Historic Tannehill Park betting on resurgence

By Thomas Spencer — The Birmingham News
January 25, 2010

It took a real optimist to imagine it becoming one of the top tourist attractions in central Alabama, but it now draws more than 440,000 visitors a year.

As the park approaches its 40th anniversary, officials there are hoping to bounce back after a tough year.

Heavy and persistent rains in 2009 slashed attendance at events. That, plus proration from the state and the general economic downturn, have resulted in layoffs and reduced hours of operation during the winter.

But Tannehill is no longer in the middle of nowhere. Development has spread into the adjacent countryside, with subdivisions sprouting from the farm fields nearby.

Park officials are looking to bring in more people on a regular basis, hoping to broaden the park’s base of visitors and increase revenue. Now open is the first segment of a new mountain biking trail built by volunteers with Birmingham Urban Mountain Pedalers. The rocky and challenging 1.5 mile single track trail is the first segment of what will be 11 miles of trail, winding through wooded sections of the 1,500 acre park that now are inaccessible.

A restored and upgraded 2-mile walking trail isgetting its finishing touches now. The trail runs along Roupes Creek, also known as Mud Creek, and follows the path that mule-drawn rail cars once followed from ore deposits to the furnace.

Additionally, the park has just launched a new Web site, www.tannehill.org, and continues to add exhibits to its Museum of Iron and Steel. The museum, extensively remodeled in 2005, traces use of iron in civilizations from the Egyptians in 4000 B.C. to modern steel mills. The museum is open only on weekends until mid-March, when it will return to regular hours.

Those improvements build on last year’s addition of a Bob Sykes Barbecue restaurant at the park, serving lunch and dinner Thursdays through Sundays. Tannehill Stables, the private horse-riding business that leads trail rides on park property, also is making improvements.

Alabama Labor Commissioner Jim Bennett, who has served on Tannehill’s governing board since it was created in 1969, said the park always has had to find creative ways to make money. It has survived on a modest subsidy from the state, turning a $100,000 line item into a $1.8 million operation paid for by revenue from events and visitors.

"This park is largely self-sustaining, which is unusual," Bennett said. "We’re doing the best we can with limited resources."

Confederate arms

Tannehill is historically significant because it was home to the area’s earliest iron manufacturing, beginning in the 1830s. Large furnaces, now restored, were built in 1859 and were an important source of iron for Confederate arms manufacturing. But after Union troops destroyed the operation in 1865, the furnaces never returned to service, and the center of iron production shifted to Birmingham. "This was the birthplace of Alabama’s iron and steel industry," Bennett said.

The park’s calendar builds on 19th century history with Civil War reenactments, old time music festivals and Tannehill’s Trade Days.

According to Bennett, the park has amassed the largest collection of 19th century log cabins in the South. Some of those cabins are available to rent out, for a rustic family adventure.

The park also hosts RV and primitive camping and seasonal events such as the annual Labor Day Picnic and a Halloween celebration that packs the park with visitors who tour elaborately decorated campers set up for most of the month of October.

Other opportunities are on the horizon.

Alabama’s land preservation program, Forever Wild, is considering the purchase of an additional 560 acres adjacent to the park, offered for sale at a discount by Hoover City Council President Pro-tem Jack Wright. The land that could be added to the park includes stretches of Roupes Creek and a portion of Shades Creek where Cahaba lilies bloom.

David Dionne, executive director of the fledgling Red Mountain Park in Birmingham, said the new park takes inspiration from the blend of history and recreation at Tannehill.

"They have done a great job of blending the two there," Dionne said. "I think it is an amazing park."

© 2010 Alabama Live LLC.

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