History of Birmingham – The Cut in Red Mountain

In this edition of History of Birmingham we're taking a look at the Cut in Red Mountain, how it was made, the historical findings that were discovered and how they were almost lost.

After World War 2, suburban growth was a national trend. People moved out of the city and into the suburbs. Red Mountain divided Birmingham from the cities to the south and city leaders saw Red mountain as a barrier for growth. In 1960, the city of Birmingham selected Harland Bartholomew to create a cut through Red Mountain.

“The Cut” in Red Mountain

Cut in Red Mountain
(Source: McWane Science Center)

In 1962, construction began on what was originally proposed as the Red Mountain Tunnel project. A cut was selected due to lower construction costs. 7 years later, at a cost of $19 million, the cut was completed and open for traffic. The project removed around 2 million cubic yards of Red Mountain. And exposed 190 million years of geologic strata dating back over 500 million years. Fossils from the Paleozoic era (542 million-251 million years ago) were exposed.

Never seen before

Cut in Red Mountain
(Source: McWane Science Center)

In the final stages of construction, a team of geologists from UAB were measuring the layers of rock and sediment. What they found had never been seen before.

“One of the geologists told me that one of the construction workers came over and said. Hey what are ya’ll doing? The geologists explained what they were doing and he said, that’s great but you better hurry up because we are getting ready to spray this cut from top to bottom with gunnite in about 3 days. And they just went crazy”

 (Dr. Prescott Atkinson)

 

One of the geologists laid down in front of the liquid concrete spray truck to prevent the cut from being completely covered. Although a portion of the northern end was sprayed.

 

 “They went out and raised a bunch of public support to try to preserve this piece of Alabama history. And eventually got the attention of the governor’s office and Governor Wallace himself issued a directive the basically instructed the company to cease spraying operation.

(Dr. Prescott Atkinson)

What exactly did geologists find?

cut in red mountain
(Source: McWane Science Center)

“Some really cool stuff I mean the big seam is the story of Birmingham. The money load for Iron Ore mining. So you can see it right there but there’s also a lot of other layers there’s actually a fault that runs through the cut that you can see. There are at least 2 ash beds from ancient volcanoes that are there. But you can find corals for example, fossil corals. Fossil invertebrates like Trilobites which are a roly-poly type animal that lived in the oceans a long time ago. You can find sharks teeth there not very common but there are some there. And other types of Mollusks and many other types of Invertebrate fossils”.

(Dr. Prescott Atkinson)

cut in red mountain
(Source: Greg Willis)

In 1971, an interpretive trail was built above the highway. The walkway terraced into the rock allowing public to see up close, the layers of rock and fossils. It included signage that explained what the different layers were how old they were. The types of different animals that were present in the ancient oceans. Also in 1971, a new city-owned Natural History Museum was opened, the Red Mountain Museum. And it was built adjacent to the cut and interpretive walkway.

cut in red mountain
(Source: McWane Science Center)

At the Red Mountain Museum they had fossils of all kinds including the Mosasaur which is this big marine lizard

(Dr. Prescott Atkinson)

In 1987, the cut was honored as a National Natural Landmark. Science groups from all over the country came to study Birmingham’s natural treasure. In the late 80’s, the walkway was closed to the public due to safety concerns. Today the walkway is overgrown with Kudzu and other types of plant growth. A few years ago, the Alabama Paleontological Society approached the city and state about cleaning and re-opening the walkway to research groups and science classes. The talks between all parties stalled over the issue of continued maintenance of the road cut and liability.

cut in red mountain

“Now that the city has a new administration, we are psychologically gearing up to make another attempt to get some support from the city to utilize this cut for educational purposes and to renovate it. This geologic exposure here is absolutely unique. It exposes such a big slice of the ancient world. And it’s not exposed to this extent anywhere else”.

(Dr. Prescott Atkinson)

The McWane Science Center

cut in red mountain

In 1994, the Red Mountain Museum moved downtown, after it partnered with Discovery Place to form Discovery 2000 Inc. Which later became the McWane Science Center. Today, many of the exhibits in the original Red Mountain Museum, can be seen at the McWane Science Center.

Historical information about “The Cut” provided by TREK Birmingham, a Birmingham-Southern project.

This post Sponsored by Adamson Ford.

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