Bluff Park sits on the summit of Shades Mountain which is an example of a “cuesta” – a mountain with a steep face or escarpment on one side and a long gentle slope on the other. On the crest of the steep northwestern face of the mountain Bluff Park offers dramatic vistas of Shades Valley below and Red Mountain to the north. In the other direction land slopes gently away from the crest toward the commercial and residential developments along Hwy. 31 and Hwy. 150 and the Galleria shopping complex. According to geologists, Shades Mountain is part of a formation that stretches northward as far as Pennsylvania. The underlying rock and jutting rock formations that line the crest are primarily sandstone, originally formed in rivers. Although the rocky outcroppings discouraged large scale agriculture in Bluff Park, early settlers had small farms, dairies, orchards, and sawmills.
Although small cabins had been built on the mountaintop as early as the 1820s to be used as refuge in times of cholera epidemics in Elyton, the first landowner to take advantage of the magnificent view and the mineral springs to attract visitors to the area was Octavia Spencer. In the 1850s he built forty log cabins and a pavilion for a summer resort (known as Spencer Springs) for guests who came from Elyton, Montgomery, Selma, and other areas of the state. Guests walked down from the crest to two springs – one with freestone water and the other “the finest chalybeate water” — which were believed to have medicinal benefits. In 1863 Gardner Hale, formerly superintendent of the Daniel Pratt Cotton Gin Factory at Prattville, purchased the property, renamed it Hale Springs, and continued to rent the cabins to guests. At about the same time the Oxmoor Furnaces were constructed in the valley below. Destroyed in the Civil War, the furnaces were rebuilt in the Reconstruction era.
Hale’s children continued to manage the resort after his death in 1880 and added to boarding houses. A new road, opened in 1892, provided easier access to the bluff by means of “tallyhos,” horse-drawn coaches which brought guests from the valley below. Guests from Birmingham (founded in 1871) and other parts of the state could travel to Oxmoor by train and notify Hale Springs that they needed transportation by ringing a bell. As wells were dug on the mountain top, the springs lost their importance and the area became known as Bluff Park. The view continued to attract visitors, some of whom built cabins and cottages to be used in the summer, some who camped in tents, and some who stayed at the Bluff Park Hotel, built in 1907. Although the hotel burned in 1925, many of the original cottages and homes of the settlement can still be seen, now intermixed with later residences built as improved roads and transportation made Bluff Park attractive as a Birmingham suburb of permanent residences.
Two of the early Bluff Park homes still extant have connections with the Hale family. The Hale-Joseph home, built in 1910 by William M. and Evan Hale, was constructed on land purchased in the 1860s by Gardner Hale. Placed on the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage in 1994, the home is currently owned by Carlo and Dianne Joseph.
The Overseer’s Home, built in 1889 and probably the oldest extant dwelling in Bluff Park, served as the residence for the manager of the A.B. Howell Peach Orchard, a 560-acre commercial farm begin in 1882. Howell, an absentee landowner, moved from Ohio to Chattanooga in 1880 and organized a successful fruit business. The house originally consisted of three rooms and a dirt floor. One of the overseers who resided in the home was William Hale. William and his brother Evan went on to operate a sawmill, ice house, and cotton gin and did much to develop Bluff Park as a community of permanent residents. William built several of the present historic homes on Shades Crest Road. Listed on the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage in 2000, the Overseer’s Home is currently owned by John and Marie Taylor.
The Bluff Park Elementary School on Park Avenue, which replaced the original one-room Summit School built in 1899, is now the Bluff Park Community School. Fittingly, the Hoover Historical Society is now headquartered in the Community School. The HHS is not only interested in preserving the history and heritage of Hoover and the Bluff Park community but also in bringing Alabama history alive to the students in the area schools. The Society was instrumental in creating a Folklore Center on the grounds of the elementary school– the “Stinson Ole Place,” a fully restored 1840s log home with accompanying outbuildings.
To obtain a feel for the sights enjoyed by the early visitors to the nineteenth century resort destination, one can still visit “Lover’s Leap”, a dramatic rock outcropping off Shades Crest Road. Those early resort goers would have seen miles and miles of trees with an occasional glimpse of Shades Creek in the valley below. In the evening the glow from the Oxmoor Furnaces would have competed with the sunset for attention. Today’s visitors can still enjoy the sunsets but the vast expanse of trees in the valley is now interrupted by sprawling development, including residential neighborhoods and a golf course.
Lover’s Leap has several historical associations and an Indian legend from which the site takes its name. An Indian brave, supposedly grown weary of the attentions of an Indian princess, took her to the high crest where he stabbed her with a bone knife. Suddenly stricken with remorse, he gathered her in his arms and leaped off the bluff.
The other well-known story of Lover’s Leap took place in 1827. Colonel Thomas W. Farrar, an Alabama legislator and lawyer, and his new bride, Seraphine, traveled from Cahaba to Elyton by wagon and stopped to camp for several days atop Shades Mountain. Farrar carved the first four lines of Lord Byron’s “Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage” into a rock at Lover’s Leap:
To sit on the rocks, to muse o’er flood and fell, to slowly trace the forest’s shady scene where things that own not man’s dominion dwell, and mortal foot hath ne’er or rarely been.
In the early 1930s the inscribed rock was removed and presented to the Masonic Lodge in Elyton, the oldest lodge in Jefferson County and named for Thomas Farrar. After a failed attempt to have the historic inscription returned, Thomas W. Martin, a long-time resident of the mountain, and George B. Ward arranged to have a replica carved on a rock at Lover’s Leap.
The more recent history of Bluff Park is represented by the Hoover-Randle House which has direct connections with the modern-day city of Hoover. In the 1950s, realizing that the improved four-lane Montgomery Highway (Hwy. 31) could bring development to southern Jefferson County, insurance executive William H. Hoover, Sr. began purchasing land in the area from which the present-day city evolved. Earlier, in the 1940s, Hoover erected a small log cabin for recreational use on a Bluff Park dirt logging trail known as Tyler Road. In 1947 his family moved into their newly-constructed colonial-style home on a nearby site. Purchased in 1987 by Barbara and Edmond H. Randle, Jr., in 1990 the home became the first Hoover structure to be placed on the Alabama Register of Landmarks and Heritage.
Today, Bluff Park is part of Hoover, the sixth largest city in Alabama, but the area retains a distinctive of feel of community. The bluff and other natural features and homes of varying ages, scattered among new subdivisions and developments, remind residents and visitors of a past that dates back to a time of both Native Americans and early settlers to Alabama.
Dr. Marlene Hunt Rikard
Professor of History
Hoover Historical Society
From the book: “Essays on the Bluff Park Community”