Miners tell of life on Red Mountain before it was a park

Before it was a park, it was their office Retired miners remember toiling in Red Mountain
THOMAS SPENCER News staff writer
Publication Date: December 20, 2009  
Aside from the occasional screech of a red-tailed hawk or the distant moan of a freight train, the forests and kudzu fields of Red Mountain Park are a quiet oasis now.
But decades ago, the mountain was a bustle of activity - crisscrossed by ore trains and punctured with mines that catacombed the mountain and stretched out under the floor of the Oxmoor Valley.
''It was quite an operation when it was going,'' said 81-year-old Amos Horton, who worked the mines from 1947 until they closed in 1962.
As the Red Mountain Park and Greenway Commission labors to create a 1,200-acre recreational park on the slopes and ridges west of Interstate 65, it's also trying to recover the stories of people like Horton who made a life in mining camps and descended to the depths of the mines to extract the ore that fed Birmingham's steel industry.
Working with historians, photographers and filmmakers at UAB's digital community studies program, park staffers are interviewing miners and collecting the history of life on the mountain from the 1800s until the last mines closed. They've worked down a list of retired miners identified by word of mouth and now are looking for more people to help tell the story.
People like Isaac Maston, 85, who grew up in U.S. Steel ore mining camps where his father worked. Maston lived in company housing - a four-room house with no running water that was within view of the mine entrance.
He attended a companysupported school and, as soon as he was working age, his father took him to see the foreman about a job. His still remembers that first paycheck, in 1943.
''The first payday I got was $72 and I didn't know what to do with it.''
Maston worked the slope of the mines, keeping the rail tracks straight and level to make sure the carts of ore kept moving smoothly from beneath the earth.
The shafts were spacious, lighted and had high ceilings. The air was well-ventilated and temperatures underground were comfortable and fairly constant through the seasons, he said.

Hard work, good life
Despite living in what might seem to a modern child like deprived circumstance, Maston remembers the camps fondly - living in a house heated with coalfire stoves and gardens in the yards, gathering blackberries, muscadines and persimmons on the mountain, and at Christmas getting big stockings provided by the company and stuffed with oranges, apples, candy and nuts.
''We growed up pretty good,'' said Maston, of Grasselli Heights. With the steady work, Maston was able to send his four girls to college.
Horton left a Mississippi farm for work in the mines as an underground mechanic. ''I enjoyed working down there, myself. I've always enjoyed work, and anything beats pulling a crosscut saw, plowing a mule or picking cotton by hand,'' he said.
Horton lived off the mountain, in neighborhoods in Birmingham and Bessemer, and eventually moved to a 40-acre farm near Woodstock, where he lives today.
After the mines shut down, both Horton and Maston found other work with U.S. Steel in the Fairfield and Ensley mills.
Horton looks forward to taking his children to the park.
''It might bring to light what the ore mines have done for the Birminghamarea community,'' he said.
''That is one of the things that helped build Birmingham.''
Along with the lakes and hiking, biking and running trails planned for the mountain, the story of the mine and miners is expected to be part of the park's attractions. While the park doesn't plan to have a visitors center built for another three years, a mobile version of the oral history project will be available sooner for teachers who want to use it in schools.

A bond underground
Eric McFerrin, the park's ranger, has enjoyed meeting the men who dug the mines and worked the industrial ruins he's helped clear of wild undergrowth.
Aside from the technical and practical knowledge he's gained, McFerrin said he's been fascinated with the society of the miners, whose lives revolved around work and activities of the company towns that dotted the mountain. In that life, there were elements of the familiar story of racial separation, segregation and inequality that are part of the Birmingham story.
However, there also was a strong understory of cooperation and trust, appreciation for hard and steady work the men shared. The mining union was integrated and the races often worked side-by-side. In interviews with black and white miners, a sense of respect pervades.
''When they were underground, they all got along and watched out for each other,'' McFerrin said.
Something about the work or the workplace created camaraderie, Horton said. ''You have a bond with one another when you are working underground.''
For more information on the oral history project, including excepts of interviews with miners, go to www.redmountainpark.org. Or call Katie Sullivan at 254-0129. tspencer@bhamnews.com

RED MOUNTAIN PARK PREVIEW HIKE When: Today, 2 p.m. Where: Meet at the cul-desac of Frankfurt Drive, which is the third right turn off Lakeshore Parkway, 1.4 miles past its intersection with West Oxmoor Road as you head west toward Bessemer. What: There will be a choice of hikes - a moderate, 3.5-mile round trip and an easier hike of about 2 miles. More info: www.friendsofredmountainpark.org.