Spotlight: Ocean Restaurant

Excerpted from EXCURSIONS by EXCURSIONS BY CITYVISION

Voted Best Restaurant, Best Chef and the recipient of AAA Four Diamond Award for more than a decade, Ocean offers fresh seafood in an exciting and contemporary atmosphere.

The bold seafood menu at Ocean makes the restaurant a premier location for fine dining in Birmingham. Ocean is widely known as one of the city’s crown jewels as accolades have been heaped on the restaurant, chef and owner George Reis and on the restaurant’s fine wine offerings. Many patrons stop by for a signature martini at the newly renovated white marble topped bar. The beautiful environment, paired with one of Ocean’s signature cocktails, is a perfect way to start the night.

Other locals head straight to the Raw Bar for seafood offerings not found anywhere else in the city. From the imposing Seafood Tower that showcases most of the Raw Bar’s offerings to the various oysters, lobster, crab legs and mussels served at the bar, it is a wonderful taste of what Ocean has in store.

The casual atmosphere of the patio dining area is perfect for a low-key night out with friends or entertaining clients, but be sure to sample the award-winning and recently restyled dining experience inside as well. Any seafood lover is certain to find their favorite on the menu, whether it be shrimp or one of the restaurant’s whole fish offerings, which changes daily.

For those who aren’t in a seafood mood, Reis offers a cooked-to-perfection Hereford filet mignon as well as a number of salads and desserts that will satisfy any craving. Located in the historic Five Points South area, Ocean is at the center of the city’s entertainment and culinary center.

Reservations are encouraged and there’s ample seating at the bar. 218 20th Street South Birmingham, AL 35205 205.933.0999 oceanbirmingham.com @oceanbirmingham Tuesday-Saturday: 5:30 – 10:30 p.m.

Princess Theatre Center for Performing Arts

The Entertainment Icon of Downtown Decatur for More Than 100 Years

from EXCURSIONS GUESTBOOK HUNTSVILLE, MADISON & DECATUR 10th Anniversary Edition by EXCURSIONS BY CITYVISION

The historic Princess Theatre anchors the downtown Arts and location is an attraction all by itself, with its unique art deco style from the 1940s, terrazzo floor map of the state in the lobby, landmark two-story marquee on the front and blacklight reactive murals that decorate the auditorium. But the theatre is also home to many local productions and traveling shows that use the 677-seat facility to reach Decatur residents, the North Alabama region and beyond.

photo: Brent Boyd

The Princess Theatre is a boon to the economy, drawing tourism from across the U.S.The building was constructed in 1887as a livery stable for horses, but in 1919, the building was converted into a silent film theatre and vaudeville playhouse. Then, in 1941, the theatre underwent an-other transformation. This time the Princess gained the art deco style that most visitors now associate with the Princess.In 1978, the movie house closed and the city of Decatur was able to purchase and renovate the old building, preserving and revitalizing the 1940s-style decor.

Due to the pandemic, Centennial celebrations took place 101 years after the Princess’s birthday. Now, new concerts, comedy, dance, live theatre and more are being added to the Princess Theatre’s calendar on a weekly basis. The Theatre hosted the inaugural Marquee Awards, a Grammy-inspired event that marks the culmination of the nonprofit’s annual fundraiser with a showcase of the types of entertainment that grace the Princess Theatre’s stage year-round.

One of the ongoing attractions at the theatre is the singer/songwriter series hosted in the theatre’s listening loft. As the series has grown, this elevated experience has gained momentum. Top-tier artists from all over the country request a slot in the lineup. The monthly songwriter schedule is listed on the Theatre’s website, along with movies, concerts, live performances, seasonal shows and more. One of the newest and most exciting additions to the website is a virtual tour of the Princess Theatre.

photo: Brent Boyd

This “bird’s eye’ view of the historic, nonprofit venue, and a full calendar of upcoming events can be found at www.princesstheatre.org.

Contact Info

112 2nd Avenue NE, Decatur, AL 35601; 256.350.1745; princesstheatre.org; @princesstheatrecenter on social media.

