He was born of the earth in the foothills of the Appalachians, hardened in the fiery furnaces of industry. As a boy, he journeyed far from home, following the spotlight toward international fame. But to become a man, he came back home. He found himself, and his legacy, atop the very soil from whence he came. He is Vulcan, god of the forge, symbol of Birmingham’s former might in the steel industry.
The year was 1904. Renowned Italian sculptor Giuseppe Moretti, who had made a name for himself doing commissioned public works in Pittsburgh, moved to the “Pittsburgh of the South” to tackle what would become his most famous project. With the St. Louis World’s Fair rapidly approaching, Moretti accepted the daunting challenge of creating the largest statue ever cast in America – a 56-foot image of Vulcan, the Roman god of the forge – as the exhibit for Alabama’s “Magic City,” Birmingham.
Models and casts were made in an abandoned church in New Jersey, then shipped to Birmingham. There, Birmingham Steel and Iron cast the 21 individual pieces of the statue. Once the individual pieces were shipped to St. Louis, Vulcan was assembled in the Palace of Mines and Metallurgy. By all accounts, Vulcan was the hit of the Expo, garnering the Grand Prize.
After the Expo, Vulcan came back home to Birmingham and found a temporary home at the Alabama State Fairgrounds – for thirty years. According to the official site for Vulcan Park and Museum:
“Mr. Moretti was not there to help, and Vulcan wasn’t put together correctly. He couldn’t hold his hammer because his left hand was turned the wrong way. His left arm had to be supported by a timber. His right hand was put on backwards, so he could not hold his spear. Merchants began to use him for advertising, and over the years he held various objects, such as a giant ice cream cone, a pickle sign, and a Coke bottle. Later he wore a giant pair of Liberty overalls. In the 1930s he was repainted in flesh tones.”
In 1939, with the help of the Works Progress Administration, Vulcan found a permanent home atop Red Mountain, overlooking the city. The WPA built a museum, park and a 124-foot pedestal, built of stone quarried from what is now the Birmingham Botanical Gardens. In the 40s, Vulcan’s spear was replaced with a lighted beacon. Perhaps the most morbid civic works display in the history of the world, the spear was normally green, but if it glowed red, that meant there had been a fatal auto accident in the metro area. Then in the 70s, well-meaning (but ultimately idiotic) civic leaders decided to “modernize” Vulcan for the city’s centennial. The beautiful sandstone pedestal was hidden behind garish marble, and a UFO-shaped, enclosed observation deck was built, preventing visitors from actually seeing the statue.
In 1999, the statue was dismantled for repair. Some questioned whether he would ever return. However, in 2003, despite protests about the private-public funds raised for his restoration (and some ultra-religious outcry that the statue was a “craven image” that should be destroyed,) Vulcan returned to an accurately restored park and pedestal – just in time for his own centennial.
Born in Southern mountains, rising to early glories, subjected to humiliations galore, but ultimately rising again to stand sentinel over the hills and valleys of his birth, he may be built in the image of a Roman god, but Vulcan is the ultimate Real Southern Man.
iPhone photos by RSM Wayne Franklin.