Huntsville Huntsville, located in the northernmost part of Alabama near the Tennessee border, is the fourth largest city in the state and the seat of Madison County. As the first incorporated town in Alabama, Huntsville played an important part in the birth and growth of the state. First settled in 1805, the fertile lands around what is now Huntsville lured English-speaking pioneers migrating to the Mississippi Territory. The early cotton economy that arose in northern Alabama centered around Huntsville, also attracting pioneer families, traders, merchants, wealthy planters, and speculators.
As the most densely populated part of the newly settled territory, Huntsville became the center of early state politics. The town served as the temporary first capitol of Alabama and had great strategic value during the Civil War. In addition to this rich history, Huntsville is best known as one of the South’s leading technology hubs. Home to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Marshall Space Flight Center and the U.S. Army’s Redstone Arsenal, Huntsville boasts an economy internationally recognized for research and technological innovation. Huntsville has a mayor/council form of government, with elected officials serving four-year terms.
Big Spring, ca. 1883 The region that would become Madison County was located within the territories of both the Cherokees and Chickasaws Indians prior to white settlement. The abundant game around Big Spring made the site an important location for hunters. Around the turn of the nineteenth century, the lure of rich soil and abundant game in the newly created Mississippi Territory brought illegal settlement on Native American lands, despite federal prohibitions. The first pioneer in the area, John Hunt, arrived from Tennessee and settled in the area known as Big Spring in 1805. The Chickasaw ceded their rights to the area that July and the Cherokee ceded their lands in January 1806, and illegal settlement began in earnest. By the time Madison County was established by the Mississippi Territorial Legislature in December 1808, the village, which had become known as Hunt’s Spring, boasted a population of 300.
In addition to pioneers, wealthy planters and speculators also came to the area. Among the early planters was LeRoy Pope, a tobacco grower from Elbert County, Georgia. In 1809, the U.S. government opened up land in Madison County for public sale, and Pope and other wealthy planters, known to historians as the Broad River Group, bought much of the Big Spring area, including John Hunt’s property. Pope became an influential leader in the community. On December 22, 1809, the legislature followed Pope’s suggestion and organized the town as Twickenham to honor the home of English poet Alexander Pope. Many residents, however, continued to refer to the town as Hunt’s Spring. In November 1811, the legislature changed the town’s name to Huntsville in honor of the area’s first settler. In 1812, town leaders established the Green Academy to provide education to local children.
Alabama Constitution Hall Replica Huntsville grew to become important to the early cotton economy of Alabama. By 1815, there were five cotton gins operating in the town. Cotton ginning brought wealth to the town, which in turn led to the establishment of a broad variety of commercial establishments. The Madison County Gazette, the first newspaper in the territory, began publication in 1812 and in 1816 became the Huntsville Republican. By the time the courthouse was completed in 1816, it was flanked on all sides by brick storehouses, hotels, and homes. The first Masonic Lodge in Alabama was founded in Huntsville, with John Hunt being a prominent charter member, and Andrew Jackson being a frequent visitor to the lodge. General Jackson was also a frequent visitor to Huntsville’s Green Bottom Inn and race track, and when Pres. James Monroe visited the Alabama Territory in June 1819, he and his entourage stayed at the Huntsville Inn.
Memphis & Charleston Railroad Depot, ca. 1970s The U.S. Congress selected Huntsville as the site for the first Constitutional Convention of Alabama after it was approved to become a state. From July 5 to August 2, 1819, delegates met in the late Walker Allen’s cabinet shop and prepared the new state constitution. This large building served also as the inauguration site of the state’s first governor, William Wyatt Bibb, in December of that year and was the meeting place for the newly formed Alabama State Legislature. Huntsville served as the temporary capital of Alabama from 1819 to 1820, when the seat of state government was moved to Cahaba in Dallas County. The town remained an important center for cotton trade and transportation. In 1854, Huntsville became the headquarters of the Memphis and Charleston Railroad, the first railroad to link the Atlantic Ocean with the Mississippi River.
The railroad and the Madison Iron Works, a Huntsville foundry that produced artillery for the Confederate military, made Huntsville a target of the U.S. Army during the Civil War. On April 11, 1862, forces under the command of Brig. Gen. Ormsby M. Mitchel captured Huntsville and severed the Confederacy’s vital east-west rail artery. The CSA artillery manufacturing machinery was removed in the wake of the federal advance. The occupation lasted until October, when federal troops marched north to Middle Tennessee. They returned in November 1863 and used the town as a base for the remainder of the war.
