By Erica Wright
The Birmingham Times
Standing tall atop Birmingham’s Red Mountain is a statue that depicts the Roman god Vulcan, a landmark that symbolizes the city’s roots in the iron and steel industry. Few attractions in the city are as well-known or recognized as the 56-foot-tall god of fire, metalworking, and the forge that touches nearly every aspect of the city’s culture.
Today, the 115-year-old Vulcan, the largest cast-iron statue in the world, is the focal point of the Vulcan Park and Museum (VPM), which features views of Birmingham, an interactive history museum that has been open since 2004, and a 10-acre urban green space.
“Vulcan was created from the earth, and he represented not only the natural resources in this area but also a technical ability to cast quality iron products,” said VPM President and CEO Darlene Negrotto, who has held the position since 2004. “He was [Birmingham’s] ambassador to the world at the St. Louis World Fair in 1904, and he told the world that [our city was] a great place to come, to bring your family, your business, and live. He inspired people to do that, and he continues to be that same representation of who we are.”
VPM is operated by the Vulcan Park Foundation, a nonprofit with a mission to preserve and promote Vulcan as the symbol for the Birmingham region, to advance the knowledge and understanding of the city’s history and culture, and to encourage exploration of the region.
“Whether it’s visitors from another part of our country or another part of the world, or students from down the street, we help [people] understand what makes Birmingham unique,” Negrotto said. “There’s no better place to do that than Vulcan.”
Today, the museum has about 170,000 visitors a year from the Birmingham region and around the world. Tom Ray, a Birmingham native who now lives in Shelby County, recently visited VPM for the first time in years and recalled fond memories of the attraction.
“I used to come here when I was a kid. … My dad would bring me up here,” he remembered. “[There] used to be a fishpond here. We’d go up to the top, look down, and see the fish swimming around. It was a nice thing to do on a Sunday afternoon.
Ray added that a trip to Vulcan can be educational.
“There’s an exhibit in here about the [Great Depression], during which time my dad was a plumber and had to leave [the city] to get work. … I didn’t realize Birmingham was one of the hardest hit areas in the country at that time,” he said.
Brad Holliman was also at Vulcan recently with family visiting from Canada, showing them one of the city’s top attractions. He, too, recalled memories of Vulcan.
“I used to go to the fireworks show here every year. My dad remembers when Vulcan was set up at the state fairgrounds, so we grew up hearing stories of Vulcan from him. We also came here for school field trips,” said the Birmingham resident, who added that Vulcan’s history is tied to the city’s history.
“Our city is founded on the iron industry,” he said. “We now live in such a technologically advanced city that it’s easy to forget where we started. I think having things like Vulcan [helps] all of us realize that we were all rooted in this mountain.
Vulcan is much more than a statue. The attraction serves as inspiration for a broad range of programs, including The Vulcans Community Awards. Currently in its sixth year, this event highlights the achievements of local residents and is one of the most prestigious recognitions of civic engagement in the Birmingham area. During this year’s award presentation, held on November 7 at The Club in Homewood, the Vulcan Park Foundation honored 13 citizens in five categories: Lifetime Achievement, Newcomer, Hero, Game Changer, and Servant Leadership.
“When we started this five years ago, … we realized that there were a lot of awards programs around the community that were profession- or industry-specific, but nothing really looked at the community as a whole,” said Negrotto. “What better opportunity than for Vulcan, who represents our community, to be able to recognize those individuals who help us be proud of who we are and improve our community.”
Programs and Outreach
Since the reopening of the park in 2004, following an extensive renovation project, the foundation has created new experiences for visitors and the community at large.
“We host numerous events, such as our Fourth of July fireworks show. We raised money to make that possible every year because it’s such an important community event,” said Negrotto. “Every year, we celebrate Vulcan’s birthday in June, during which time 1,500 of his best friends come and celebrate with him.”
VPM also serves as a popular event venue for weddings and other private events. Many residents have memories of Vulcan that include first dates, first kisses, engagements, and family memories that will endure for generations.
“It’s something our grandparents have memories of and then our grandchildren will have those kinds of memories here, so it’s really a cool thing that he lasts for generations and will always be here,” Negrotto said.
VPM is also the site of several educational programs, including school field trips; “Birmingham History on the Road,” a theatrical presentation showcasing individuals who have made significant contributions to the city and highlighting pivotal events from Birmingham’s past; Vulcan’s Traveling Trunk series; Vulcan Face to Face; camps and club programs; and Vulcan’s educational tool kit, among many others.
“Aside from guided field trips, we have some dramatic performances, including one that interprets the museum experience through characters from our past; it really engages the kids and brings history to life. We have a good bit of grant funding that helps us get our programs into schools that may not be able to afford to come up here. … Our programs are for both younger and older students,” said Negrotto, adding that VPM’s programs teach students about Birmingham as a community.
“Vulcan is an inspirational symbol for our community,” she said. “He inspires us. He has done his best work, [and] he inspires us to do our best as members of our community.”
Vulcan Park and Museum is open every day from 10 am to 6 p.m. For more information, visit www.visitvulcan.com.