More than 10,000 years ago, roaming bands of native hunter-gatherers began establishing regular encampments along the creeks and springs that fed the verdant landscape of what would become Birmingham. In succeeding centuries, as Alabama’s major Native American tribes formed and settled throughout the state, that landscape remained neutral ground, where all came to hunt the plentiful deer, fox, wild turkey and bear that roamed the forested hills and valleys.
As Native American culture flourished, the area became a crossroads of major travel and trading trails. On the ridges and high ground, travelers encountered a fine dust that left everything it touched with a distinctive red tinge. The Creek tribe, in particular, found practical applications for the stuff, mixing it with water to decorate pottery, dye clothing and paint their bodies for ceremony and battle. Much later, white settlers used the dust in some of the same ways, referring to the rocks that produced it as “dye rock.”
The “rock” was outcroppings of hematite ore that had been bedded beneath the ground’s surface for over 400 million years. Along with limestone and coal, that ore was one of the three elements necessary to make iron. And, through a miracle of geological happenstance, the future site of Birmingham was the only place in the world where all three could be found in such proximate abundance. All that remained was for that miracle to be discovered.
The discovery came in the early 1840s, when a local farmer and an influential planter experienced similar epiphanies. Farmer Baylis Grace theorized that the soil on his property got its peculiar red color from hematite eroded from the surrounding hillsides, and had his theory confirmed when he sent some samples to a forge in a neighboring county and was returned several wrought-iron bars. Grace soon began stripping the ore from his land and having it forged for use by local blacksmiths.
Planter Frank Gilmer, passing through the area on horseback while returning from a business trip to Tennessee, noticed the fine red powder from rocks crushed beneath his horse’s hooves and carried some home in his pockets and saddlebags to have it tested and identified. Informed that it was iron ore, Gilmer became, as one eminent historian put it, “captivated” by the area’s industrial potential.
By the early 1870s, other influential men coalesced around the vision of an industrial metropolis, founded on ironmaking, rising from the central Alabama wilderness — a vision that coincided with efforts involving some of the same men to build out a full-fledged rail network that would crisscross the state and hasten its industrial development. Ultimately, after intense wrangling, double-crossing and backbiting with rival interests who wanted to control the area’s rich mineral resources but did not want new competition for Alabama’s established centers of commerce, the visionaries won. In December 1871, the City of Birmingham was founded at the planned intersection of two major rail lines.
Within two years, the population of Birmingham grew to more than 4,000, and showed such evidence of fulfilling the dreams of its founders that it earned the nickname “The Magic City.” Then, disaster struck. A cholera epidemic and the national financial panic of 1873 all but wiped the new city off the map. The population withered to 1,200. Birmingham’s future looked bleak.
But the vision persisted. The first modern, coke-fueled iron furnaces were built in 1876, and by the early 1880s, the “magic” reputation was catching on again. By the decade’s end, 28 blast furnaces were operating in the Birmingham area, iron production had increased by more than tenfold and, as one account of the time put it, the city was “attracting the attention of almost the entire civilized world.”
In 1904, eager to promote Birmingham as “The Steel and Iron City” and “The Metropolis of the South,” the Birmingham Commercial Club sponsored Alabama’s exhibit at the World’s Fair in St. Louis. For the exhibit, Italian sculptor Giuseppe Moretti was commissioned to create a likeness of the city’s official symbol: Vulcan, the Roman god of fire and the forge. At 56 feet tall, it was the world’s largest cast iron statue, a fitting symbol of Birmingham’s civic pride and ambition.
Red ore was the reason for Birmingham’s existence and the wellspring of its fortunes. The primary source of that ore was the mountain formation that overlooks the city from the south and, all told, extends for 33 miles through Birmingham and the surrounding region. Aptly enough, the formation is known as Red Mountain. Today, as it has since 1939, the Vulcan statue watches over the city from a 124-foot pedestal atop Red Mountain.
It is from Red Mountain that Redmont Distillery takes its name. The name honors Birmingham’s history, its remarkable story and the people who made it. In honoring that history, we also celebrate the latest chapter in the city’s ongoing story, its emergence as a city driven by technology, innovation and enterprise — a chapter that echoes the themes of Birmingham’s founding, updated to meet the challenges and opportunities of the 21st century.
Redmont is proud to take its place in this compelling story by offering its fine liquors. We’re proud to pay tribute to the city’s symbol by featuring an image of Vulcan on the front of each bottle we produce. We’re also proud to contribute to the future of Birmingham and other places where our products are enjoyed through the Redmont Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing ambitious but underserved children around the world with opportunities to develop their talents and find their own success in life. Our pride in Birmingham is part of Redmont’s core value of paying it forward.