In 1808, Madison County was created by the governor of the Mississippi territory who named it after President James Madison (1751-1836). To raise money for its development, the U.S. government almost immediately ordered land sales in the northern part of Alabama Territory. In 1811 the land office was moved from Nashville to Huntsville, attracting many people from the eastern states to buy land in the Tennessee Valley. Hunt's Spring and the surrounding acreage were bought at a price of $23 an acre by the influential Georgian capitalist LeRoy Pope. As a result of his efforts the settlement was selected as County seat and its name changed to Twickenham - after the English town his forefathers came from. This name, however, never became popular, and in 1811 the territorial legislature decided to revert to the old name Huntsville. In 1814 Pope's house was completed on the city's highest hill, a site which provided him with a view over the growing community.
Soon Huntsville became a frontier metropolis - a flourishing cultural, commercial, and social center of "King Cotton's" realm. One thousand pounds of cotton per acre could be consistently harvested by the farmers of Madison County. The high cotton price was the financial backbone of a prospering city. The streets of Huntsville were dotted with the small offices of cotton merchants, lawyers, and bankers, most of which were located on the west side of the square facing the courthouse. This area became known as "Cotton Row". Farmers brought cotton by wagon and cart to these merchants to be classified for staple and grade, and would then sell to the highest bidder. The town's economy was so dependent on cotton that the entire west side of the square was reserved for cotton wagons and carts.
The frontier character of the town during the antebellum period can be seen by the ratio of male to female population, then almost 2 : 1. In 1825, 308 males were counted to 170 females.
A two-story brick courthouse was completed in 1818. Today you will find its attractive modern counterpart on the same site, which is still the center of the county and city governmental affairs. Around the marketplace "a city of stone and brick" replaced the old wooden construction - it soon covered sixty acres. The wealthy cotton planters started building distinctive plantation style houses with slave quarters out back; French Empire furniture and 15th century silver-threaded embroidery can still be seen in some of these residences. A weekly paper provided information, a bank the necessary credits for the flourishing plantations and farms. The intellectuals of the city formed a Masonic Lodge, the theater enthusiasts a Thespian, and the music lovers a Hayden Society.
The elegance and fine proportions of Greek revival architecture were introduced to Huntsville by Virginia born architect George Steele, who had lived in this city since 1818. His conceptions materialized in numerous public and private commissions; among them we have to mention the second courthouse (demolished before 1914) and the First Alabama Bank Building (still in use) which he completed in 1840. Fortunately, several Steele designed private homes can still be seen in the Twickenham District.
In 1819, when Alabama progressed from territorial status to statehood as the 22nd state of the Union, Huntsville was chosen as the temporary capital. Here, Alabama's first constitution was drafted, its first governor inaugurated and its first legislature convened.
It was vital for the town's economic survival to ship its cotton down the Tennessee River to New Orleans. Therefore, in 1831, the Indian Creek canal was opened from Hunt's Spring to Triana on the Tennessee River. Transportation over land was possible along the Meridian Road which connects the city to Ditto Landing, a point on the river where John Ditto had established a trading post and ferry service in 1802. Around 1823, James White and other Huntsville businessmen established here a southern salt monopoly, and the area also became known as Whitesburg. Today, the Landing is a convenient yacht harbor. A nine-foot navigable channel makes the Tennessee River an important part of the Southern transport system. The port of Mobile can now be reached by the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway.
In 1855 the Memphis and Charleston Railroad was completed. Several years later during the Civil War, the Union generals recognized its strategic importance for the Confederate War effort, and on April 11, 1862, Federal Troops under General Mitchell took the city by surprise. As the battle zone was near, Huntsville became a bedroom city and a communications center for the Union forces. However, guerilla attacks constantly harassed the Union troops. One of the leaders was "Morgan the Raider" who had spent his childhood in Huntsville. The hostilities ceased for Huntsville on Monte Sano, its beloved mountain which provides such a fantastic view of the city. There, on May 11, 1865, the 25th Alabama Battalion was finally forced to surrender.
However, twenty-two years later, Monte Sano saw the triumph of the New South: on its summit the greatest hotel of the Tennessee Valley, a majestic 233 room Queen Anne style hotel. The Monte Sano Hotel was opened in June 1887. It was built by the Northern Alabama Improvement Company which hoped to attract wealthy men for the benefit of local business. Many prominent personalities signed their names in the register, including William H. Vanderbilt, William Waldorf Astor, Walter Damrosch, Jay Gould and Helen Keller. The hotel succeeded in gaining the city a wide reputation as a health resort before it was sold and dismantled in 1944.
Industrialization gained momentum in Huntsville and Madison County with the completion of the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis Railway. Northern and western capitalists invested in real estate and the processing of cotton was enlarged. The oldest textile mill in the state was the Huntsville Bell Factory which started in 1809 and continued functioning until 1885. its 3,000 spindles and 100 looms were powered by a water wheel. After the Civil War, bigger establishments like the Dallas and Merrimack Mill, and Huntsville Oil Mill, which processed cotton seed, were opened. Lower pay gave them a competitive advantage over the New England factories. To a smaller degree, commerce, banking and textiles were cornerstones of the city's economy. On the agricultural side, nurseries and fruit orchards provided and additional source of income. Later, watercress from the cold springs was sold all over the East. Huntsville could proudly advertise herself as "The Watercress Capital of the World".
