Background Music: "Stars Fell on Alabama" performed by Billie Holiday.
Composed in 1934 by Frank Perkins with lyrics by Mitchell Parish.

The title refers to a spectacular occurrence of the Leonid meteor shower that was observed in Alabama on November 12-13, 1833.
In 2002, the phrase "Stars Fell on Alabama" was added to Alabama's license plates.

Birmingham, the first of our three stops in Alabama. This is the largest city in the state, but it doesn’t have a large city feel. There are plenty of things to do, all within a short distance of each other, and the attractions are unique.

We didn’t get a chance to do everything on our “to do” list here, but really enjoyed what we had a chance to see, and learned some interesting things about Birmingham. The main appeal for anyone coming to Birmingham in the 1800’s might have been the large iron-ore deposits, and subsequent mining and iron working jobs. During the Civil War, the Confederates built the first blast furnaces, and relied on Birmingham for much of the iron used for weapons and other necessities. Not surprisingly, this area was seen as a threat by the Union side, and the blast furnaces were destroyed. After the war, many were rebuilt, and Birmingham became one of the major iron and steel producing centers in the United States. The iron and steel industries have declined over time, but there are still many landmarks honoring their iron making past.

The first landmark that we visited was Vulcan Park. This park is home to the world’s largest cast iron sculpture, Vulcan. Built in 1904, Vulcan stands atop a tower on Red Mountain, a symbol of Birmingham’s birth in the iron and steel industries. There’s an observation deck on the tower that overlooks the city, and a visitor center where you can learn all about Birmingham’s past, from its part in the Confederacy, difficult times during the depression, and the critical role it played in the Civil Rights Movement.

The next landmark was Tannehill Ironworks Historic State Park. The park contains a campground and numerous picnic areas that were bustling with dozens of families enjoying the sunny day. The museum and Ironworks buildings themselves were much less crowded, and we took our time going through them, learning about how iron and steel are made, and touring the large blast furnace building, where hundreds of slaves had labored to create molten hot iron that could be worked into tools and ammunition for the Confederate soldiers. In 1865, Tannehill was attacked by Union soldiers, and thankfully, all of the work ceased.

After a day of education on some heavy topics, we decided to start our second day with something a little lighter, and so visited the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. Not much was in bloom, but we enjoyed the spring flowers and walked around until the sky started to get dark. As the clouds rolled in we made our way across the city to the next landmark on our list, Sloss Furnaces National Historic Park.

Sloss Furnaces is a 32-acre, 20th century blast furnace plant where iron was made for nearly 100 years. It’s vastly different from Tannehill, with its neat brickwork, quaint furnaces and picnic tables for the families. Sloss is a large, dark maze of oily machinery, huge criss-crossing pipes, sharp metal stairways and heavy iron pour-pots towering overhead. And it was easily one of the creepiest places either of us has ever been.

We arrived to find the gates open, but nobody home. The monument office was closed, and so we proceeded to take the self-guided tour. It was like a city out of a Mad Max movie- ominous- one of those types of places you can imagine a street gang calling home. We didn’t see any other people, though, (in fact we didn’t see another living soul our whole time there), but I couldn’t shake the eerie feeling that someone was watching us. Maybe it was an idea put into my head by the visitor guide: “Sloss even has a ghost- Theopholus Calvin Jowers- who swore that as long as there was a furnace in Jefferson County, he’d be there”, but I didn’t think this was the kind of place someone should be walking into on purpose, and alone. Travis, though, isn’t easily put off by threats of ghosts, or even the idea that a deranged transient could be lurking in some dark dirty corner, just waiting for an overly-curious tourist to cross his path. That would explain the half-dozen cars in the parking lot and no riders to be seen, after all. But no, he brushes off these ideas as “silly”, and so I am forced to sulkily follow along down even the darkest corridors or be left standing alone in this place, which is not an option.

We go just a little further in, a little further in, just around this corner, just up ahead there might be something really interesting that we don’t want to miss. This is how we make our way into the main building. The place is crammed full of oily black pipes, old dusty turbines and rusty catwalks, the only light filtering in through filthy panes, in high up windows. I keep looking around me as we move- so many places for someone to hide if they wanted to, and you’d never see them until the last second. Travis spies a ladder up to the catwalks. I know that we’ll be going up before he even suggests it- this is an adventure after all- no guts no glory. We climb up the rusty ladder. When we get to the top Travis says, “This looks dangerous, we’re probably not supposed to be up here.” That doesn’t help me. He sees another ladder that goes further up to an even more suspect looking catwalk. I elect to stay where I’m at. He goes up and I hold the ladder, as if I could stop him from falling if the thing decided to give way. He walks out of sight and I look around. I realize that there aren’t as many shadows up here as there were on the floor- but almost. And, wouldn’t someone living in this old building stay up on one of these catwalks, say maybe just on the other side of that machine standing next to me? I think about climbing down, look down into the darkness below me and decide I’m better off where I’m at.

