Located in west-central Alabama along the fall line and the Black Warrior River, the city of Tuscaloosa is the state's fifth most populous city and is the county seat of Tuscaloosa County. The town is named after a Native American leader of the Mabila (also known as Mauvila) town, Chief Tascaluza, who was described
in the writings of Spanish explorers. Tuscaloosa served as the state's capital from 1826 to 1846 and has been home to the
University of Alabama since 1831. Tuscaloosa was known as "The Oak City" and "The Druid City" (after an ancient Celtic people who worshipped oaks)
in its early years because huge water oak trees lined the downtown streets. The city of Tuscaloosa is now the hub for West
Alabama industry and commerce, anchored by the sprawling nearby Mercedes-Benz plant. Tuscaloosa has a mayor-council form of government.
The site of present-day Tuscaloosa was inhabited at various times by local Native American peoples since at least 1580. The first white settler in the area was Thomas York, who arrived with his family in 1816. As other settlers from Virginia, the Carolinas, and Georgia moved to the area by way of former Indian trails, the city of Tuscaloosa was incorporated and made the county seat on December 13, 1819, a day before Alabama was admitted to the Union. A delay in the laying out of Tuscaloosa resulted in the removal of the county seat just a few miles to the west to New Town in 1822. By 1826, however, New Town had been incorporated into Tuscaloosa, thus enabling Tuscaloosa to regain its position as county seat.
In 1826, Tuscaloosa became the state capital when the state legislature voted to move the seat of government from Cahaba. Tuscaloosa served as the capital until 1846, when a population shift to the east caused the legislature to move the capital to Montgomery. Before it lost its status as the state capital, Tuscaloosa gained another important state institution when the University of Alabama, chartered by the legislature as the official state university in 1820, greeted its first students in 1831. In the early 1840s, Tuscaloosa suffered a major setback when many of the city's original structures were destroyed by a severe tornado. The city began its recovery with the 1859 establishment of yet another state institution: the Alabama Insane Hospital (renamed Bryce Hospital in 1900 to honor its first superintendent, Peter Bryce).
Like most of Alabama, Tuscaloosa escaped the ravages of the Civil War until Union Maj. Gen. James H. Wilson's raid through Alabama. Although the main focus of the expedition was Alabama's foundries and arsenals in Selma, Wilson detached a brigade under Gen. John T. Croxton and sent them to burn the University of Alabama because it had been training militia and Confederate troops. After overcoming several groups of young university cadets, Croxton's forces burned most of the university's public buildings, including its library.
On April 27, 2011, a massive storm, causing numerous powerful tornadoes, struck the southeastern United States. More than
250 people were killed in Alabama, including 39 people in Tuscaloosa and the surrounding communities.
It took until the early twentieth century for Tuscaloosa to recover from the physical and economic ruin brought to it by the Civil War. By then, it had become a leading population and educational center in the state. Of great assistance to Tuscaloosa's recovery was a new system of locks and dams on the Black Warrior River, constructed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 1890s, that provided the city with an outlet to Mobile's seaport. As the University of Alabama and the mental-healthcare facilities associated with Bryce Hospital continued to expand, Tuscaloosa prospered into the twentieth century. In the latter part of the century, Tuscaloosa attracted such large manufacturing firms as Michelin and JVC before being chosen by Mercedes-Benz in 1993 to launch Alabama into the automotive industry.
According to the 2010 Census Tuscaloosa's population was 90,486. Of that total, was 53.8 percent identified themselves as white, 41.5 as African American, 3.0 percent as Hispanic, 1.8 percent as Asian, and 1.1 percent as two or more races. The city's median household income was $85,179, and per capita income was $34,268.
