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Ingalls Iron Company Left Big Footprint On Birmingham Industry

—by: Jim Bennett


ust to the west of downtown Birmingham near UAB sits the site of one of the city’s major World War II industries, the Ingalls Ironworks. Now lonely and still, memories of busy times still hoover over the old plant site between Interstate 65 and 6th Street.

Ingalls Iron was once one of the largest steel fabricators in the country.

Established in 1910 when Ohio businessman Robert I. Ingalls purchased the Richards Iron Works in Shelby County and built an iron and steel finishing plant in Titusville near Alice Furnaces and the Birmingham Rolling Mills, the plant became world famous. It fabricated structural members for building and bridge construction from raw steel as well as ornamental iron castings for fire escapes, railings, stairs and urns.

In 1924 Ingalls acquired the Birmingham Tank Company and the company took the position of the largest single-unit steel fabricator in the South. In 1936, Ingalls built a new shipyard in Decatur which was capable of building all types of small vessels. In 1938 Ingalls developed a ship-building operation in Pascagoula, Mississippi. The business grew into one of the largest shipbuilding companies in the country, producing high tech destroyers and nuclear submarines into the 1970s. Ingalls operated other manufacturing facilities at Chickasaw and Mobile.

All together, Ingalls built over 2,000 vessels. Ingalls’ first ship, SS Exchequer, was also the world’s first all welded steel hull ship.

Robert Ingalls died in 1951 and was succeeded after a lengthy legal battle by his son, Bob Jr. The year of his death the combined Ingalls Industries grossed more than $200 million. The Robert I. Ingalls, Sr. Hall on the campus of Samford University is named in his honor. It was built in 1957, and it is home to the McWhorter School of Pharmacy.

The shipyard business was sold to Litton Industries in 1961, which continues to operate Ingalls Shipbuilding as a wholly-owned division based in Pascagoula. The company’s other sites, including the Birmingham location, were sold to Trinity Industries in 1981. The ship building operation celebrated its 75th anniversary in 2013. The company and its more than 12,000 employees pioneered the development and production of technologically advanced, highly capable warships for the surface Navy fleet, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Marine Corps, and foreign and commercial customers.

Robert I. Ingalls

Robert I. Ingalls
(family portrait).

Ingalls Shipbuilding is the largest private employer in Mississippi. In 2001 the operation was purchased by Northrop Grumman.

While the steel fabrication operations in Birmingham were huge, they were outgrown by the shipbuilding activities on the coast. The Birmingham complex was eventually torn down after years of vandalism and neglect.

Two office buildings, one built in the early 1900s and one built in the 1950s remained vacant after Ingalls closed down. The 27-acre site was purchased in 2005 by the Jefferson County Economic and Industrial Development Authority on behalf of Jefferson County and the city of Birmingham.

On April 9, 2007 both buildings were damaged in an intentionally-set fire. The Development Authority proceeded to clean up the site, but was unable to interest developers. The Authority voted in November 2008 to pursue plans to sell its interest in the property to the City of Birmingham.

As result of multiple years of industrial operations, the site became a brownfield project funded by a grant from the Environmental Protection Agency.

While industrial recruiters are marketing the location for new industry, it yet remains empty. Then Mayor Larry Langford in 2006 proposed it be used as a site to replace the southtown housing community. The site was also once mentioned as location of a proposed UAB football stadium.

The developer’s grand daughter, Barbara Ingalls Shook died in 2008 at age of 69. As head of the Barbara Ingalls Shook Foundation, she had become one of the city’s leading philanthropists. The foundation was the successor to the Ingalls Foundation founded in 1943.

Mrs. Shook supported the Alabama Symphony Orchestra; Birmingham Museum of Art; the Big Oak Ranch; Jimmie Hale Mission; local churches and religious organizations; and hospitals including St. Vincent’s, Baptist Montclair and the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She also served on the National Cancer Advisory Board after being appointed by President Reagan.


Flying Amulance

Birmingham could claim the country’s first "flying ambulance" when a prominent local funeral home began emergency medical transport in 1945 (Birmingham News).