Huntsville’s First Streetcar After the war, Huntsville remained closely tied to the agricultural economy. Small mills and gins were the most common enterprises, but Huntsville in the 1880s began to advertise itself as a progressive city of opportunity. Through the 1880s, investors helped Huntsville grow by establishing the Huntsville Cotton Mill, a telephone exchange, electric and gas lights, and a rail line connecting the city to Nashville. In the 1890s, investors from New York and Ohio established commercial nurseries. The Huntsville Wholesale Nurseries was, at that time, the largest wholesale nursery in the United States. During the Spanish-American War, Camp Wheeler was established to train National Guard in early 1898. It was renamed Camp Albert G. Forse after a local soldier who was killed in action. In October 1898, following service in Cuba, members of the U.S. 10th Cavalry—one of the African American units known as the “Buffalo Soldiers”—were sent to Camp Forse to recuperate. (A memorial statue to these soldiers was erected at the camp’s site, now called 10th Cavalry Hill, in 2014.) The camp was abandoned in 1899. Additional cotton mills were built in Huntsville through the first part of the twentieth century, many of which remained in operation and provided some stability for Huntsville through the Great Depression.
U.S. Space & Rocket Center Huntsville’s fortunes changed dramatically after the outbreak of World War II and the establishment of the U.S. Army missile research program at Redstone Ordnance Plant in 1941 to support the U.S. war effort. The facility was renamed the Redstone Arsenal in 1943. Redstone operated largely as a chemical munitions production and stockpiling facility until 1949, when it was chosen to be the site for the U.S. Army missile research program. This decision, advocated by Alabama senator John Sparkman, brought to Huntsville an entirely new, technology-based economy that would stimulate development for the next several decades. In April 1950, German rocket engineers and their families were brought to the Redstone Arsenal to begin the U.S. rocketry program. Among these individuals was Wernher von Braun, a preeminent rocket engineer who would help guide development of the U.S. ballistic missile program and, eventually, the U.S. space program.
Huntsville’s role in space exploration technology began in 1960 with the dedication of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center at the Redstone Arsenal. Here, von Braun and other engineers developed and produced many components of the Saturn V rocket, the largest and most powerful launch vehicle ever brought to operational status, powering the Apollo Program of manned spaceflight to the Moon. During the 1960s and 1970s, many defense contractors located in Huntsville to contribute to NASA and to military projects. Following the closure of the Apollo Program, Huntsville industry shifted focus to the Space Shuttle, the International Space Station, and U.S. military technologies. In addition to the Marshall Space Flight Center and Redstone Arsenal, Huntsville is also home to the U.S. Army Aviation and Missile Command as well as many private companies in the Cummings Research Park.
According to 2020 Census estimates, Huntsville recorded a population of 215,482. Of that number, 61.6 percent identified themselves as white, 24.4 percent as African American, 10.0 percent as two or more races, 6.0 percent as Hispanic, 1.9 percent as Asian, 0.5 percent as American Indian, and 0.2 percent as Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islander. The city’s median household income was $70,757 and the per capita income was $42,232.
According to 2020 Census estimates, the workforce in Huntsville was divided among the following industrial categories:
- Educational services, and health care and social assistance (22.0 percent)
- Professional, scientific, management, and administrative and waste management services (18.0 percent)
- Manufacturing (11.5 percent)
- Retail trade (11.0 percent)
- Arts, entertainment, recreation, and accommodation and food services (10.1 percent)
- Public administration (7.8 percent)
- Construction (4.6 percent)
- Finance, insurance, and real estate, rental, and leasing (3.7 percent)
- Other services, except public administration (3.7 percent)
- Transportation and warehousing and utilities (3.2 percent)
- Information (2.4 percent)
- Wholesale trade (1.5 percent)
- Agriculture, forestry, fishing and hunting, and extractive (0.5 percent)
Huntsville is home to several institutions of higher education, including the University of Alabama in Huntsville, Alabama A&M University, and Oakwood University, in addition to a number of technical and community colleges. The Huntsville City Schools is a very large public school system with more than 40 schools.
