The Story of Red Mountain Cut

The dramatic color and texture of the rocks exposed along the Red Mountain Cut leaves an impression on drivers zipping along the Elton B. Stephens Expressway. The Red Mountain Cut (known as “the Cut”) likely more geologic history than any other road cut in the U.S. One of the most recognizable geological features in the Birmingham area, it was honored in 1987 as a National Natural Landmark, an area that’s a significant example of the nation’s natural heritage. The Cut is one of seven National Natural Landmarks in Alabama. The Landmark designation reads:

The Red Mountain Expressway Cut exhibits an unusual combination of stratigraphic and structural features that record the geological development of this part of the Southern Appalachian fold belt during Paleozoic time. In one location, because the strata are tilted, exposed rocks represent a 150-million-year geological record along a distance of only 650 feet. Additionally, the exposed rocks contain a rare Silurian trilobite species. Designation: 1987. Ownership: Municipal. http://www.nature.nps.gov/nnl/  

Previous to the opening of the Red Mountain Expressway Cut, locals had to travel over Red Mountain’s high rolling hills to reach downtown Birmingham. In 1960, the City of Birmingham selected Harland Bartholomew to create a cut through the Red Mountain ridge to connect downtown to new residential neighborhoods to the south, such as Homewood.

Originally proposed as the Red Mountain Tunnel Project, a cut was instead selected due to its lower construction costs. Construction began in 1962, and it took seven years of digging and grading at a cost of $19 million before the cut was completed and open for traffic. The project removed around two million cubic yards of the Red Mountain ridge, which exposed over 190 million years of geologic strata dating back over 500 million years. The result was a 210-foot-deep, 1,640-foot-long highway cut created through Red Mountain, later renamed the Elton B. Stephens Expressway.

The original construction plan called for the exposed rock to be sprayed with concrete; however, after much protest from geologists from the Geological Survey of Alabama, Birmingham-Southern College, and the Alabama Geological Society, the Alabama Department of Transportation was convinced to discontinue covering the rock strata. These geologists recognized the geologic importance of the Cut, and a single act of lying down in front of the gunnite (liquid concrete spray) truck prevented the Cut from being completely covered, although a portion on the northern end was sprayed.

As further testimony to the geologic story told so beautifully by a cut in the rock, a new city-owned natural history museum, the Red Mountain Museum, opened on the slope adjacent to the cut in 1971 and an interpretive trail was built above the highway. The walkway, terraced into the rock, included interpretive signage, guardrails, and fencing that allowed visitors to safely inspect the various strata of 190 million years of exposed rock.

In the late 1980’s the interpretive walkway was closed to the public after the Red Mountain Museum closed over safety concerns of potential rock slides. The interpretive signs were left in place on the trail.

In 1994, the Red Mountain Museum moved from its mountainside location to downtown Birmingham after it partnered with a nearby children’s science museum, the Discovery Place, to form Discovery 2000, Inc. Discovery 2000, Inc. would later become the McWane Science Center in 1998. In 2007, the City of Birmingham and the McWane Science Center reached an agreement with the Dominican Sisters of St. Cecilia Congregation to purchase the former Red Mountain Museum for use as parking for its St. Rose Academy. Terms of the agreement, which are still in effect today, called for the city to retain and manage the small neighborhood park adjacent to the museum and the locked access to the interpretive walkway. The Cut itself is owned by the Alabama Department of Transportation.

-Francesca Gross