Overcoming a regrettable Birmingham blunder

Rotary Trail Sign (Rotary)
Rotary Trail Sign (Photo courtesy Rotary Club of Birmingham)

By David Sher

I recently wrote a column about my all-time favorite Birmingham restaurant, Joy Young.

Reminiscing is fun so I began my search for my next topic.

Then I drove past the Rotary Trail sign in downtown Birmingham and the idea hit me.

The Rotary Trail and sign should be celebrated, but the sign is a reminder of one of the biggest disappointments in Birmingham history.

The demolition of our downtown Terminal Train Station.

Terminal Station Sign: Terminal Station in the 1930s with the famous Magic City sign. The sign faced the station to welcome people arriving in Birmingham. By the 1950s, the sign had deteriorated and become a hazard, so the City Commission contracted with a scrap metal dealer to take it down and haul it away. O. V. Hunt, photographer. (Courtesy Birmingham Public Library Archives)
Terminal Station Sign: Terminal Station in the 1930s with the famous Magic City sign. The sign faced the station to welcome people arriving in Birmingham. By the 1950s, the sign had deteriorated and become a hazard, so the City Commission contracted with a scrap metal dealer to take it down and haul it away. O. V. Hunt, photographer. (Courtesy Birmingham Public Library Archives)

The Rotary trail sign is a replica and tribute to a giant electric sign erected in 1926 outside the Terminal Station at the west end of the 5th Avenue North underpass.

Originally reading ‘Welcome to Birmingham, the Magic City‘, it was later shortened to just ‘Birmingham, the Magic City.’

In March of 2016, a new sign was erected by the Rotary Club of Birmingham at the entrance of the Rotary Trail that reads ‘Rotary Trail in the Magic City.’

When I think about the demolition of the Terminal Station, it makes me want to cry.

When I was a child in the ‘50’s, any time we had visitors from out of state, my family drove to the Terminal Station to pick them up.

What a building! What an experience!

(Main Waiting Room looking south in an undated photo. (Don Phillips photo)
(Main Waiting Room looking south in an undated photo. (Don Phillips photo)

To me as a kid, the Terminal Station was a place of awe. It was a massive building—and a madhouse of activity as trains came and left the station. Outside of the station were ten tracks, designed to accommodate 44 daily passenger trains.

According to Bhamwiki, The Terminal Station opened in 1909. “It was built in a Byzantine style and featured a domed central waiting room with a skylight, two 130-foot towers at the north and south wings, and many amenities.”

It was demolished in 1969.

It was such a grand structure that Gizmodo compiled a list of the “Nine most beautiful buildings we ever tore down.” Our Terminal Station was listed second behind the Singer Building in New York—the tallest building in the world for a time.

Birmingham missed a once in a lifetime opportunity to save one of the most grand structures in America. Many other cities redeveloped their train stations into magnificent facilities such as Grand Central Station in New York, Washington Union Station, and St. Louis Union Station.

I’m sure many of you have visited the Chattanooga Choo-Choo in Chattanooga. The original Chattanooga Terminal Station was nothing special and certainly a lot smaller than our Terminal Station. And there never was a train called the Chattanooga Choo-Choo. Yet investors converted it into a hotel and developed the rail yard into event space and condominiums.

How Birmingham can overcome the loss of the Terminal Station

We can wring our hands all we want, but we are not going to bring back the Terminal Station.

Before the demolition, there were efforts to develop the Terminal Station for other purposes, but the redevelopment plans failed. The site ultimately became part of the right-of-way for the Red Mountain Expressway, connecting U.S. Highway 31 and U.S. Highway 280 with I-59/20.

Ironically the cut in the Red Mountain Expressway created Birmingham’s next opportunity.

Red Mountain Cut (Photo McWane Center)
Red Mountain Cut (Photo McWane Center)

According to trekBirmingham, the Red Mountain cut has “likely more geologic history than any other road cut in the U.S.”

When the Red Mountain Expressway sliced through Red Mountain, the project removed around two million cubic yards of Red Mountain ridge, which exposed over 190 million years of geologic strata dating back over 500 million years.

“The cut was recognized in 1987 as a National Natural Landmark, an area that’s a significant example of the nation’s natural heritage.”

I drive down the Elton B. Stephens Expressway through the cut regularly, and quite frankly, I usually take it for granted.

It’s time we take notice of this incredible marvel and turn it into a regional attraction.

There have been discussions since the Red Mountain Expressway was built to take advantage of this valuable landmark. But to date, nothing much has happened.

If done right, however, the cut could easily become a major tourist attraction and identifier for our Birmingham region.

We may have lost our one of a kind Terminal Station—and that is a shame—but we have an amazing opportunity with a one-of-a-kind priceless treasure.

David Sher is the founder and publisher of ComebackTown.  He’s past Chairman of the Birmingham Regional Chamber of Commerce (BBA), Operation New Birmingham (REV Birmingham), and the City Action Partnership (CAP).

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Invite David to speak for free to your group about how we can have a more prosperous metro Birmingham. dsher@amsher.com.

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24 thoughts on “Overcoming a regrettable Birmingham blunder”

  1. David, There used to be a Red Mountain museum that had a fenced sidewalk on the side of the mountain looking down on the expressway. I used to take my daughter there and she loved it. I did too.

    1. Yes, I went there several times on school field trips. You can still see the walkway we used to go see the trilobite and other marine fossils that are present in the cut. The museum had a massive moasaurus skeleton reconstruction of a fossil dug up in south Alabama. I think the City sold the museum to St Rose Academy and relocated the fissil collection to McWayne Center.