Huntsville: From Big Spring to Big Dreams

from EXCURSIONS GUESTBOOK HUNTSVILLE, MADISON & DECATUR 10th Anniversary Editionby EXCURSIONS BY CITYVISION

Captivated by dreams of space travel since his youth, Wernher von Braun brought powerful passion and vision to the American space program.

HUNTSVILLE: From Big Spring to Big Dreams

BY KIMBERLY BALLARD

Photographs courtesy of the Huntsville-Madison County Library Archives

Tucked in the rolling foothills of North Alabama, the city of Huntsville is a hidden oasis of culture, innovation and progress. Known best as the cradle of the American space program, this “Rocket City” has blasted off, amazing visitors and residents alike with its surprising pedigree of events and attractions. But like most places, Huntsville’s origins are much more humble.

The story begins more than 200 years ago. Absent were the towering projectiles of the U.S. Space & Rocket Center, missing was the sprawling luxury retail jungle of Bridge Street. Back then, Huntsville was all fields, trees and foothills. That is, until Tennessee frontiersman John Hunt scaled Monte Sano Ridge and changed everything.

The rumor of a freshwater spring lured Hunt from his home to explore the North Alabama wilderness. Amid the Chickasaw Indians who hunted along the banks, Hunt built a two-bedroom log cabin for his family on a bluff overlooking the spring he discovered. The word spread, and by 1808, around three hundred settlers lived near “Big Spring,” where locals transported their cotton crops down the Indian Creek Canal to the Tennessee River. Huntsville Springs to Life

As cotton production picked up, the settlement grew. In 1807, Wyatt Bishop established the town’s first school. The next year, Stephen Neal stepped up as the first sheriff and married the town’s first couple, James McGuire and Elizabeth Ghormley. Soon after, John Bunch’s Old Tavern opened as the city’s first watering hole, and by 1810, the town’s first murder trial had taken place, and Eli Newman had been hanged at the edge of town.

With Hunt’s Big Spring booming, the city’s founder headed back to Tennessee to sell his family’s land to pay his settlement registration fees. While he was gone, three profit-minded pioneers bought up his spring-front property and the surrounding area. One of these men, LeRoy Pope, renamed the town Twickenham after the English hometown of his famous ancestor, the poet Alexander Pope. But in 1811, Hunt’s land around Big Spring was reinstated and Huntsville was given its permanent name. LeRoy Pope may have lost the name game, but Twickenham lives on as the name of Huntsville’s antebellum district—the largest in Alabama—famous for its Federal, Italianate and Neo-Classical architecture.

With land disputes resolved, Huntsville was free to grow in peace. By 1812, a city newspaper, the Madison Gazette, had been established. Near the end of that decade, the growing city was named Alabama’s first capital, albeit only temporarily, when state lawmakers gathered in a local cabinetmaking shop to draft the state’s first constitution. By 1823, Huntsville had developed a public water system, thanks in part to its famous spring. With its infrastructure taking shape, the city took its first steps toward industry.

Huntsville Faces War and the Great Depression

The influx of cotton farmers to the area soon drew the railroad industry’s attention to Huntsville. By the mid-1800s, the Memphis and Charleston Railroad had been constructed through Huntsville, becoming the first railway to link the Atlantic seacoast with the lower Mississippi River. Partly because of its strategic location (and perhaps its charm), Huntsville never saw battle during the Civil War. Union forces, led by Brigadier General Ormsby M. Mitchel, moved in quickly in 1862 to cut the Confederate supply lines. Mitchel decided to stay a while, using the Huntsville railroad depot to incarcerate Confederate soldiers. Federal officers occupied Oaklawn Plantation on Meridian Street, while renegade Confederate soldiers hid out in the Mayhew home, located on Eustis Avenue.

Having avoided the destruction suffered by many southern cities in the war, the thankful townspeople found their lives getting back to normal fairly quickly. But tough times were still ahead. Following the depression and throughout the 1930s, Huntsville faced its first true economic downturn since its founding. Struggling against waning industry, Huntsville survived only on cotton production and its fleeting fame as the watercress capital of the world.

