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Vulcan Volunteers

—by: Jennifer Black


s preserving Birmingham’s history important to you? Have you ever considered volunteering? If so, a spot at Vulcan Park and Museum may be right for you! Vulcan Park and Museum would not exist without a vibrant and active volunteer base. At VPM, volunteers greet guests, guide student tours, research important topics, and help with office work among other important duties. As the museum grows and offers more programming, so does the need for volunteers. We currently have the greatest need for ambassadors and museum docents.

Ambassadors are sometimes the first people with whom guests interact when visiting Vulcan Park and Museum. Typically stationed at Vulcan Tower, these volunteers welcome tourists and locals alike, share their knowledge of the region, and answer basic questions about the park. This role is perfect for someone with just a few hours to spare each week, and is an easygoing, low stress position. Even on cold or rainy days, feel free to bring a book and settle down in front of the heater as you wait for visitors to arrive. When asked what their favorite thing is about volunteering at the park, one tower ambassador said, "Just seeing folks having a good time!" Spending time at VPM can be truly inspirational! We currently have several weekly spots open for the lunch hour.

Do you enjoy sharing memories of the past? Vulcan Park and Museum is Birmingham’s only comprehensive history museum, and it is important to share that history with others. Docents interpret the museum for school groups of all ages, from kindergarten to high school and sometimes adults. Docents lead groups around the park and through the museum, teaching about the iron industry, the growth of the city, and history of Vulcan, in addition to important national topics like the Great Depression, World War II, and the Civil Rights Movement. Specialized training is provided, and no teaching experience is necessary. All you need is a love of Birmingham and a willingness to share your passion with others. The schedule is flexible, with all tours happening during the week, primarily before noon.

Finally, we have an ongoing need for basic office assistance and special events help at our annual Birthday Bash, Vulcan After Tunes and other fun events throughout the year. Office workers assist with filing and research. Special events volunteers greet guests, help with admission, and assist staff with setup and breakdown of events. Regardless of what you’re looking for or how busy your schedule may be, we have a position that can work for you. One volunteer was asked about what they would say to others considering volunteering at VPM: "I would tell them to do it!! I have learned so much about Birmingham history. I’ve met amazing people, the staff is awesome, and the view…you can’t beat it!!"

All volunteers get exclusive benefits, like invitations to volunteer only parties and outings, a discount in our gift shop, The Anvil, and lots of behind the scenes access. For more information, please see our website or contact Casey Gamble at cgamble@visitvulcan.com or 205-203-4825. We would love to chat with you and look forward to strengthening our relationship with the Jefferson County Historical Association.

Barb Kelley

Kathryn DeCola

Kathryn DeCola is the tower ambassador (in the hat) and
Barb Kelley is the docent speaking.


Woodward Iron Company in 1936

From A Panoramic Picture of Woodward Iron Company Pamphlet

“America’s largest entirely independent and completely integrated company, engaged in the production of merchant pig iron.”


n 1936, in the depths of the Great Depression, Woodward Iron Company put out a profusely illustrated pamphlet as both a business incentive and to reassure its customers that Woodward Iron Company was currently in good financial shape and would be in the future with immense mineral reserves and the industrial means to exploit them.

The pamphlet proudly stated the company was the only strictly independent merchant iron producer in the country that mines its own coal, iron ore and limestone on its own properties and hauls all its products on its own railroads to its own furnaces. Comprising 78,000 acres of the largest ore and coal reserves to be found in any area of comparable size, these reserves were vast enough to operate the Woodward plants at peak capacity for well over a century.

Cover of the Woodward Iron Company Pamphlet.

Cover of the Woodward Iron Company Pamphlet.

The company confined its operations exclusively to the manufacture of merchant pig iron and refrained from producing competitive products such as steel pipes, steel sheets and other steel products that competed with gray iron castings.

The gray iron castings were used in: water, soil and sanitary pipe; bath tubs and enamelware; stoves; agricultural implements; cotton mill plants; sugar mill machinery; Diesel engines; compressors; piston rings and automobile parts.

In 1936, the plants consisted of three modern blast furnaces and a by-products plant. The blast furnaces had a capacity of 500,000 tons of pig iron per year. The coke by-products plant consisted of 220 Koppers and Willpute coke ovens with an annual capacity of 800,000 tons of furnace and domestic coke. The ovens recovered tar, ammonium sulfate, light oils, benzol and xylol (all valuable products). Before then Woodward had almost 800 beehive coke ovens producing coke for the furnaces.

The coal washing operations and loading terminals of Woodward’s Dolomite and Mulga coal mines were connected to the mines by the Woodward Railroad. The Pratt Coal Seam mines had an annual capacity of mining of 1,200,000 tons with practically inexhaustible reserves.