In 1901 electric streetcars appeared, replacing horses and mules. Thirty years later, two skyscrapers, the Times Building and the Russel Erskine Hotel dominated the downtown area. In 1920 Huntsville had a population of 8,018, increasing to 13,150 by 1940.
Between these years, Huntsville's farmers and textile industry were hard hit by the Depression. The Agricultural Adjustment Act within President Roosevelt's New Deal program helped to stabilize the cotton prices. On the other hand, a series of strikes in the years 1933/34 led to numerous walk-outs, shut-outs and shutdowns in the Huntsville textile industry. Again the programs of the New Deal provided some relief for the unemployed workers. Along the Tennessee River many power plants were erected by the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA). These provided the energy for big industrial initiatives and created a chain of lakes, the nearest to Huntsville being the Guntersville lakes, a water sports paradise.
The Depression was followed by the dark clouds of war over Asia and Europe which eventually reached America. Facing the imminent threat, America gradually became the "arsenal of democracy".
In 1941, Huntsville was chosen to play an important role within the war effort of the United States. The Huntsville Arsenal, a chemical warfare plant, and the Redstone Ordnance Plant which was to manufacture conventional artillery shells were constructed on 40,000 acres fertile cotton land and useless swamps a few miles south of the Tennessee River.
Huntsville's small town tranquility disappeared when thousands of workers moved in seeking well paid government jobs. After the war, the Huntsville Industrial Expansion Committee was formed to attract both large and small businesses to this area to take advantage of the trained labor force.
In June 1949, Huntsville Arsenal closed down, The Department of the Army even posted "For Sale" signs on it. But it was never sold - fortunately! The conquest of space was to be planned here. In November 1949, the Army missile program was concentrated in the new Redstone Arsenal under the name "Ordnance Guided Missile Center". The center was formed by merging the Huntsville Arsenal with the sister ordnance plant, the Redstone Arsenal.
In the spring of 1950, a team of 118 German scientists under the direction of Wernher von Braun was brought from Fort Bliss (near El Paso, Texas) to Huntsville to work for the Army rocket program. Here, the Appalachian foot hills resembled the German forests more than the White Sands Proving Grounds of New Mexico did, where many rocket tests were carried out.
One of the first tasks given to Dr. von Braun's team was the development of a surface-to-surface missile that later became the famous Redstone Rocket. Backed by only little government funding, the Redstone Rocket Team used all their ingenuity and talent of improvisation converting parts of a former army hospital into a Guidance and Control Laboratory and adapting a railroad tank car to be used as an observation center. The Poor Man's Test Stand is still standing at the Redstone Arsenal.
Most members of the German group quickly integrated into the Huntsville community. This process was certainly helped by the warm hospitality that they encountered practically everywhere. They were active in church life, helped to organize St. Mark's Evangelical Lutheran Church, took the initiative in building the Monte Sano Planetarium, and joined the Huntsville Symphony Orchestra which is without parallel for a city of its size. In 1955, most of them became American citizens.
In the same year, Memorial Parkway was completed and numerous shopping malls built on both sides of it.
Dr. von Braun's team modified and adapted the Redstone missile that was to become the Jupiter-C. On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched its first satellite into orbit! America was deeply shaken! The Navy rocket Vanguard failed! The nation looked to Huntsville to provide a vehicle for the American Explorer I. On January 31, 1958, after a dramatic count-down, a Jupiter-C took the satellite successfully into orbit. This event was not only followed by spontaneous celebrations in Huntsville but also by the founding of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
In 1960, Redstone Arsenal was named Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC) after George C. Marshall (1880-1959), American General and Statesman. Dr. von Braun was installed as its director.
Within the Apollo Program, President Kennedy promised that America would send a man to the moon. The NASA engineers were given the task of designing a large space booster that could lift very heavy payloads into orbit - the result was the Saturn Rocket. In the spring of 1960, Huntsville could hear for the first time the roaring sound of the new engine, feel the ground tremble and see huge white clouds over the test area. On July 16, 1969, with the aid of a Saturn V rocket, President Kennedy's promise was fulfilled.
In 1970, state and local government joined the American Space Industry - partners in progress - to establish, with advice from Dr. von Braun, the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville. It became not only in respect of its objects but also in its philosophy, one of the most modern museums in the world: hands-on experience of 60 active exhibits are an important part of this educational and recreational complex. Here you can be the astronaut. An addition to the Space Center is the Space Camp. Here our youth have a chance to train and find out what it is like to become an astronaut.
In the Redstone Arsenal, the US Army maintains training facilities for NATO and other allied military personnel. Some have made personal contributions to the city. The Big Spring International Park came to life in 1966 when the Japanese government planted approximately 60 Yoshino cherry trees and General Mikio Kiamata, former Japanese liaison officer, donated the red footbridge which spans the lagoon. Other nations stationed in Huntsville due to the NATO training program followed suit: West Germany donated a sundial, Britain a park bench, Norway a light beacon and a fog bell, Switzerland roses arranged as the Swiss flag, a group of German exchange students some of their native trees.
Author: Mrs. Elfriede Richter-Haaser