But things were to turn around in 1941, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt declared “a state of unlimited emergency” and the Chemical Warfare Service began searching for an artillery manufacturing facility. The State of Alabama ceded 160 acres of cotton fields to the War Department to build Huntsville Arsenal, which went on to employ nearly 20,000 people. By 1943, the redesignated Redstone Arsenal had expanded to 475 acres.

From Warfare to Wonder

However, it seemed that this success would be short-lived. In 1949, WWII was over, and the U.S. Army hung a “for sale” sign on Redstone Arsenal’s doors. What were they to do with this secluded outpost? At the last possible moment—on July 1, 1949—a new prospect appeared on the horizon.

That prospect centered around a German scientist, Wernher von Braun, who had grown up in the shadows of Nazi Germany but had maintained a fascination for space travel and rocketry. Von Braun became part of the infamous “Operation Paperclip,” a mission in which the Third Reich’s most brilliant scientists were drafted by the United States. After the war, von Braun found himself and his colleagues transplanted to the isolated cotton fields of North Alabama, where, over the next four years, they would invent rocket science.

In September 1954, von Braun presented his first thesis proposing the use of the Redstone military missile, which he would be instrumental in developing, as the prototype for a vehicular rocket that could launch satellites into space. Over the next few years, numerous military missiles were successfully built, tested and launched using von Braun’s thesis.

On January 31, 1958, Huntsville earned the nickname “The Rocket City” after the Explorer I became the first U.S. satellite to orbit the earth. The front page of The Huntsville Times read: “Jupiter C Puts Up Moon: Eisenhower Officially Announces Huntsville Satellite Circles Globe,” and the world turned its eyes to Huntsville.

Soon after that momentous event, standing on the steps of Huntsville’s new Marshall Space Flight Center, President Eisenhower proclaimed the creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. With von Braun as MSFC’s first director, rocketry moved from the defense sector into civilian space exploration. Not only did MSFC receive 1,900 acres of undeveloped land and buildings, but several thousand U.S. Army engineers, scientists and administrators were assigned a slate of challenging space exploration projects.

Success came quickly for the growing center, and, barely a year later, the Mercury-Redstone rocket boosted America’s first astronaut, Alan Shepard, into suborbital flight. Then, in 1969, the largest of the Saturn family of rockets built and tested at MSFC propelled American astronauts to their most-anticipated destination—the moon.

After the close of the Apollo program, Huntsville experienced an exodus of big business throughout the 1970s. Ultimately, it would be the U.S. Army, and not the space program, that would prevail. Such military innovations as the TOW missiles and the biomedical research from the HudsonAlpha Institute set Huntsville on a more diverse path to technological excellence.

The harsh realities of World War II brought a new industry to Huntsville—the industry of war. Huntsville Arsenal (later Redstone Arsenal) opened to meet the needs of the American military, employing many female workers.

The Moon, Mars, and Beyond

Civilian contractors work at Marshall Space Flight Center. But most visitors are more interested in the Space & Rocket Center’s Rocket Park, with its massive and impressive Saturn V missile.

The U.S. Space & Rocket Center contains the most comprehensive flight hardware museum in the world. It also features the Spacedome IMAX Theater and its renowned Space Camp, where, every year, thousands of students come from around the world to experience space education at its finest. But, dominating it all, hovering 10 feet above the floor, the 476-foot-long, 90-foot-wide, 63-foot-high Saturn V rocket floats like a leviathan above the new Davidson Center facility.

Redstone Arsenal is one of the Department of Defense’s most strategic technological assets, employing over 30,000 people and managing over $25 billion in annual federal spending—over half of the army’s total annual weapons procurement budget.

Leading Alabama into the Future

Thanks in part to the aerospace and defense industries, Huntsville has one of the most diverse cultures, per capita, in the country. Today, a mixture of nearly 300 international, high-technology and aerospace/defense agencies, plus 50 Fortune 500 companies, reside in the Cummings Research Park, the country’s second largest research and development park.

Two hundred years after its discovery, John Hunt’s Big Spring is still at the center of downtown life. Buffered on all sides by a beautiful public park, the lagoon is surrounded by fine hotels and such distinguished civic buildings as the public library and the Von Braun Center. Lined with park benches and accented by its distinct Red Bridge (a gift from Japan), Big Spring Park is landscaped with cherry blossom trees, a gazebo and eternal flame, around which the city gathers for festivals, like the Panoply Arts Festival and many local concerts.

