A one-of-a-kind world-class asset could change the face of Birmingham

Bryson Stephens
Bryson Stephens

Today’s guest columnist is Bryson Stephens.

(Illustrations below show what is possible for our Red Mountain Cut)

On a chilly winter day in 2015, my 11-year-old daughter and I climbed the eastern wall of the Cut in Red Mountain.

A few months prior, a businessperson had told me that the Cut “looked like crap.” The last time I had physically been there was on an elementary school field trip in the early ‘80s, so I wanted to see it for myself. And it seemed like a good father-daughter excursion.

Red Mountain Cut 9
Vision of Red Mountain Cut (Photo courtesy of Red Mountain Cut Foundation)

As we clambered over vegetation, navigating around piles of trash and vandalism, I became full of disbelief — what I remembered to be a place of wonder and exploration had diminished into an inaccessible, valueless space. I couldn’t help but think that we possess an unparalleled, world-class asset that has the potential to change the face of Birmingham. Yet, instead of maximizing its potential, we are allowing it to languish.

Red Mountain Cut
Vision of Red Mountain Cut (Photo courtesy of Red Mountain Cut Foundation)

When the Expressway sliced through the mountain, the project unearthed around two million cubic yards of Red Mountain ridge, which exposed geologic strata dating back over 500 million years. The interpretive walkway, opened in 1978 as part of the Red Mountain Museum, was one of only three such walkways in the entire US.  In 1987, the importance of this unveiled history earned the Cut recognition as a National Natural Landmark, an area that the National Park Service deems a significant example of the nation’s natural heritage.

Vision of Red Mountain Cut (Photo courtesy of Red Mountain Cut Foundation)
Vision of Red Mountain Cut (Photo courtesy of Red Mountain Cut Foundation)

On any given day almost 100,000 cars pass through the Cut, more than any other roadway through Red Mountain except for I-65. A connection and a gateway between downtown and suburbs, this central space, this hub in the middle of Birmingham, is seen by tourists, site selection teams, residents, visitors and investors every day.

It’s a short drive or walk from Mt. Brook Village, the Botanical Gardens, the Birmingham Zoo, English Village, Rosedale, downtown Homewood, Vulcan Park, 5-Points South, Highland Avenue, Southtown and UAB.

Vision of Red Mountain Cut (Photo courtesy of Red Mountain Cut Foundation)
Vision of Red Mountain Cut (Photo courtesy of Red Mountain Cut Foundation)

The Red Mountain Cut has the potential to be a captivating tourist attraction, providing a showcase unmatched anywhere, telling stories of our planet’s history as well as our great city’s industrial founding. This place, vastly different from a book or screen, has the potential to connect Jones and Shades valleys, to educate people and to enhance our important outdoor recreational infrastructure to people’s mental and physical benefit.

Vision of Red Mountain Cut (Photo courtesy of Red Mountain Cut Foundation)
Vision of Red Mountain Cut (Photo courtesy of Red Mountain Cut Foundation)

Let’s build an ADA-accessible pedestrian trail through the Cut, connecting the excellent and ever-growing Red Rock Trail systems being developed on both sides of Red Mountain. The rewards from walking, biking, running, pushing a stroller or just getting outside all positively impact our physical, mental and environmental health.

Vision of Red Mountain Cut (Photo courtesy of Red Mountain Cut Foundation)
Vision of Red Mountain Cut (Photo courtesy of Red Mountain Cut Foundation)

Let’s bring back the incredible educational experience many of us enjoyed on school field trips. Imagine embarking on a journey through time with self-guided exhibits telling the stories of Earth, Alabama and Birmingham. White flight, experienced by most cities in our nation, was accelerated by the 1970 opening of the Cut, and an investment presents an opportunity to tell the story of race relations and inequity of opportunity on a local and national level. We could use technology to connect people with videos and downloadable lesson plans to educate future generations about our city’s rich and complex history.