  2. Thanks for the article as a reminder of the importance of preserving Birmingham’s unique heritage.

    The loss of Terminal Station is indeed regrettable, but it has served as clarion call for historic preservation. Other Birmingham landmarks such as the Alabama and Lyric theatres, Sloss Furnace and even Vulcan have been preserved, in large part by those who vowed to save other historic structures from a similar fate.

    Incidentally, I notice you’ve used a photo of the station’s waiting room taken from my book, *Great Temple of Travel,” a pictorial history of Terminal Station. For those interested the book is available on Amazon. I am also available to give a talk on the station’s history if any of your readers are interested.

    Thanks again for your tribute to Birmingham’s most iconic lost landmark. Let’s all work to keep the best of Birmingham for future generations to enjoy!

  3. David, if I may be permitted a postscript. I also invite your readers to visit our Facebook group @Birmingham Terminal Station and join more than 1,800 members sharing their stories and memories of the station and it’s wonderful trains. Thanks!

  4. The loss of the Red Mountain Museum venue was regrettable but typical of poor Birmingham management. The Red Mountain Museum was moved to Ruffner Mountain Park…sort of. The Red Mountain “cut” was a geological wonder and I took my kids there in the early ’80s. Its loss was about par for Birmingham’s collapse in the ’80s and ’90s. It should have been a major tourist venue for the so-called World Games. The local TV news seems to be obsessed with security for Birmingham during the games…wonder why? Could it be our notorious street crime and shootings?

      1. Oh, I HAVE hope, Tom. I just want evidence of change. I’ve had hope since I moved here in 1978. Here’s some positivity: Mayor Randall Woodfin is the best thing to happen to Birmingham in 30 years. Our restaurant scene is one of the best in the southeast. We now have a grocery store in our once food-desert downtown. Young people with money are establishing residential living in the city. Howzat?

    1. Just think how bad things would be, if Liberals were able to convince Birmingham officials to sign on the “Defund The Police” lunacy.

  5. I so enjoyed your trip back in time in your Joy Young story. I love Birmingham & wish people might come together & put down the guns. Maybe that’s why I so miss those days, when a murder was NOT common. Our Mayor is trying but i fear we are over the cliff & just trying to hold on to what we can grab. Hate being negative, so I’ll throw in my childhood spots…Carnaggio’s in Midfield, Andy’s on the Green & The Social Grill.

  6. In my view, David’s idea of a geological showcase on the top of the cut on Red Mountain is exciting. I would add that another exciting attraction for tourists could be aerial transportation (suspended cable cars) from the valley floor in Downtown Birmingham 2,000 feet up the mountain to David’s proposed geological showcase. The view would be spectacular! I have experienced this visiting in Portland, Oregon. They use cable cars to access the mountain-top Oregon Health Center. Why can’t we? “Whatever you vividly imagine..ardently desire..enthusiastically act upon…will inevitably come to pass”.

    1. Love your idea. I grew up on Red Mountain on 18th Avenue South and hiked through the words to Vulcan.

      1. Any kin to Charlie. We called him the whistler He lived on the corner of 15th street and 16th ave. The Culls live on 18th. I lived on 15th next to the Bragans. Great neighborhood That was MY BACKYARD too. 🥰

  7. A few years ago I found an old postcard in the BPL, written by my great-grandmother in 1910, to her niece in Anniston. I have no idea how it got from Anniston to BPL! It was quite newsy with regard to family history, and now I realize that she was also sharing ‘news’ about the then-new Terminal Station. For me, it is all a wonderful story!

  8. In 1979, while working at the Birmingham Museum of Art, I worked with two third-year Cumberland Law School students in taking the City of Birmingham to federal court to prevent the demolition of the Molton Hotel. The developer had a contract with the City. The hotel was certainly not an architectural or historical treasure like the Terminal Station. But still a notable feature downtown that today would probably house pricey studios and 1BR apartments. Alas, the judge showed us the door. We didn’t actually have standing to bring suit, and my compatriots hadn’t even passed the bar. The demolition proceeded forthwith. LOL

  9. Nice article! To my knowledge, the train station was impossible to reuse due to her extremely segregated design. What was a spectacular experience for some, must have been a painful one for others.

    1. I realize that the structure was built when Birmingham
      was totally segregated but I’ve never heard of a property that could not be repurposed for that reason. It was demolished in the name of “progress.”

  10. I believe the responsibility for the Red Mountain Cut and upkeep was transferred to the McWane Center along with the land that was later sold to St. Rose. It is unfortunate that the McWane center has not maintained the cut trail or the tours.

  11. Since the RED MOUNTAIN CUT is a National Natural monument why can’t we get out Congressional delegates to bring in some federal funds. Come on Ms. Sewell

  12. I always enjoy reading about the Terminal, although with regret at its loss. This is debatable as in not naming “he-whose-name-shall-not-be–spoken,” but I think those responsibly for the tragic loss of the Terminal should be named, so that they forever can be held accountable. I expect there was money to be made by a few in its demolition, & the scalawags should be tarred & feathered in the public forum. Credit where credit is due!

  13. Please send this current article to my 98 year old Mom. She remembers all of this. See below.

  14. They just tore down the Castle apartment building. Clearly Birmingham is run by idiots and has been for many, many years. Plenty of crime there, though, so there’s that.

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