Hands-On History: Tannehill

We go to Tannehill Ironworks Historic State Park fairly often. It’s not close to our end of Birmingham, but it’s a beautiful place to hike, get outdoors, explore pretty places, and to photograph. Plus, my family camped there often when I was a kid, so I have very fond memories.

I do not, however, remember studying the history of the place as a kid. Which means that we probably totally did and I just tuned it out. It’s tragic how little I remember of my education – and that includes college. Thankfully, Ali seems more interested than I ever was.


I hadn’t planned on going on a field trip this particular Monday, but a friend who knows my adoration for Fall texted me that morning and said “This is it! Leaves are blowing everywhere and it’s gorgeous outside. It’s the quintessential fall day. You need to go somewhere amazing.”

So I texted Carla Jean and my Last Minute Network O’ Adventure and we headed to Tannehill. Both Carla Jean and a set of friends dropped everything to join us – the call of fall is strong around here.


It was just lovely. The perfect temperature for exploring without getting hot, and also never getting cold. Our little crew soaked in the majesty.


We did our usual hike, which is a 4 mile loop that goes along the river, to the furnace, through the woods, and to the water wheel, but this time, we paid careful attention to read the signs, understand its part in history, and pretend that we were a part of it (including crawling into the furnace where they made molten iron. Maybe not the best part to pretend.)


We delayed our hike to play in and around the creek because the weather was just delightful.


The wind picked up and created an intense leaf storm,


Leaving the water littered with fall.


We finally continued our hike,


Taking breaks every now and then to attempt to catch falling leaves.


My favorite hike at Tannehill is the trail from the Furnace to the Water Wheel. It’s a beautiful trail, and there’s a treat on each end. The kids took turns opening the dam to allow more water to travel in the chute to the water wheel, finding all of it great fun.



We had to use some hiking games to encourage everyone to make it this far, so I pulled out my trusty “Super Bonus Power-Up” game, where you touch trees to get power-ups, and the bigger the tree, the more energy you derive from it. It’s amazing how efficiently video game theatrics can improve real life.


Noah decided to improve on my game and add firearms to the mix – he decided that you could shoot the trees to more efficiently collect your power-ups. Then declared himself the winner of the game by 20,000 points.


His method was so convincing that he managed to recruit Carla Jean.


He made it clear to her that she wasn’t quite as good as he was, but she wasn’t bad – for a newbie and a pacifist.


The hike from the Water Wheel back to the entrance is always the most exhausting part. The last legs of journeys often are, especially on tiny legs.


So I made up one last game for everyone to survive with gusto: each person had to find a yellow, orange, red, green, and purple leaf. If you got all five, you could start swapping them out for higher quality leaves of the same color. If you found another color, you got bonus points. The game enabled everyone to get back to the parking lot – some just barely.


We dumped all our leaves in a pile and ooohed and aahed at the colors.


It really was amazing how vibrant everyone’s finds were when put all together. Sometimes late fall looks all brown, until you really start searching for it.


After the 4 mile hike, we went to the museum – for the first time ever for my kids, and for the first time in at least 25 years for me.


Tannehill was built in the early 1800s to capitalize on the brown ore found nearby. It was an ironmaking operation until 1865, when union troops burned it, right before marching to The University of Alabama and also burning it down.

The museum offers beautiful timelines of the iron industry and how it led to the founding of Birmingham (post-war),


has giant pieces of ore and other minerals to study,


And demonstrations of the giant industrial equipment used to turn the ore into iron.


The kids enjoyed all the pulleys and wheels, and maybe learned a little in the midst of all their playing.


Carla Jean’s article about Tannehill can be found here.

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