Huntsville is a transportation center for north Alabama. Major roadway connections include Interstate 565 and U.S. Highways 72, 231, and 431. The Port of Huntsville, a major cargo transport hub, is located nine miles from the city’s central business district and combines the Huntsville International Airport, International Intermodal Center, and Jetplex Industrial Park. The airport is served by all major U.S. carriers except Southwest Airlines and offers non-stop service to 13 U.S. destinations. The Norfolk Southern rail line connects Huntsville to Memphis and Chattanooga. Huntsville’s public transit system operates on 13 fixed routes covering 175 miles of city streets.
Events and Places of Interest
Weeden House Huntsville offers visitors a wide range of attractions and recreational activities. For those interested in Huntsville’s history, the Twickenham Historic District contains the densest concentration of antebellum homes in Alabama and is home to some 60 historic structures. The 1819 Weeden House, home of artist Maria Howard Weeden, is a city-owned museum and Alabama’s oldest building open to the public. Each May, the Pilgrimage Home Tour offers visitors the opportunity to see a number of the antebellum and Victorian homes in Huntsville’s Twickenham and Old Town Historic Districts. Just north of the district near the courthouse is Harrison Brothers Hardware, a historic store museum operated by the Historic Huntsville Foundation. The Episcopal Church of the Nativity, a Gothic Revival structure, was declared a National Historic Landmark in 1990. Also in May is the annual barbecue-themed WhistleStop Festival, which features cook-offs, live music, and the Alabama Cornhole Championship.
Big Spring Park The historic Big Spring that formed the core of John Hunt’s pioneer village is now contained within a downtown city park, Big Spring International Park. It hosts the annual Panoply Arts Festival in April. The Huntsville Museum of Art, also located on the grounds of Big Spring Park, hosts a variety of exhibitions throughout the year, including traveling exhibits and the work of nationally and regionally acclaimed artists. Downtown Huntsville’s EarlyWorks Family of Museums houses three museums: the Alabama Constitution Hall Historic Park and Museum, the Huntsville Depot and Museum, and EarlyWorks Children’s Museum. The U.S. Veterans Memorial Museum celebrates servicepeople from the American Revolution to the present and is the official veterans museum for the state.
Monte Sano State Park Huntsville has a number of recreational activities available for visitors. Hampton Cove is one of the complexes on the Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. Huntsville’s Monte Sano State Park is a 2,140-acre mountaintop park that has attracted visitors since the 1820s. Spanish for “Mountain of Health,” Monte Sano was home to a nineteenth-century sanatorium and hotel resort. In addition to trails and outdoor recreation, the park offers Civilian Conservation Corps-era cabins, a campground, and a hotel. The Huntsville Botanical Garden is open year round and showcases the natural beauty and plant communities of north Alabama. It features a wildflower and nature trail and numerous specialty gardens and plant collections. Huntsville is also home to the headquarters of the National Speleological Society and is a well-known launching point for exploring northeast Alabama’s many caves. The Land Trust of North Alabama maintains 11 nature preserves encompassing more than 10,000 acres in Madison County around Huntsville.
The biggest attraction for visitors to Huntsville is the U.S. Space and Rocket Center. The center was opened in 1970 on land donated by Redstone Arsenal and has grown to become the world’s foremost museum of space flight and technology. From the more than 1,500 aerospace exhibits and artifacts, visitors can experience a restored Saturn V test vehicle, the Apollo 16 command module, a Saturn I rocket, and original Mercury and Gemini capsule trainers. Attractions include launch and G-Force simulators, cockpit training modules, an IMAX theatre, and digital 3-D theatre. The U.S. Space Camp, hosted by the U.S. Space and Rocket Center, attracts visitors from around the world. The camp, started in 1982, provides both residential and day camp educational programs to children and adults interested in space flight, aviation, and outdoor activities.
- Betts, Edward Chambers. Early History of Huntsville, Alabama, 1804-1870. Montgomery: Brown Printing Company, 1916.
- Fisk, Sarah Huff. Civilization Comes to Big Spring: Huntsville, Alabama 1823. Huntsville: Pinhook Publishing Company, 1997.
- Heritage of Madison County, Alabama. Clanton, Ala.: Heritage Publishing Consultants, 1998.
- Pruitt, Ranee G., ed. Eden of the South: A Chronology of Huntsville, Alabama 1805-2005. Huntsville: Huntsville-Madison County Public Library, 2005.