Birmingham’s "Flying Ambulance"

—by: Judy Haise


laimed to be America’s first "flying ambulance" for civilians, emergency medical plane service was begun in Birmingham in 1945 by Rufus M. Lackey, president of Birmingham’s Brown Service Funeral Homes Company.

Its aircraft was special too.

Brown Service’s all-metal Beechcraft, twin-engine, eight-passenger plane was identical to the C-45 used by the U.S. Air Force to transport the wounded from the battlefields in World War II. It was purportedly the first civilian C-45 to be turned out by the Beechcraft factory since the war ended.

The new aerial ambulance could carry two patients, a physician and a nurse from Birmingham and anywhere in Alabama and surrounding states cheaper than a motor ambulance and many times faster.

It had "all of the latest safety devices to enable it to fly in all kinds of weather. It has two 450 horsepower Pratt and Whitney motors, its gasoline tanks held 256 gallons, it has a non-stop flying range of 1,100 miles, cruises at 220 miles per hour," said Lackey.

Bruce Wilson, a WWII Air Force captain, was the first pilot of the "flying ambulance," purchased through Southern Airways Sales Company of Birmingham.

Ridout’s Brown Service Inc. purchased Johns Funeral Home in December of 1950. Lackey, as president of the merged Ridout’s-Brown Funeral Homes, announced the discontinuation of its “flying ambulance” service in 1952.

Although Birmingham claimed to have the first American “flying ambulance,” Los Angeles claimed to have the first FAA-certified air ambulance service in the US in 1947.

Earlier claims note that HRH Prince Carl purchased a land and hydroplane Brequet 14 T bis. He rebuilt it in France as a flying ambulance. It was donated to the Red Cross and based in Boden, Sweden.

One of the first hospital-based air medical services began in 1972 at the St. Anthony Hospital in Denver.

Many aero emergency ambulance planes and helicopter services have evolved over the years including some Birmingham. And there are more to come. In January of 2014, Israel purportedly began testing a “flying ambulance” drone.

Sources: Birmingham News Archives, others., Google.

Sizzler Ad 1976

Birmingham News, 1976.


Recent History Center Acquisitions


Arrowheads of Alabama

The History Center’s good friend and former board member, Dr. Dennis Pappas, recently donated a large collection of native arrowheads dating from the Late Archaic (4,000–2,000 BC) to the Woodland (2,000 BC–800 AD) and Mississippian (800 AD–Present) epochs of Native American culture.

In addition to making this donation, Dr. Pappas also carefully mounted and labeled the arrowheads by date, shape and type of side knotch. While many donations to the Center come with little or no documentation and require research, this collection is ready for exhibit. Thank you Dr. Pappas.

new office at 1807 3rd Avenue N0. from the collection

Bring any items of historical interest to our new office at 1807 3rd Avenue N0.

collection of Birmingham related sheet music

Over the past ten years, the Jefferson County Historical Association has helped the History Center collect hundreds of artifacts, including its fabulous collection of Birmingham related sheet music (now on display at the Center’s 3rd Avenue North office).


Nancy Batson, 1944, as a Pursuit School pilot

Nancy Batson, 1944, as a Pursuit School pilot.

Nancy Batson Crews 1920-2001
Alabama’s Pioneer Lady of the WAFS

—by: Edward W. Stevenson, M.D., FACS


t has become popular in recent years to equate women’s contributions during World War II to the term, "Rosie the Riveter", which is certainly justified by their valuable contributions to the industrial miracle which occurred.

Women, however, also sacrificed themselves by officially joining the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and Coast Guard as non-combatants; and registered nurses often worked more closely to the combat zones. None of the armed forces, however, utilized women as pilots at the beginning of the war.

Before World War I, there were outstanding civilian female pilots, such as Katherine Stinson; and before World War II, there was Amelia Earhart, Jacqueline Cochran and others. The first female pilots which were used by the Army Air Corps, however, were the WAFS, acronym for "Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron".