Travis finally comes back and we climb down. We continue our tour, and luckily it leads us back outside. We walk to the other side of the Ironworks where the blast furnace is. Below the blast furnace is a tunnel where at one time ore carts would have been filled and hauled to the top. Now the entrance to the tunnel looks unused. Blackberry vines hang over the entrance and we hear water dripping inside. Travis starts down the stairs. “Wait a minute, wait a minute”, I protest, “Are you crazy?” I’ve gone this far, walked through some dark places, climbed onto some old scary scaffolding, but go down there? No. That’s not happening. He gives me his, “No guts, no glory” grin and continues down. I wait at the top of the stairs. A few minutes later he walks back out of the shadows and points at another staircase, going even deeper down, through a doorway I can’t even see. Now I’m in disbelief. Surely, he’s seen movies? I’ve seen enough movies and read enough books to know this is prime real estate for the scary stuff to happen. I watch him go, shaking my head, pleading with him to “be careful, for God sake!” I imagine myself telling the news people, “and then he pointed down at that stairwell, and that’s the last time…” No, no- I won’t even think that. I’m sure he’ll be right back. I wait and I wait, imagining I see him coming up the stairs, and then, no, just a shadow. I look around me and I’m not very comfortable up here, but the thought of going down there is much worse. Still, if he doesn’t come back- I have to go down there, don’t I? Finally, I take a deep breath and start down the first flight. My first obstacle to overcome is a room on my right, made out of brick. I walk by it cautiously; peeking in quickly to make sure nothing is about to jump out. I see nothing through the open metal door but a dirt floor and a lone metal chair. “Who sits there?” I wonder. I get to the first landing and look to my left, where the upper tunnel begins. I can see the water now, coming in a steady stream from some long forgotten pipe. The water flows along the floor and drips into the tunnel below this one. I look down into the lower stairwell. There’s a small door at the bottom of the staircase. The stairs are lit, but beyond the door, the light is dim. A board above the door reads, “watch your head”, in graffiti letters. I have a thought, “I wonder if anyone has really lost their head down there”, and push that thought out quickly. I whisper down the stairs, “Trav?” No answer. I clear my throat and call louder. “Trav? Hello?” Still no response. “Okay, then”, I say to myself and start down the next flight. I go down slowly, looking for movement in the dim light on the other side of the door. When I get to the bottom, I stand at the entrance for a couple of seconds before slowly sticking my head through. “Watch your head”, I think to myself, my neck exposed under that sign. This makes me rush the rest of the way through the door. On my right side is a long tunnel, blocked mostly by a large piece of machinery. Behind that is complete blackness. A good place for someone, or something, to hide.

I look the other way, and with great relief, I see Travis walking towards me. He’s a few yards away and doesn’t see me at first. He does a double take at something in a dark alcove, steers away, stops, watches it warily, and then continues walking. When he finally does see me, it startles him so much that he jumps and lets out a yell. He turns slightly away and then back, as if he can’t decide whether to run or charge, and then realizes it’s me. “I came to save you”, I say. “Thanks- but you scared the crap out of me instead,” he says. “Do you believe me now this place is creepy?” I ask. “Yep, let’s get out of here”.

But, we had one more task to complete at the Sloss Furnaces.  You know how people are sometimes drawn to terrible things: train wrecks, horror movies,  Dancing With the Stars?  It's a natural human tendency to want to be scared sometimes.  We think this is the reason that we decided to take our Alabama picture in one of the spookiest spots at the plant.  We went back to the truck, got our sign and camera stand and proceeded to the very heart of the plant.  There in a narrow courtyard enclosed by an old brick building and tall steel cooling towers, is a small little pond- not meant to be there, but accumulated over time by dripping water and passing storms.  The water is black, and there is definitely something moving around in there.  We stood in front of the pond and posed for our picture.  "Click"- the first one was okay, "click", the second better- why not try for one more? Third time is the charm, after all.  We stand, waiting for the familiar "click" of the camera.  But instead of "click", we hear a louder, closer sound. "URP!" The sound comes from directly behind us- the "something" in the pond.  In the split seconds after this- "Click", goes the camera.  "Splash", goes the pond behind us.  "Clack" goes the camera stand as we grab it, running by at full speed, and out of the park we go.

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