Vision of Red Mountain Cut (Photo courtesy of Red Mountain Cut Foundation)
Vision of Red Mountain Cut (Photo courtesy of Red Mountain Cut Foundation)

Let’s manage what we build through a non-profit entity with the governance system to oversee it for the long term. Many of Birmingham’s most popular community assets, such as Vulcan Park, Railroad Park and the Birmingham Zoo, are supported by 501(c)(3) ‘s, providing fundraising and management services.

The revitalization of the Red Mountain Cut is not merely an investment in tourism or a historical endeavor; it’s an investment in our identity and the well-being of our community. It’s a declaration that we value our unique heritage, environment, and ability to unite. This is a chance for Birmingham to come together, put its collective strengths to good use, build on our momentum and invest in a project that can have a lasting positive impact.

Vision of Red Mountain Cut (Photo courtesy of Red Mountain Cut Foundation)
Vision of Red Mountain Cut (Photo courtesy of Red Mountain Cut Foundation)

A thoughtful person said to me, “Any city can have an aquarium. Only Birmingham can have the Cut.”  My daughter, now a college sophomore, remembers the challenge of our hike that day, and supports making this unique and beautiful place accessible to future generations. The Red Mountain Cut is an opportunity to connect two sides of our mountain in a new way, a geological wonder hidden in plain sight, just waiting to be rediscovered and revitalized.

This is an idea, a possibility. It would be hard, but if we want to meaningfully improve our community, it will take tackling hard projects. The Cut is ours. This is possible. It is our choice.

Bryson Stephens is Executive Chairman of EBSCO Industries. He recently founded the non-profit Red Mountain Cut Foundation to explore opportunities to improve educational and pedestrian access to the Cut and surrounding neighborhoods. In May 2022 the Foundation financed the pre-World Games clean-up of 25 years of accumulated vegetation and trash in the Cut. The Foundation is currently working on improvements in pedestrian access and safety on 21st Ave South (Diaper Row).

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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27 thoughts on “A one-of-a-kind world-class asset could change the face of Birmingham”

  1. This is absolutely brilliant! When I took “rocks” in college, the professor was ecstatic to learn that I was from BHM. He preached the unique educational value of the cut.
    I recognize that the cost of such a project will be exceedingly high. But, if we could get our natural resources companies in BHM to take the lead, we could indeed have an exhibition wonder unrivaled in the USA.

  2. It’s about time someone mentioned the idea of renovating this walkway.

    When I was a child, this was a thriving walkway and was right up the street from my school. It is shameful how it has been allows to fall into disrepair.

    In spite of being a young city, Birmingham showcases.500 million years of history here (although many people in other parts of this state dispute that timeframe because of Genesis literalism).

  3. This will require further study. The actual design could and should go beyond what is shown here, and traffic impact studied, to make it even more effective in its purpose, promoting our favorite city by enhancing its value to all.

    My view is simple. This must happen! It can and you are capable with the right help to make it happen. I do sense your determination.

    I am completely delighted. Some who read this might know what I am talking about and be able to figure out why. I hope so. Bryson, keep going and be on the lookout for my offer! If you don’t see it soon, use my email address here and ask me. I am ready to respond. I believe you will find what I have to tell you fairly remarkable. Red Mountain is meaning so much more for Birmingham and its future than the iron ore once mined and is still visable.

  4. A great idea! Since Elton B. “Steve” Stephens oversaw one the first companies to flee Birmingham for Shelby County, it is only appropriate that his children help to recover the Red Mountain cut. Beau Geste!

    1. That is the truth and wonderful compensation.

      I would not mind at all if EBSCO would help save at least one of the old office buildings downtown. Elton has been helping for a long time, so can Bryson and his backers! Done properly it would not be a bad investment at all.
      I have recently been looking into condominium occupancy and sales. All signs are great for purchases, and gains are quite remarkable right now. Advantage should be taken. Signs are that the downtown market is quite good with the help of current ownership, better policing, and the creation of Railroad park along with the expansion and increasing level of excellence and reputation of UAB.
      So much looks good for Birmingham right now, and now is time to act. No more dilly dallying or being lazy and frightened as in the past.
      Forget pessimism and take up optimism! Be positive not negative, just realistic and properly careful.