The first 28 of that group included a beautiful 22-yearold flight instructor pilot from Birmingham, Nancy Batson. She had been employed as the first female flight instructor at the prestigious Embry-Riddle Aeronautical Institute in Miami before applying to the WAFS. The WAFS were organized in 1942 to ferry training airplanes from factories to the Army and Navy flight training schools. Later, as factories re-tooled from training-type planes to combat types, likewise ferry pilots were required for the most modern fighter planes.

In 1944, Nancy Batson and 11 others were the first women graduates of "pursuit school". Nancy then began flying the best fighter planes, such as P-47 Thunderbolt, P-51 Mustang and P-38 Lightning’s. Her total score was 25 different types of military planes.

Nancy Batson had grown up in Birmingham, the daughter of a successful business man, Stephen Radford Batson and his wife, Ruth Phillips Batson. She had three siblings, the youngest, Amy, is the mother of Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange.

Nancy Batson

Nancy Batson, WAFS,
World War II.

Her interest in aviation started early in life; and her parents were supportive of her interests. Nancy finished Norwood Elementary School, and then graduated from Ramsay High School in 1937. She entered The University of Alabama where, she loved to say, that she majored in "Southern Belle 101". While there, she was introduced to aviation when she was accepted as one of four female students in the first group of students enrolled in the first class of the federal Civil Pilot Training Program at the university.

She soloed on March 20. 1940; and received her pilot license June 15, 1940. In the autumn of 1940, returning to school for her senior year, she persuaded her supportive father to buy for her a Piper J-3 Cub. She flew the Cub enough that by March of 1942, she had earned her flight instructor rating and was the only Alabama woman to hold that rating. That happened only three months after Pearl Harbor.

She then tried to join the Ferry Command of the U.S. Army Air Forces, but was denied due to gender. She did obtain a job as a control tower operator, but considered it to be very dull work. It was then that she applied to Embry-Riddle, and was hired as their first female flight instructor at their civilian commercial flight school. It was with that background that she was accepted in WAFS, as one the originals in that group of ferry pilots in that pioneering organization.

All American female military pilots since then can trace their opportunity and careers to "The Originals". The WAFS were not officially members of the Army, but were technically civil service, under the control of the Army Ferry Command. All were advanced-rated civilian pilots when selected.

Just as the public thinks of "Rosie the Riveter" as a term to describe all women who worked in the war effort, likewise women military pilots during World War II are usually referred to as "WASPS". The reason for this designation is the organization of "Women Airforce Service Pilots", which was formed in August of 1943, over a year after the WAFS had been doing the job. This was a military, rather than civil service organization, lead by famed female racing pilot Jacqueline Cochran (a former Alabama resident).

A military airbase, Avenger Field in Sweetwater, Texas was set up for primary and subsequent training for the WASPS. The Air Force then consolidated the WAFS into the WASPS as a single group. As the war progressed, male pilots began rotating back from overseas. They began to be utilized for ferrying planes, which began to diminish the need for the women.

On December 20, 1944, the WASPs were deactivated and released to return home. WASPs were denied Veterans Benefits until a special measure was passed by Congress in 2008. Then, in 2009, as an organization and individually, they were awarded the Congressional Gold Medal. Both congressional actions were well-deserved and much overdue.

Nancy married Paul Crews in 1946 in Birmingham. Her very active life after that is another story for another day. They lived in Birmingham, then Washington, D.C. and California; and finally, as a widow, back in Moody where she was living when she died in 2001. She and Paul Sr. are buried in Elmwood Cemetery.

She was inducted into the Alabama Aviation Hall of Fame in 1989, and the Alabama Women’s Hall of Fame in 2000.


  1. Rickman, Sarah Byrn. “Nancy Batson Crews, Alabama’s First Lady of Flight”, The Univ. of Alabama Press, 2009.
  2. Rickman, Sarah Byrn. “The Originals: The Women’s Auxiliary Ferrying Squadron of WWII”. Disc-Us Press, 2001.
  3. Wikipedia.
  4. Google.


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