It’s fair to say that modern-day Huntsville, with its towering rockets, luxury shopping facilities, manicured parks and decadent dining options, would be hardly recognizable to its grizzled frontiersman founder. But, if you ask its residents and many visitors, they’d say that’s just fine. Supported by a culture of innovation, the Rocket City is poised to lead the state, and the rest of the South, into the next century.

Decatur’s Rich History

from EXCURSIONS GUESTBOOK HUNTSVILLE, MADISON & DECATUR 10th Anniversary Edition by EXCURSIONS BY CITYVISION

Delano Park is the oldest park in the city of Decatur, Alabama. It was created in 1887, as part of a master plan to “re-invent” the City of Decatur, then New Decatur.

A Brief History of The River City

By John Allison, Morgan County Archivist. Photographs courtesy of Morgan County Archives, Decatur, Alabama.

Decatur, Alabama’s history has been entwined from its beginning with that of the Tennessee River. The river has sustained the area’s residents with life-giving water and nourishment ever since the first PaleoIndian peoples arrived in the area up to 11,000 years ago. Decatur’s particular location is due to its position at the head of the Muscle Shoals, a rocky area in the river and an obstacle to river traffic in the days before the Tennessee Valley Authority tamed it with a series of dams in the 1930’s.

Early Residents

Archaeological evidence at the quad site on the north bank of the Tennessee River at Decatur indicates that people seasonally camped along the river for thousands of years, hunting, fishing and gathering mussels, a dependable source of food. Many rock shelters and riverfront camp sites and at least one mound were excavated in the Decatur area by WPA workers in the 1930’s. These excavations and others yielded thousands of artifacts, including several types of projectile points unique to the area. After construction at Decatur’s Riverwalk Marina revealed ancient human remains in 1999, local people put up a monument commemorating the site.

The area’s earliest residents in historical time were Cherokee and Chickasaw. These people occasionally clashed over control of the Tennessee Valley but for the most part a truce existed in the sparsely populated area. No major settlements were recorded in Morgan County during this time, although nearby chiefs exercised great influence over commerce and travel. A series of four Native American interpretive walking trails are being constructed at Point Mallard Park that tell stories of the lives of these early residents of the Decatur area. The Chief Doublehead and Chief Black Fox walking trails, opened in May 2016, highlight the lives of Cherokees. The Chief Big Foot (Creek) and Chief Colbert (Chickasaw) trails recently opened.

The Treaty of Turkey Town in 1816 ceded Cherokee rights to the area south of the Tennessee River, and in 1818 the U.S. Government officially opened the land to white settlers for purchase. Some whites, known as squatters, had already illegally settled on the land. Most Native Americans in the area who remained after white arrival blended into the local population, their heritage passed down through private family oral tradition.

Decatur Parks and Recreation unveiled four American Indian Interpretive Walking Trails in 2016 to honor Decatur’s Native American history.
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Dedication of the Cherokee Trail of Tears historical marker.

Decatur Established

In 1818, the Alabama Territorial Legislature established Cotaco County, renamed Morgan County after Revolutionary War General Daniel Morgan in 1821. In 1820, entrepreneur Dr. Henry Rhodes began a ferry service at the site of today’s Rhodes Ferry Park in Decatur. Later that year, President James Monroe promoted the establishment of a town at this ferry crossing, at the last consistently navigable point on the Tennessee River above the Muscle Shoals. Tradition holds that the President requested the town be named for U.S. Naval hero Commodore Stephen Decatur, who had died after a duel in March 1820. Rhodes, along with Jesse Winston Garth, McKinney Holderness, Isaac Lane and George Peck founded the Decatur Land Company. They purchased patents for land and laid out the original plan of the town. Settlement began as new residents bought lots and established businesses in the new river town. The beautiful Palladian-influenced Dancy Polk House, built in 1829 by Col. Francis Dancy, is the oldest standing structure in Decatur and is indicative of the promise of wealth in the young community. Decatur’s most iconic landmark is the Old State Bank. The Greek revival structure was originally built as a branch of the Bank of Alabama. The Alabama General Assembly established the staterun bank system, with other branches in Montgomery and Mobile, in 1830. Its creators hoped that the bank would be able to provide investors with the capital to spur development and provide a source of revenue for state government. After a brief period of apparent prosperity, flaws in the system were exposed during the nationwide financial panic of 1837. By 1840, the Decatur Branch had an outstanding debt of one million dollars. The bank’s charter was revoked in 1842. In the years to come, the bank served as a private residence, as a hospital during the Civil War, as a boarding house and tavern, as a bank again and as an American Legion hall. The bank has served as a museum and civic hall since 1934. In 1982, it was restored to its original configuration, including a first floor cashier’s cage and a second floor apartment furnished in the Federal style of the 1830s and 1840s.