The red ore mines on the north slope of the southwestern part of Red Mountain had a screening plants which were located at the iron mine tipples. The plants separated and screened the ore into three different sizes and which were then charged into the furnaces in stratified layers which resulted in a better grade of pig iron.

Woodward Iron Locomotive photo. Photo Courtesy of Woodward Plant.

Woodward Iron Locomotive photo. Photo Courtesy of Woodward Plant.

The short line industrial Woodward Railroad operated 13.5 miles of mainline railroad with 41.5 miles of side and yard tracks for a total of 55 miles of trackage. The company owned 352 railroad cars for both the handling of raw and finished product. They were pulled by ten locomotives ranging in size from a large former Santa Fe Baldwin with ten driving wheels weighing 216 tons to small switching engines. The railroad had physical connections with all the common carriers in the Birmingham District.

The short line industrial Woodward Railroad operated 13.5 miles of mainline railroad with 41.5 miles of side and yard tracks for a total of 55 miles of trackage. The company owned 352 railroad cars for both the handling of raw and finished product. They were pulled by ten locomotives ranging in size from a large former Santa Fe Baldwin with ten driving wheels weighing 216 tons to small switching engines. The railroad had physical connections with all the common carriers in the Birmingham District.

Woodward Iron Company Aerial Photo.  Photo Courtesy of Woodward Plant.

Woodward Iron Company Aerial Photo.
Photo Courtesy of Woodward Plant.

According to the pamphlet, Woodward had produced to 1936: Pig Iron – 11,606,142 Tons.
Coke – 15,969,969 Tons.
Coal – 31,763,681 Tons.
Red Iron Ore – 27,362,046 Tons.
Brown Iron Ore – 1,998,129 Tons.
Limestone – 575,000 Tons.

The low limestone totals were due to the amount of lime naturally occurring in the Red Mountain iron ore. So, relatively little needed to be added to the blast furnace as a fluxing agent.

The pamphlet described the company’s iron ore and coal mineable reserves as being able to keep the furnaces running for well over a century. However, the market for merchant iron decreased over the decades. After World War II, there was so much steel scrap that could be melted in electric furnaces that most of the market for pig iron disappeared. Woodward diversified into selling coal and the chemical by-products of coke, cement and lime, plastic, cast iron and cement asbestos pipe along with ferroalloys. Mead Corporation bought Woodward in 1968 and by 1974 all operations were closed.

southern railway poster


Mary Alice Beatty with her daughter Madelyn Beatty standing in front of the Simon Bolivar before the South American flight.

Mary Alice Beatty with her daughter Madelyn Beatty standing in front of the Simon Bolivar before the South American flight.

Flight of the Simon Bolivar

—by: Tom Badham


irmingham’s Donald Beatty and his wife, Mary Alice were aviation pioneers in both North and South America. Donald, born in 1900, became a pilot and officer of Birmingham’s 106 National Guard Observation Squadron as a flying officer in 1922. He also taught his then girlfriend, Mary Alice Gatling, to fly by sneaking her into the front seat of a JN-4 "Jenney" She too became an expert pilot.

After they were married (much against the will of her parents), Donald settled down in Birmingham to earn his living in the real estate and insurance business. But he never gave up flying and wanted to explore by air the vast regions of the upper Amazon basin and the Andes that were still marked on the maps as UNKNOWN.

Mary Alice, who now was the mother of a beautiful daughter, had one thought on the subject, "When you fly over the Andes and over the jungles, take me with you!" Donald began raising money to finance his Latin American Expedition by liquidating his assets and borrowing as much money as he could. His plane was on order and it looked like this wild dream would come about.

Then the stock market crashed in October, 1929. Shortly thereafter, the Bank of Ensley failed and all of their savings disappeared with it. This would have been the complete destruction of their plans for a normal couple, but not the Beattys. Donald and Mary Alice sold their home and moved to New York City where Donald could interest others in commercial aviation in South America. They found a small room in a new Brooklyn Heights hotel to live. Donald began immediately to find, write and speak to investors.

After a year of trying, Donald was able to make a presentation to John Pierpoint Morgan Jr., then head of the J.P. Morgan investment bank. One of the companies the bank worked with was the W.R. Grace Steamship Company which did a great deal of business in South America. Grace also had an interest in a new international airline named Pan American Airways. So, with the endorsement and backing of the Morgan bankers, other organizations such as the Smithsonian, Pan American Union (Organization of American States), the Pan American Society, the US Navy and the State Department joined in backing the expedition.

On September 25, 1931, a dozen men, all with scientific and exploration backgrounds, left for South America on the Grace steamship, Santa Maria. But Donald and Mary Alice weren’t among them. They were going to be flying down in a "flying boat" (amphibian) from New York along with a copilot and an aeronautical engineer who would be their mechanic.

