Vulcan the Iron Man
On the summit of Red Mountain, overlooking downtown Birmingham, stands a 56-foot statue of Vulcan, blacksmith of the Roman gods. What is a pagan colossus doing on the buckle of the Bible Belt?
Vulcan wasn't built for idol worship, but for the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. He personified Birmingham's pride in its local iron industry, and was made from ore smelted in the nearby Sloss Furnaces. He weighed nearly 51 tons, and remains the largest cast iron statue in the world. His height was originally planned for 50 feet, but when the citizens of Birmingham learned that a pagan Buddha in Tokyo stood 52 feet tall, they made their pagan Vulcan four feet taller.
The statue was returned to Birmingham after the fair, with the expectation that Vulcan would be erected in downtown. No way, said the citizens of Birmingham. We don't mind that he's a pagan god, but he's not wearing any pants! Vulcan was dispatched to the state fairgrounds, where officials gave him a pair of painted-on blue overalls. His empty right hand -- which had held a spear point -- was filled at various times with a Vulcan-size soda pop bottle, ice cream cone, and a jar of Heinz pickles.
Vulcan's status as a civic pariah gradually faded (as did his overalls). He was shipped back to Birmingham in 1938 and erected atop a 12-story sandstone tower on Red Mountain, the same mountain from which his iron body had been mined. In 1946 his spear hand was fitted with a neon "safety torch" that turned from green to red whenever there was a traffic fatality in metro Birmingham. In 1964 lights in the shape of a Christmas tree were strung up the side of Vulcan's tower; they glowed red whenever someone in Birmingham contracted TB.
By 1999, Vulcan was himself a safety hazard. Years of moisture had cracked the god of fire, leaving him in danger of collapse. The statue was taken down and repaired; the tower was stripped of its 1970s embellishments and restored to its 1930s appearance; the surrounding ten-acre park was landscaped and given a mini-museum. Vulcan's return in 2004 was greeted with much celebration.
A trip to the top of the tower is still the highlight of a visit to Vulcan. But visitors to the museum can pose next to an exact-size replica of his immense sandal-clad foot. They can push a button and light Vulcan's safety torch (now green only), which has been retired indoors. They can marvel at the dozens of different mini-Vulcans in the gift shop, from cuddly plushies to a unique "Bobble Buns" doll.
Turning a civic symbol into a doll with wiggly buttocks suggests the most surprising twist in Vulcan's revival: the embrace of his naked pagan posterior. The tower's old observation deck hid Vulcan from view. Now the first thing that visitors see when they reach the top is Vulcan's iron butt, a symbol of cheeky Birmingham pride after 100 years of misguided modesty.