  5. I think it’s a wonderful idea. I have (I think illegally) walked the Cut trail a couple of times. I noticed the last time I did that there was a sign from a homeless person “this is where I live. Please do not leave trash here.” That would be one of the challenges the developers would have to deal with.

    One thing I wished when I walked the trail is that it would extend all the way to the street immediately south of it. Would that be possible?

      1. To make this work, as with other traffic related investigations it must be thoroughly studied regarding automobile traffic. If that is massive, then it is quite tricky to work out. That should be huge, so that is why I bring this into the discussion. It must not be allowed to be a show stopper however, and won’t be if it is included from the beginning. It just has to be part of the rational calculation. How do people stop, where, and this in order to get feet on the trail aat either end? This also must take into consideration such things as security, emergencies, and safety. Without thinking of such thing early. it can only be considered a wild dream, and that would be so unfortunate to leave it as that. I think this simply must be done.
        A local comparative place should be considered, and that would be the Barber Motor Museum which has an advantage of being at the edge of rural territory. But the numbers, events occasions and traffic management etc. should at least give some ideas of how to solve this. The site study should begin with a distance away from the attraction from the points from which that traffic would originate, what I would call the greater context. Then narrow the studies down to the level that should define the actual boundaries of the land to be included in the site itself. It is a big job but nothing to stop the idea from developing and the construction happening.
        Budget and completion by phases can be studied and help also.
        What can happen here is another link it the history of Iron and in the City of Birmingham. Consider how this becomes another link in the chain bookended by Red Mountain Park, and Mt. Ruffner. Montreal, you will be envious extremely!
        Bryson’s family saw the bigger picture. The limit does not lie with the Stephens family. It is high time for all the dreamers to get on board and roar away!
        Sometime I should review what happened with Willow Alaska, and how far Not to go and why. That explains the necessity of being practical. Also Tellico, Tennessee, a big one that after getting over a huge bump happened in spite of serious challenges. I was directly involved with both. Keep this going and stay inspired! Please don’t just read and go away. Do something—now!

        1. I went over and looked at 21st Street this morning. I can see there would be a problem. There is a small house there. It would appear to be necessary to remove that in order to give access through the street. I can also imagine some NIMBYism. It’s a quiet neighborhood, and I imagine some people will say it threatens its character. But I agree this is something that would be worth the investment. I just think the trail, even in its current rough condition, is a neat thing people would want to walk on. I actually wonder why they closed it. Is it for geological reasons (fear of falling rock)? Above it on Henrietta Street there is a place where you used to be able to go through a fence and look down on the steep dropoff. Of course it was wise for the city to close that off. It was extremely dangerous.

          1. I know this is far off in left field, but isn’t there a good amount of parking at Vulcan? How about a tram/chairlift from Vulcan to access the cut?

          2. I absolutely love the inspired vision that Bryson Stephens has brought forward. It is also very intelligent of him to share it on David Sher’s blog Comeback Town> I have more than enough reason to like it.

            The additional thoughts are excellent as well. If you NIMBY, be careful, for other reasons you might find your front yard missing!

            Back on track: Yes there is parking at Vulcan, much as I have seen, unused. I think the idea of a gondola from Vulcan to Red Mountain Expressway Cut is an excellent idea. The question about parking has to do with creating greater tourist and local visitor loads. It could be quite a lit of increased parking needs. The interesting about this problem might be how easily it could be solved. It really might not required any more land on ground area at all. It will require proper topographic surveying,
            both above ground and below, Yes I did write ‘below!’ Remember that Red Mountain has been fairly thoroughly mined. Land under ground does not belong to the land owners as it was property of the iron and steel companies so they could have ready access to the minerals below. How interesting might that adding to the attraction, driving in and parkin in the mines themselves. Right now, it can only be an idea. But I think it really worth investigation.

