Tag Archives: U.S. Steel – Fairfield

Birmingham’s Evocative Past

Coe’s “Down Town Birmingham” (c. 1935)

My father was born in the Employees Hospital in Fairfield in 1931. The hospital – which was later renamed Lloyd Noland Hospital in honor of its founding physician – was a company hospital of Tennessee Coal and Iron, a subsidiary of U.S. Steel. Dad grew up in Ensley, within sight of U.S. Steel’s mammoth Ensley Works, where my grandfather worked.

 

Lloyd Noland Hospital went through changes in ownership, was closed in 2004, and razed in 2009.

 

The mining districts and steel mills around Birmingham, and the communities that sprang up around them, hold an ongoing fascination for me. My mother’s family moved from Cullman County to Birmingham in the 1940s and her father transitioned from farmer to steel worker at a steel fabrication factory. Mother’s parents lived in west Birmingham throughout their decades in the city. The house I most attach to them was in Fairfield Highlands. The Fairfield Works of U.S. Steel was visible down in the valley from their back yard. I remember my grandmother taking a damp rag to wipe the factory soot off her clothesline when she hung clothes on the line to dry.

 

My ongoing interest in the industrial history of the Birmingham district was greatly satisfied by a new exhibit hanging in the Birmingham Museum of Art this spring (www.artsbma.org). “Magic City Realism: Richard Coe’s Birmingham” is a collection of over sixty pieces – mostly etchings and a few paintings – by Alabama native Richard Coe. The pieces were made during Coe’s residency in Birmingham during the Depression in the mid-1930s.

 

Sometimes, it feels like the only history of Birmingham that gets any attention began in 1963 but the place has a rich and fascinating 90+ year history prior to that watershed year of the Civil Rights Movement. Coe’s Depression-era works capture a moment of that history and make me feel closer to my own family’s Birmingham. His etchings capture urban images of downtown and hospitals and churches; industrial scenes of factories – in action sometimes, idle other times; and domestic scenes of neighborhoods and humble houses – often in the shadow of the factories. One of the paintings features a neighborhood “No Nox” gas station. 


The 1930s images of the downtown city center feature many of the same buildings that made up the core of the downtown when I was a young child in Birmingham in the ‘50s and 60s, before newer buildings in the ‘70s and ‘80s moved the city center a few blocks north and transformed the skyline.

 

Part of my mother’s family’s lore is evoked by a Coe etching of St. Vincent’s hospital on the city’s southside. My mother and her mother before her would recount how my great-grandmother, Dura Graves McCarn, was in St. Vincent’s when she was dying at a young age. When it became clear that nothing more could be done, my great-grandfather, John Houston McCarn, ordered her brought home. Aunt Bertha sent her car and driver to pick Dura up and transport her back to Cullman to be at home with her family in her final days.  

 

Coe’s “Saint Vincent’s Hospital” (c. 1935)

Four decades later, when I was quite young, my grandmother Harbison was hospitalized at St. Vincent’s; it was still in the same imposing old brick building pictured in a 1930s Coe etching. Nuns still walked the grounds in full traditional habit, just as they do in the foreground of Coe’s depiction. The St. Vincent’s of the 21st Century is very different – another megalith serving the city’s southside medical complex.

 

Coe’s Stilt Walkers (c. 1935)

Coe’s domestic images often feature humble houses and outbuildings, rickety fences, the inevitable clothesline. Most often, the people featured in these environments are African American – women talking off a front porch; children playing with a “Pet Possum” or walking on makeshift stilts; a birdhouse perched atop a roof. 

 


But it’s the industrial scenes that I find most pleasing and beautiful in the series. Sloss Furnaces alongside First Avenue North is pictured at its peak, before it was abandoned in 1971 and became today’s National Historic Landmark and industrial museum (www.slossfurnaces.com).  

Coe’s “Sloss Furnaces” (c. 1935)

Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark, 2018

Steel mills, steam plants, streetcar barns, railroad tracks, even the desolate landscape of a slag pile evoke a Birmingham of the past that I still find incredibly vibrant and rich in industrial-era history. As I drive through Birmingham now I still seek out the remains of that industrial past which wasn’t so long ago, really, but seems incredibly distant and almost quaint.


These are the memories that are inspired by Richard Coe’s art at the Birmingham Museum. And any sighting of a clothesline always brings a flood of memories to mind. 