Anthony Peria, the aeronautical engineer, was a young man from Italy, at that time the leader in designing and building amphibious aircraft. Peria had spent the previous six months modifying the aircraft. The plane donated by Otto Kahn was a four passenger, one engine luxury craft. Peria stripped it of all the luxuries and rear seats! In their place was extra gas tanks. Peria and Mary Alice would ride uncomfortably for days on those tanks. They carried no baggage, just one extra flying overall each and their toothbrushes.

The copilot was Jack Whitney, scion of the ultra wealthy Whitney family. While he was barely twenty years old, he was a licensed pilot and owned two airplanes. His two loves in life, according to Mary Alice, were "platinum blond show girls and airplanes, both of which he could afford without scrimping."

Mary Alice wangled her way onto the expedition with the explanation that she would record the music of the Jivaro natives. She was a graduate of the Juilliard School of Music and was an expert at transcribing music notation. Also, she was a pilot and that skill might come in very handy. Then, there was her husband’s refusal to leave without her.

Donald was an experienced expert pilot who thoroughly understood aerial navigation, had bad weather experience as well as night flying. Also, he fully understood the goals of the expedition as well as showing excellent leadership capabilities.

The little biplane amphibian was christened Simon Bolivar. They learned that it was slow, had the gliding angle of a ton of bricks, an insatiable appetite for gas and oil and ground looped at every opportunity. The landing gear had no brakes and was raised and lowered by a hand crank that jammed occasionally when the lifting bicycle chain slipped off the sprocket.

On October 18, 1931, the Simon Bolivar rose from Roosevelt Field heading south on the first leg of their groundbreaking journey. All sound insulation had been removed making the amphibian extremely noisy. Mary Alice wrote that, "…my backbone reverberated with the vibrations coming through the gas tank. It was as though I sat on gargantuan electric massage equipment that had gone haywire. My whole bone structure seemed harmonic to Simon’s roar."

She and Tony Peria would sit up to eight or nine hours a day for days hunched over with knees and elbows cramped and aching. With no head or foot room or even seat backs, there was no room for them to move. Also, there were no bathroom breaks until they landed, which meant they all had to eat and drink lightly. She ruefully wrote, "My father was right. I had lost my mind to go with Donald."

The first leg of the journey was to Charlotte, North Carolina. There were no problems in flight, but the next morning they found only seven gallons of aviation gas in the field’s tanks. Very laboriously they drained the tanks of every plane on the field and took off late than afternoon with only thirty-two gallons in their tanks. It barely got them to Atlanta where they ran out of gas over the field and made an emergency sideslip landing on the field.

It was too early to stop for the day, so they decided to fly on to Birmingham. Before they left Atlanta, they called their Birmingham friends to let them know they were coming and would probably have to make a night landing.

Reaching Roberts Field (which had no landing lights!) at dusk, they saw cars with headlights on lined up along the edge of the field and burning buckets of sand and kerosene along the outer rim of the field. The small field was what was known as a skid strip, easy to overrun in daylight. And, very easy to overshoot in the dark. Donald knew the field well and landed the Simon Bolivar perfectly.

While spending the night at her parents’ home, Mary Alice stuffed her Brownie camera, film rolls and a nightgown that she found in her bedroom in her overall’s pockets. The complicated large format cameras’ film plates provided by the expedition were damaged and made useless by the heat. It was her Brownie that brought back the only photographs of their journey.

At dawn the next morning they took off heading for the Key West, but they didn’t make it. The plane developed a serious oil leak requiring a landing at the Miami airfield. After spending two days getting and replacing its oil pump, they flew on to the US Navy Station Harbor at Key West.

Taking off from the harbor the next morning, the airship was battered by high waves. Finally getting in the air, they headed for Havana, Cuba; not knowing that Cuba was in revolution. They were forced down by Cuban armed fighters at the General Machado Field in Havana, where they were promptly arrested!

Explaining who they were and showing their official documents, they were confined to the field. Then the Cuban Army mechanics waved them over to little seaplane. In taking off in the rough waves at Key West, they had broken ribs in both lower wings with their control cables hanging loose between the struts! The damage could have made the plane uncontrollable at any moment during flight.

They were not allowed to leave the field and were going to have make all repairs themselves. While the men repaired the struts and control cables under Tony Peria’s directions, she was given a twelve-inch needle, a bucket of dope thinner, a ball of waxed linen cord and told to sew up the wings as they were repaired! She found out it was like sewing in a shirt sleeve (no easy task) on a giant scale.

The size made the sewing strenuous. She would push the needle down then lay on her back to squeeze under the wing and push the needle back up through the linen. All the time she had to keep the fabric wet with banana oil so it would stretch to cover the wing. The airplane glue fumes made her ill while her fingers were badly blistered from the sewing. But, in a few days the repairs were made and they were allowed to take off.