            What else can we think of and add to the positive thoughts that can help move this forward?

            BTW. I have just yesterday landed in British Columbia, Vancouver. It was huge when I first saw it in 1971. It has gotten much larger and tighter, too expensive for people to live in the main city, with housing prices, not over the roof but over the moon. Check it yourselves. This thought and question quickly came to mine, along the lines of my usual thinking: bigger is not better. Only better is better and size of population is not that. What city can you think of where a good size population, has become better as it has become better. I can not think of one anywhere. I will leave that to you for you to think about.

            But what is proposed here for the Red Mountain Cut. in my mind does not yet create that kind of a problem. I think this is an asset for the citizens who view Birmingham as the basis of their own identity, It would be something to enjoy and be proud of having close at hand. ‘lovable’ and ‘livable,’

          3. I love the idea of below ground. Years ago I lived in Pennsylvania and somewhere we ate in a restaurant underground. I don’t remember if it was a mine or cave. But it was very sought after due to its ambiance! And excellent cuisine.
            I hope The Cut continues to roll.

          4. Pittsburg, from being a boy until later when then Prince of Wales, Charles attended an Urban Design program hosted by Carnegie-Mellon University, I personally witnessed its exemplary changes, from smoke filled furnaces downtown, through the several phases of its ‘Renaissances’ and trough the ultimate elimination of the iron furnaces. (Earlier I travelled with my father as he was southern district attorney for US Steel.) It is still appropriate to think of Birmingham as Pittsburg of the South, certainly if we continue to take out own steps through Birmingham’s changes and improvements. One thing Birmingham has over Pittsburg, is that the downtown Furnaces here still stand physically represented by Sloss Furnace, having adapted to new uses itself, museum and performance center. Birmingham, do not underrate yourself!

        2. Wed., 10/25/23

          Roy Knight,

          Good to see an aggressive/smart architect get down to basics…Maybe you guys can pull it off.

          Hope Springs Eternal…(Well, some idiot said that; don’t blame me !)

          Luck to all of you.

          ~ Ballard from Huntsville

  6. Its been 10+ years since I last hiked the “Cut” trail and it was in poor condition then as well. It reminded me of a time I took my kids to Chattanooga and we rode the Incline Railway. I remember when I was a child the Incline Railway was both fascinating and adventurous. As an adult I noticed how the railway cut through the backyards of a rather blight filled neighborhood with abandon houses, graffiti, and vandalism.

    Like the steel industry, maybe the time for the “Cut” has passed us by. Maybe all that is left is the nostalgia of elementary school field trips.

    1. I think we should do it. I’ve only been in Birmingham about 19 years, but I remember thinking the first time I walked that trail, “I wonder why they closed this off. It’s a neat thing people would want to see.” However, I would not favor the gondola idea. That would be super expensive, and not enough people would ride the gondola to justify the cost.

      1. Cost-benefit and revenue justification should be studied and included in the broader. Cost might be covered is ways other than tick sales? Something to think about for sure.

        Just don’t throw the idea out without full consideration.

        There is much to be learned, and here is an example and another thought. If I had ever known, I only learned yesterday that there was another Sloss furnace yesterday, that has come up due to a proposed extension of Finley Avenue that has required an extensive archaeological study.

        I do know that SW of the remaining Sloss Furnace, another stood, Alice Furnace. It was location at the junction of the south bound to Montgomery and southwest bound, New Orleans railroads.

        Yet another to study, one of US Steel’s Iron ore mines went into the Shades Valley side of Red Mountain, near the Ross Creek Resort and neighborhood, close to state highway 150

        Birmingham’s industrial history is very rich, and proposed cut project is right in the middle, well positioned to represent that history in a significant museum and archive.
        Clear understanding of its past can contribute so much to its future. The point being that it is a city that is capable of accomplishing many great things. It has had people who have had a strong vision and strong determination to take action and get such things done, and well done!

