes from the zoo and of her and John Todd's rides through the streets of Avondale. There are numerous residents who reported seeing Miss Fancy trampling their flower beds or staring at them through a second story window.
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Narrator: Five Points South began as an escape from the smoke and noise of downtown Birmingham. It was such an appealing idea -- moving to wooded highlands overlooking the city. So, in 1884, the Elyton Land Company laid a streetcar line that ran south from downtown through this intersection. The line wound around the base of Red Mountain and headed east to a resort hotel and amusement park, at what's now Highland Park Golf Course. Homes soon sprang up along the new line. By 1887, there were enough dwellings in this area to incorporate into a separate town: Highland. The independent town of Highland didn't last long. In 1893, a national depression slowed the town's growth, and the city of Birmingham annexed it later that year. The neighborhood's character lived on. This character is reflected in Five Points' architectural styles. There's art deco -- like the Munger Building, where the Original Pancake House is located. To the south, there's the Italianate design of the Shepherd-Sloss Building, at 20th Street and Highland Avenue. And there's Spanish Colonial -- like Highlands United Methodist Church and the Spanish Stores to its south. The Spanish Stores were modeled after the country's first major automobile-oriented shopping center: The Plaza in Kansas City. And then there are the people. From early on, people have come to Five Points South, for the atmosphere and for shopping, dining, and entertainment. In the 1920s, novelist Walker Percy, author of The Moviegoer, watched films at the Five Points Theatre. You can still make out the facade and marquee on one of the old storefronts. Worshippers still come to Five Points. Highlands Methodist is one of several area churches. Others include South Highland Presbyterian, Southside Baptist, and St. Mary's on the Highlands. Temple Beth-El and Temple Emani-El, two of Birmingham's three Jewish congregations, are on nearby Highland Avenue. Artists have long been drawn to the district. The earliest commercial building on the circle was the Studio Arts Building, which provided an oasis for painters, musicians, and dancers. The Studio Arts Building earned Five Points its nickname: "Birmingham's Greenwich Village." Carrie Hill was one of several women artists working in the Studio Arts Building. She lived in an adjoining apartment, adorned with objects purchased during her visits to Spain and France. A landscape painter, Hill was fond of quaint European village scenes. She once attempted to paint Five Points South, but curious onlookers thwarted her plans. Carrie Hill was a curiosity, an open-air painter of landscapes working in a town built for the manufacture of iron in its most utilitarian form: iron bars. Five Points South's main Black residential area grew up a few blocks east of the circle, starting at 23rd Street. It was made up of smaller enclaves, like Scruggs' Alley, Humboldt Alley, Brown's Hill -- named for the land grantee Elijah Brown and known for its shotgun houses -- and Tin Top Alley, which got its name from its tin roofs. Some residents worked on railroads, at a craft or trade, or as unskilled laborers. Many served white families as maids, cooks, yardmen, or chauffeurs. Entrepreneur Katie Hines toured area homes to shampoo hair, sell toiletries, and peddle concoctions like her "Four Week Hair Grower." Five Points South has seen controversy and misfortune. The area gained notoriety in 1977, after a local transgender woman, a boutique owner named Miss Sid, was murdered in her shop. A fire badly damaged the Studio Arts building in 1986, and it had to be demolished. (The curved building you see here, while not quite an exact duplicate, recalls the original building in both its form and its materials.) A few years later, the Birmingham Art Association commissioned Frank Fleming to erect the Storyteller sculpture in the fountain. Some accused Fleming's storytelling ram of looking vaguely pagan. Still, Five Points South continues to thrive. The nearby residential neighborhoods are the key to Five Points South's longevity. Walk a block south from the Spanish Stores on 20th Street, and you'll find the city's first high-rise apartment: Terrace Court. The place was christened with champagne when it opened in 1907. More high rises followed. Move farther out from the circle, and you'll find homes east all along Highland Avenue, and climbing up Red Mountain to your west. And then there's the University of Alabama at Birmingham, or UAB, which ensures a steady flow of students to Five Points South. Five Points South has been called a town within a city. You can feel this small town sensibility, even today. Architectural historian Alice Bowsher sums up this spirit: Alice Bowsher: "Five Points had a strong sense of community from the days of when it was a separate town. And it also had diversity. There were people of different races and economic levels who lived near one another, from presidents of successful companies to middle class to working class. The houses reflected this development pattern that really characterized south Highlands and the city. From its earliest days, you would see a mixture of grand houses and less pretentious houses, often on adjacent streets. Most were developed in a piecemeal fashion by small developers and builders and individual investors, so there was a great deal of variety. Going back to Five Points itself and its spirit, in the 1920s, the commercial area around the Five Points circle introduced a distinctive urban character that's what really sets it apart today."