However, the weather had changed. A large storm system had moved over Cuba. They took off flying down the island to an emergency field at San Julian, hoping to fly through the bad weather before they had to cross over the Caribbean. Luckily finding San Julian, they landed, staked the plane and waited for the weather to improve. This time they found themselves on the other side of the Cuban revolution!

The Rebel Generalissimo wearing a bandolier of rifle bullets and a pistol holstered at each hip suspiciously questioned them. They explained and showed him all their official documents. The Generalissimo was not satisfied until he saw the name of Simon Bolivar on their plane. Then he decided that they were friendly and that they should be honored guests at an impromptu fiesta. He also was quite taken with the blond-haired Mary Alice, much to the jealousy of her husband, Donald!

The Simon Bolivar took off in the rain the next morning and flew right into a hurricane that was building in the Caribbean. For two hours they were tossed around with both pilots fighting the winds to keep the little plane flying. Then, they punched into sunshine with the island of Cozumel off the coast of Yucatan dead ahead. Landing in the island’s lagoon, they refueled their plane from fifty five- gallon drums which had been left for them. They hurriedly took off with the hurricane at their backs. It was now November 4, 1931. They had been journeying for seventeen days.

Landing at Belize, British Honduras, they had looked forward to spending the night at a real hotel with plumbing!! When they landed, all they saw was desolation. Belize lay in splinters from the hurricane! The shattered gas dock was leaking gasoline and totally unusable. Pushing on in the late afternoon, they flew on to an emergency anchorage marked on their maps. They found it too wiped away by the hurricane. They had no choice but to set down in the rolling sea off the coast and wait for daylight while praying that the Simon Bolivar didn’t sink underneath them.

With the four of them holding on for dear life while sitting on the wings to help balance the plane and not to be trapped inside if it sank, they anxiously waited for dawn. Cold, wet, miserable and bone tired, Mary Alice thought she was either hallucinating or had died when the sea lit up with a blinding brilliance. It wasn’t the Pearly Gates, it was the search light of the British Naval Cruiser Scarborough sailing to render aid along the coast that found them.

Taken aboard, they were treated as honored guests. Showered, fed and their clothes laundered while they got a good night’s rest, the plane was filled with gas and oil from the Scarborough. They took off the next morning heading for the small stump littered landing field at Tela, Honduras, where a buzzard managed to fatally fly into the plane bending a wing strut. Then over the "Green Hell" of the Honduran jungle they ran into a lightning storm with extreme convection air currents. They decided to go back to Tela and wait it out on the ground.

After the storm suddenly ended, they again took off heading for San Lorenzo, a very small emergency gas stop precisely on the dividing line between the "Green Hell" of Honduras and the "Pilot’s Graveyard" of Nicaragua’s sterile volcanic rock and active volcanos which caused huge convection up and down drafts.

Landing in the surf at Puenta Arenas, Costa Rica, they were surrounded by a mob of natives who poked and jabbed at the plane breaking two ribs of the plane. While they were assured that aviation gas would be there, there was none. There was a concoction that was more like kerosene. The flyers brought with them a container of concentrated tetraethyl lead. So, they bought thirty-one gallons of what they called the "Costa Rican Concoction" added the lead and after three days of making repairs to the plane, crossed their fingers and took off hoping it would get them to Panama.

The engine "konked out" just as they got to a tiny field at David, Panama. Heavy equatorial rains delayed them for a couple of days, but when the rains moderated, they flew on, landing at France Field, the US Army Base. The runways were two inches under water from the heavy rains. From there they flew to Christobal, Panama, where their air journey ended. The Smithsonian and Navy scientists had arrived two weeks earlier.

Jack Whitney had all the adventure he wanted. He immediately booked the first available passage by luxury liner back to Broadway’s bright lights! Tony Peria was to fly with Pilot E.K. Jaquith in the Simon Bolivar back to Roosevelt Field. However, they didn’t make it. The plane collapsed in the air, fell and sank into the sea. Both the pilot and Tony made it out of the plane and were rescued by the American freighter, Henry S. Groves, whose crew saw the plane go down.

Donald and the scientists took a tramp steamer to Guayaquil, Ecuador. From there they began the 10 month, 2300-mile trek through unexplored territory by mule back, on foot, by dugout canoe and by raft to reach the Amazon River and then to the Atlantic coast of Brazil.

Mary Alice would return by a Standard Fruit Boat to New Orleans, where she was happily surprised to see her mother, father and daughter waiting for her on the dock. From there it was home to Birmingham by the L&N Hummingbird.

Sources: Beatty, Mary Alice, To Love The Sky, a salute to the pilots who flew the Pioneer International Airlines.

1912 Ad Pratt Coal Company.

1912 Ad Pratt Coal Company.



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