History of Huntsville
The high-tech city of Huntsville which sprawls at the foot of a mountain in North Alabama is equally at home in the 19th century or the 21st. Huntsville’s tourist attractions reflect the heritage of Alabama’s first English-speaking city, the strife of the American Civil War, and the accomplishments of America’s rocket scientists.
Huntsville’s population truly reflects international cultures. Of the 190,000 city residents, more than 10 percent are natives of other countries. More than 100 languages and dialects are spoken here. In addition to the German rocket scientists who arrived in 1950, for example, Huntsville is home to the first U.S. plant built by Korea’s largest corporation. Several Japanese-owned companies operate manufacturing plants here. Scores of foreign national flags ring the roof of the headquarters of an international computer manufacturing firm headquartered in Huntsville. Huntsville’s visitor attractions offer a wealth of activities for the native and international visitor alike.
Visitors who want to be “astronauts for a day” can sample astronaut training activities at the sprawling U.S. Space and Rocket Center. The hands-on showcase of space technology is the state’s largest tourist attraction. It is home to the internationally known U.S. Space Camp which has franchise operations in Japan, Belgium and Canada. A variety of city museums downtown and an outstanding symphony orchestra offer rich cultural opportunities involving the arts. The legendary Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail, which encompasses 21 courses in eight cities in Alabama, begins here at the 54-hole Hampton Cove Golf Course.
THE BIRTHPLACE OF ALABAMA
Pioneer John Hunt, for whom the city is named, occupied a cabin alongside a spring here in 1805. A town soon flourished and was the largest in the Alabama Territory by 1819. That year the leaders of the Alabama Territory met here to petition the U.S. Congress to grant Alabama statehood. The recreated 1819 Alabama Constitution Village, a block from the courthouse square, commemorates the historic events through tours given by costumed guides.
Huntsville was the cotton trading center of the Tennessee Valley during the 1840s and ’50s when planters and merchants originally from Virginia and the Carolinas built impressive town homes. LeRoy Pope, who purchased land at auction and donated land for t he town, originally picked the name Twickenham. He wanted to honor the London suburb which was home to poet Alexander Pope, a relative. However, following the War of 1812, the name reverted to Huntsville to honor the first white man who settled here.
Walking tours of the Twickenham historic district, with the state’s largest collection of pre-Civil War homes, are popular year-round. Because many wealthy businessmen remained loyal to the Union at the start of the Civil War, the town was spared destruction. Plan also to visit the 1819 Weeden House Museum and the 1860 Huntsville Depot Museum. A unique shopping opportunity is offered at the 1879 Harrison Brothers Hardware Store. The mountaintop Burritt Museum and Park displays restored 19th century cabins and farm buildings.
AMERICA’S SPACE CAPITAL
Huntsville was still a cotton market town of 16,437 people in 1950 when U.S. Sen. John Sparkman (who lived in Huntsville’s historic Twickenham neighborhood) brought a band of German rocket scientists to Redstone Arsenal to develop rockets for the U.S. Army. By the end of the decade, Wernher von Braun’s team had developed the rocket which orbited America’s first satellite. They eventually put the first American in space and transported the first astronauts to the Moon.
Redstone Arsenal is one of the U.S. Army’s most important strategic posts. It is responsible for research, development, production and worldwide support of missiles, aviation, rockets and related programs. The influx of engineers, scientists and other technical specialists has transformed the small town into a cosmopolitan community which nonetheless maintains its heritage and reputation for hospitality. Visit the Redstone Arsenal website for more information on its history. The Huntsville area remains one of the South’s fastest-growing. More than 350,000 people live in Madison County.
A legacy of the space program which benefits visitors is the renowned U.S. Space & Rocket Center. Guests can experience astronaut-training activities, feel simulated weightlessness and view large-screen movies filmed by astronauts in space. The Center’s U.S. Space Camp attracts young people from throughout the world who spend a week experiencing space flight training and participate in mock space missions. It was Von Braun himself who inspired Space Camp. He suggested that the space museum develop an intensive youth science program to stimulate children’s interest in math and science. Guided bus tours of the NASA Marshall Space Flight Center take visitors through large hangar-sized buildings such as where engineers built the nation’s first permanent space station.
Adjacent to the space museum is the beautiful Huntsville Botanical Garden which features floral and aquatic gardens.Despite becoming the space capital of America, Huntsville maintains close contact with its past. The literal birthplace, “the big spring,” still flows from a rock bluff underneath the 1835 Regions Bank. It winds through a lushly landscaped park into a lake surrounded by scores of trees. A new three-story building to house the Huntsville Museum of Art has been built in Big Spring Park. Facing the park is the city’s civic and convention center named for the legendary German-born rocket scientist. The Von Braun Center contains an arena, exhibit hall, banquet hall, theater and meeting rooms. A variety of special events, ranging from tours of historic homes in the spring to brilliantly lighted Christmas festivals in December, fill the annual calendar of events.
Air travelers arrive at the Huntsville International Airport just 12 miles west of Huntsville. Some 70 jet flights depart daily in addition to several weekly non-stop cargo flights to Europe.