Eula Harbison at Clothesline; Fairfield Highlands (c. 1960)

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Ensley

DSCN0435 Each person’s Ensley narrative varies but the through-line boils down to this: Ensley is a proud and tight-knit community on the west side of Birmingham that once was a bustling steel-making industrial center with omnipresent smokestacks, industrial barns and sheds, shift whistles, train traffic, and massive blast furnaces. Because it was a 24-hour town full of shift-workers, many Ensley businesses in the early to mid-20th century were 24/7 operations.

The jazz standard “Tuxedo Junction” is about a club at an Ensley streetcar crossing. Erskine Hawkins, a Birmingham native, is the composer of that tune. My favorite rendition is Glenn Miller and his Orchestra’s chart-topping 1940 big band arrangement.

When U.S. Steel shut down its Ensley works in the early-1970s, the area’s population and businesses began to disperse.

DSCN0399Today, ghosts of Ensley abound; much of the community is semi-abandoned and desolate. Birmingham media have a tendency to report anything that occurs in western Birmingham as happening in “Ensley” and you have the additional burden of a bad rep and the not always accurate impression of an abundance of crime.

Crime is definitely a problem these days in Ensley but the community seems to get more blame than it deserves. Recently, when I was visiting my mother in her over-the-mountain Birmingham neighborhood, a local television news report was covering a recent shooting in “Ensley.” When the address of the crime was given Mother looked at me and said “That’s a Central Park address – why are they calling it Ensley?” For some reason any bad news from the west side of the city automatically gets attributed to Ensley.

DSCN0430Katherine Webb’s 2014 article “Who Is Ensley?” in Weld (www.weldbham.com/blog/2014/01/29/who-is-ensley) provides a good overview of efforts to resurrect present-day Ensley from the challenges it has encountered since the steel mills were shut down. The article provides plenty of first-person evidence of the pride that still hangs strong in the community.

My father was raised on Avenue D and Mother moved around the corner from him to 25th Street as a teenager. Ensley was the starting point for Grover and Jean Journey’s 63-year marriage. Dad and Mother left Ensley for good in the early 1950s but Dad never ceased to be a proud “Ensley boy.” DSCN0429

Mother still talks about shopping in Ensley as a young woman and I remember visiting Ensley department stores such as Cotton’s and Goldstein & Cohen with Mother and Grandmother when I was a little boy. Dad’s first job was at the poultry shop that Fred Trucks owned over on Avenue E. Marino’s grocery store, which operated then, still operates on Avenue E across from what used to be Ensley Lanes bowling alley.

One could get a meat and three at Ensley Grill or “all you can eat” catfish at Catfish King’s Avenue E location in the building that was once the Franklin Theatre. In Catfish King, tables were set along each side of a center aisle on raised sections that once held rows of theatre seats and the stage was still there (the grand drape too, as I recall).  These places were still around when I hit my teens.

Dad’s childhood home, in drastically altered form, is still standing and inhabited on Avenue D but the house that Mother’s family lived in around the corner is gone. A house that was once owned by Mother’s grandfather, Houston McCarn – who lived in Cullman but invested in Birmingham real estate when the city was still young, still stands on the corner down the street from Dad’s house. It has been long abandoned.  DSCN0407

It is these ghosts of the past and the hope for community renewal that still draw me to Ensley. But my main draw these days is an ongoing fascination with the beauty and decay of the former Ensley industrial sites that were abandoned when the steel mills shut down. The railroad tracks are still active through the site and the viaduct over the tracks where 20th Street-Ensley becomes Birmingport Road heading out to the river is a good spot to linger and observe the buildings and remaining stacks that are being rapidly reclaimed by nature.

On a clear day, peering down from the middle of the Ensley viaduct toward Fairfield, you can see to U.S. Steel’s Fairfield plant where the remaining blast furnace was idled in 2015. Fairfield and Ensley steelmaking operations have gone from tens of thousands of workers at their peak to a few hundred at the pipe mill in Fairfield today.

On a hot June morning, the mimosas are prolific at the Ensley plant. Rusty railings and sagging metal buildings with broken windows sit along abandoned roads that used to teem with trucks and industrial vehicles. The few remaining stacks stand tall amid the ruin and rubble. A train creeps through the site, taking loads to more remote locations that are not yet abandoned. DSCN0420

In the modern post-industrial era, things come and go more quickly than in earlier epochs but, to me at least, these 20th century industrial remains have a pride and dignity equal to that of ancient ruins of early civilizations. The craggy, mineral-laden ground that now nourishes the mimosas, poke weed, kudzu, and wild vegetation of the Ensley ruins is the same ground that nourished my family in a recent past that seems impossibly far away.

I will always go back to check on Ensley. DSCN0404