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Old State Bank
Union soldiers dig trenches on Bank Street, 1864.

Early Railroad in Decatur

In Decatur’s history, the railroads are second only to the Tennessee River in significance. The Tuscumbia, Courtland and Decatur Railroad was the first rail line west of the Alleghany Mountains. The brainchild of investor and Lawrence County planter Benjamin Sherrod, the TC & D was designed so that travelers and cargo on the Tennessee River could move easily and dependably around the treacherous Muscle Shoals. The railroad was chartered in 1832 by less than 100 stockholders, most of them prominent planters from Morgan, Lawrence and Colbert Counties. Early progress was slow, but by December 1834 crowds welcomed the “Fulton,” the railroad’s first steam locomotive as it rolled into Decatur from Tuscumbia. The little railroad struggled to turn a profit, but Sherrod stuck with his dream, shoring it up with infusions of capital until his death in 1847.

The TC &D’s most famous passengers were displaced Cherokees on the “Trail of Tears.” A new Alabama Historical Commission marker at Rhodes Ferry Park commemorates the passage of the Ridge, Deas and Whiteley detachments of Cherokee people from Georgia and Tennessee through Decatur in 1837 and 1838. A National Park Service trailhead is also in development that will include narrative panels that explain the history of Cherokee removal, the railroad’s role and the “witness structures” in Decatur that stood in 1838.

The TC & D was incorporated into the Memphis and Charleston Railroad, and in 1855 the first railroad bridge across the Tennessee River at Decatur was completed. The location of this river crossing on the South’s most important rail artery from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Coast added to Decatur’s importance.

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The Depot as it appeared in 1905.

By 1860, Decatur was also a terminus of the Nashville and Decatur Railroad, making the River City one of the more important crossroads of rail and river travel in the Southeast. This promising distinction unfortunately led to Decatur’s destruction during the Civil War, as the city changed hands as many as nine times between the Union and Confederate armies.

The Civil War

Decatur’s unique geographic position made it a prime staging location for campaigns during the War. Confederate General Albert Sidney Johnston gathered his forces here in March of 1862 before marching to the battle of Shiloh, where he was killed. In April, Union forces under Col. John Turchin took Decatur and burned the strategic railroad bridge. In 1864, Union troops forced most of the city’s inhabitants to leave so that the city could be fortified to protect one of General Sherman’s crucial supply lines for his Georgia campaign. In the process, most of the town’s structures were demolished. The Old State Bank, the Burleson-McEntire House, the Dancy-Polk House and a Southern Railway. The Nashville and Decatur Railroad was incorporated into the Louisville and Nashville (L&N) in the 1870s and located a massive car repair works at Decatur that employed up to 3,000 workers. The railroad expansion attracted many businesses to Decatur during this period. In 1887, the Decatur Land Improvement and Furnace Company laid out the city of New Decatur, south and east of the old city and contiguous to it. The new development, backed by both Northern and Southern investors, sought to become “The Chicago of the South.” Modern water, electric and sewer services began to be laid out, along with rail branch lines to factories along the southern bank of the river. A yellow fever epidemic broke out in 1888, severely limiting new investment and stunting the massive growth that the investors anticipated. An obelisk in the city cemetery honors the doctors who perished treating those afflicted by the epidemic. Still, the new town’s development was impressive. In spite of many leaders’ efforts to unite the two cities, much animosity developed between them, and residents voted to change the name of New Decatur to Albany in 1916. Many wealthy migrants to New Decatur built stately mansions in the area that is now the nationally registered Albany Historic Neighborhood. The crown jewel of the neighborhood was a beautiful public green space now known as Delano Park, improved over the years with a dramatic rose garden, gazebo and other features.