      2. Hi Ted I think the gondola/chair lift would be another unique attraction and bring more tourists to Vulcan and possibly the Birmingham zoo. How many cities have a gondola/sky ride? I’m not an engineer, I agree it might be expensive but it’s really unique. The NIMBY folks might like tourist from all over coming thru their backyards, conversing with them(giving directions, places to eat and visit).

        1. Go for a good and significant as possible and do what work financially. There options for this transport connection and all should be studied.

    2. John Black,

      NO ! Wishful thinking and “nostalgia” will NOT save Birmingham !

      You guys MUST ACT ! Act on you dreams, or they will turn to dust.

      Stevens and Knight have good ideas. And they must ACT on them.


      ~ Ballard from Huntsville

  7. What really went missing were the number of well designed, well built mansions on top. Those represent the success of Birmingham’s start. However, there are quite a few more that still exist.

    I also was there on a wonderful Mount Brook School class field trip and we road that exciting incline railway. Do note that the rise is much higher and longer than Red Mountain, but still worthy of further thought.

    Also Note this. Chattanooga if full of wonderful attractions, included new ones like the aquarium and more. But it has benefitted from more income while being still smaller in population than. Birmingham. Greeneville SC is similar having iy Railroad Park equivalent, on Reedy river falls and reusing old mills. (when does the old Birmingham Electric power plant become something new. It has been a while! )

    1. Do you mean the plant next to Railroad Park? That old steam plant? I’ve noticed they’ve worked on it some recently, but it seems to be going very slowly. Part of it is supposed to be a movie theater with multiple auditoriums.

  8. Wed., 10/25/23

    Bryson Stephens,

    I must say I was touched by your upbeat article. What with all those Huntsville meanies always picking on your city…(not me…noooo)…

    You know I always enjoyed driving down into your “white flight”, well groomed suburbs, (Homewood & Mountianview)…Had a few clients there some time ago.

    I truly hope you do keep up the good, progressive ideas and help improve Birmingham’s image…a very bad image, pretty well ensconced within the rest of the country (some would say deservedly so, but me ?…Nahhhh…).

    May I advise you in your quest for community mental health not to mention terms like …uh…”unique heritage” and “ability to unite”…trash those terms…IMMEDIATELY !…and always avoid “shoulda”, “woulda”, “coulda”…and forget any idea about tourism….and yes, I see you did indeed do some deftly slippery-sliding around that (pardon my grammar)…Good thinking …

    And by all means, carefully avoid all those meanies from Huntsville, with their sly & clever comments about Birmingham.

    Huntsville is still in Alabama, only a hunerd miles from your city, and when I made the mistake in flaky Cailifornia that I was frum Alabama…well, let’s not even go there.

    I do wish you all the luck.

    You’ll need it.

    ~ Ballard from Huntsville

  9. When my daughter was 4 years old ( she is 39 now) we went there once a week. She loved it and so did I. There was a big rock in front of the museum that she liked to climb. Walking the side of the mountain and looking down on traffic was also an interesting experience.
    I’m sorry to hear that it isn’t like it used to be.

  10. This is a fantastic idea. For one thing, it would make getting from the Highland Area to 21st Avenue so very much easier. One thing I was wondering is can the different colors that used to be fairly vibrant be brought back to life?

    I walked that same path ass you did back in the “Bad Ole Days” when I was a kid myself. I think this is a great upgrade from that. I do think that it would be a must that it be open to bicycles. Of course, there will be skateboarders as well as regular skaters.

    Back when the cut was done and expressway built, the people that lived along 21st Avenue South aka Diaper Row were excited because it gave them a better way into the city that was much easier to navigate than 20th Street, which can be a difficult road to drive, especially in rain, and in a pouring rainstorm, 20th Street was a no go. I’m sure it’s still the case today.

    I have looked all over the Internet but cant locate any photos of what the route over the mountain was like before the cut was made. I was only 6 when it was finished. I do however vaguely remember going over the mountain to Mt Brook, but that road did hot go to Homewood.

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