WHEN I FIRST SAW Tannehill Historical State Park, about 30 miles southwest of Birmingham, Ala., I thought to myself, "This is surely one of the finest state parks I have ever seen."
So why wasn't it better known? I had been traveling southern highways for many years, but I'd never heard of Tannehill.
Hidden in deep, encircling woods, the site - Roupes Valley - held iron smelters as early as 1830, according to experts at the University of Alabama. But not until the Civil War was the area's vast iron and coal resources developed.
During the war, as one of the South's 17 hot-blast iron furnaces, Tannehill produced 10 tons of iron a day for the Confederacy's iron-clad ships, cannonballs, gun barrels, and "all the munitions of war in addition to pots, pans and skillets for use by the Confederate Army," according to James Bennett's "Old Tannehill."
In mid-war, the two huge stone furnaces were converted from water power to steam. Later, the ironworks crumbled into ruin after Union raids in 1865. The Yankees came through in a daring cavalry raid and scattered the 600 slaves who had built and fired the furnaces, as well as the technicians manning the site. The giant 16-foot power wheel lay on the ground.
Old Tannehill was burned to the ground - a "veritable industrial complex" according to Bennett, including forges, a tannery, a grist mill and various blacksmith operations - plus living accommodations for the ironworks' overseers. Slaves lived in cabins a mile from the site. Their graveyard on a barren hill, discovered by a boy scout some years ago, is a sad and lonely place.
Only one of the crude natural stones has a name: JOSH STROUP, 1862. There on that solitary red-dirt knoll, I wondered about the man and about the life he led as a war raged around him. Josh Stroup, though, never saw it happen.
Tannehill Historical State Park is exactly what its name implies - and it would be hard to find a better one. Its museum is in a big, barnlike building and contains numerous artifacts from archaeological digs. These are ongoing, and in 1991 an important new discovery - the diverting channel that guided water to power the big blower wheels (on display, battered but proud) - was uncovered. The channel, still lined with its 1860s stones, adds immeasurably to the overall concept.
Shorn of trees to provide charcoal for the insatiable furnaces, the hills around the site were barren for miles. Massive erosion took place before nature eventually restored the balance. Today, all the cabins and other buildings sit like little jewels in a setting of emerald forest as the scent of pines fills the air.
The two great stone furnaces withstood the test of time until the 1960s, when some vandal dynamited one. Even so, only the side crumpled - although later, it would take hundreds of skilled men and much money to restore.
Restoration was slow in coming. …