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Dancy-Polk House
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Burleson-Hinds McEntire House

In October 1864, John Bell Hood and the Army of Tennessee surrounded Union troops at Decatur. Hood wanted to cross the river at Decatur for a quick route to the Union supply depot at Nashville, but strong Union fortifications and Union gunboats above the Muscle Shoals made an assault on Decatur too costly. Hood lost as many as 500 men assaulting the works at Decatur before heading west. Hood’s delay gave Union forces time to prepare for his arrival in Tennessee, where his army was nearly annihilated at the battles of Franklin and Nashville.

Decatur and the surrounding countryside was thoroughly destroyed by the war’s end. After a period of great struggle, the town began to rebound in the 1870s and 1880s with the rebuilding and expansion of the rail lines that passed through the area and the resumption of trade along the Tennessee River. The Memphis and Charleston Railroads rebuilt the railroad bridge in 1866 and later became the rail artery from the Mississippi River to the Atlantic Coast and added to Decatur’s importance.

The Civil War exhibit in the Morgan County Archives.
The story of Decatur’s role in the war is dramatically illustrated by a Civil War Walking Trail and by a major exhibit in the Morgan County Archives.

Decatur’s railroad growth was accompanied by the construction of three new train depots, one of which remains standing. Decatur’s Union Depot, so named because both the Southern Railway and the L & N boarded passengers there, was built in 1905. The depot was in operation until 1978. It sat empty from then until 2015 when work began to renovate the space into a railroad museum and offices for the Decatur Police Department.

The railroad also spurred the growth of Old Town, Decatur’s oldest neighborhood, just west of the Union Depot. Old Town was racially integrated, and as the turn of the twentieth century approached it became home to a number of African-American owned businesses. Black professionals and business owners joined churches and civic organizations that provided leadership for the Old Town community. A new gateway marker placed on Vine Street at the entrance of the neighborhood tells the stories of this unique neighborhood.

New Decatur’s business district became the commercial heart of the town, with dozens of businesses, restaurants, hotels and theatres. The historic Princess Theatre was originally built in the 1880s as a massive stable, and later converted into a vaudeville theatre and movie house. It was thoroughly remodeled into its current art deco form in 1941.

The two Decaturs were finally united in 1927, as business leaders united to lobby for the location of the “Bee Line Highway” (U.S. 31) bridge at Decatur. The opening of the Keller Memorial Bridge was a major event and cemented Decatur’s importance as a crossroads of water, rail and road travel. Today’s Hudson Memorial Bridge, named for Captain “Steamboat Bill” Hudson is located at the spot of the original bridge, demolished in 1998.

Wild Steamboat Days and the River Tamed

The completion of the Muscle Shoals Canal in 1890 increased steamboat travel on the Tennessee River. Legendary captains like the infamous Simp McGhee made names for themselves on the river and in increasingly wild port towns like Decatur. One of Decatur’s oldest and finest restaurants on Bank Street is named for the captain. Liquor flowed in the bars and gaming houses near the water. Violence often erupted in “Dead Man’s Alley” behind Bank Street between Lafayette and Church. Even after prohibition, bootlegging and speakeasies proliferated. One local fixture of the vice community was Kate Lackner, a madam who ran a large “sporting house” at the corner of Market St. that entertained customers from the 1880s until the 1940s.

The Princess Theatre was built in the 1880s.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt visited Decatur in 1932 and declared that poverty in the Tennessee Valley would be a major focus of federal efforts during the “New Deal.” The Tennessee Valley Authority built a series of dams that finally tamed the river and provided hydroelectric power to millions. Decatur billed itself as “the TVA Town” and recruited businesses with the promise of cheap electricity and easy transportation.

Today, Decatur continues to be known as a prime spot for industry, with industries like United Launch Alliance, Daikin America, 3M and many others located along the river.