The workforce in present-day Tuscaloosa is divided among the following occupational categories:
· Educational services, and health care and social assistance (32.0 percent)
· Arts, entertainment, recreation, accommodation, and food services (11.4 percent)
· Retail trade (10.3 percent)
· Manufacturing (8.4 percent)
· Construction (7.9 percent)
· Professional, scientific, management, and administrative and waste management services (6.3 percent)
· Transportation and warehousing and utilities (5.2 percent)
· Public administration (4.0 percent)
· Other services, except public administration (3.8 percent)
· Finance, insurance, and real estate, rental, and leasing (3.4 percent)
· Information (3.1 percent)
· Wholesale trade (2.7 percent)
· Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, and extractive (1.5 percent)
The Tuscaloosa city school system consists of 12 elementary schools, five middle schools, and five high schools, with a total of approximately 10,000 students and about 1,300 employees. Tuscaloosa remains the home for the University of Alabama (UA), the state's first college. With an enrollment approaching 25,000, UA is the state's largest institution of higher education. Tuscaloosa is also home to historically black Stillman College, a four-year liberal-arts institution, as well as to Shelton State Community College, a two-year college providing educational opportunities in both academic and technical career fields.
Tuscaloosa is serviced by a network of highways and roadways, including Interstate 20/59; Interstate 359, a spur northward off of I-20/59 into downtown Tuscaloosa; U.S. Highways 11, 43, and 82; and Alabama Highways 69, 215, and 216. The Tuscaloosa Regional Airport, located across the Black Warrior River near Northport, is a general aviation airport used primarily for airfreight and private air traffic. Amtrak's Crescent line also provides Tuscaloosa with a connection by rail to cities from New York to New Orleans. The Black Warrior River supports barge river traffic transporting goods to the Alabama State Docks in Mobile. The city also has an outlet to the Ohio River valley by means of the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway.
Events and Places of Interest
One of the area's oldest structures is the Old Tavern. Built in 1827 during Tuscaloosa's reign as state capital, the building originally served as a tavern and hotel on a stagecoach route through town. It is now a museum that informs visitors about early Tuscaloosa commercial architecture and also serves as the headquarters for the Tuscaloosa County Preservation Society. The second oldest surviving structure in the area was built in 1828 to serve as a dining hall on the campus of the University of Alabama. Now known as the Gorgas House, it survived the Civil War and served as the home of Josiah Gorgas, a former chief of the Confederate Bureau of Ordnance and seventh president of the university. Other historic architectural attractions on the UA campus include Denny Chimes, the President's Mansion, the Observatory, the Old Quadrangle, and Jason's Shrine , formerly the cadet guard house.
A significant number of museums, cultural sites, and sports venues also are located in the Tuscaloosa area and on the UA campus. The collection includes portraits of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and the Marquis de Lafayette. Nearby Northport hosts the annual Kentuck Arts Festival, nationally recognized for its quality and diversity of artistic styles, ranging from folk to contemporary arts as well as traditional crafts. The Alabama Museum of Natural History, located in Smith Hall, the first building constructed on the UA campus in the twentieth century, is one of the finest examples of Classical Revival architecture in the region. The museum features exhibits on dinosaurs and the Ice Age, among others, and houses extensive collections in the fields of geology, zoology, mineralogy, paleontology, ethnology, history, and photography. The UA campus is also home to both the Tuscaloosa Symphony Orchestra, currently housed in the Moody Music Building, and the Paul W. Bryant Museum, named for the legendary coach, with exhibits honoring Crimson Tide football players and coaches who were part of SEC and National Championship teams.
For outdoor enthusiasts, many venues near Tuscaloosa provide opportunities for recreational activities. Most notable is Lake Lurleen State Park, named for former governor Lurleen Wallace, located approximately 10 miles from downtown. This 1,625-acre park sits on the banks of a scenic 250-acre lake and includes
a modern campground, activity building, picnic area, play area, pavilions, beach with bathhouse, fishing piers, boat rentals,
and boat-launch areas. The Tuscaloosa County Park and Recreation Authority operates 31 small parks in the area, including
Capitol Park in the city of Tuscaloosa, which features the ruins of the old State Capitol building.
The Heritage of Tuscaloosa County, Ala bama. Clanton, Ala.: Heritage Publishing Consultants, 1999.
Herbert J. "Jim" Lewis
Published August 20, 2008
Last updated February 28, 2013