Huntsville is a city located primarily in Madison County in the central part of the far northern region of the U.S. state of Alabama. Huntsville is the county seat of Madison County. The city extends west into neighboring Limestone County. Huntsville's population was 180,105 as of the 2010 census. The Huntsville Metropolitan Area's population was 417,593. Huntsville is the fourth-largest city in Alabama and the largest city in the five-county Huntsville-Decatur Combined Statistical Area, which at the 2010 census had a total population of 664,441.
It grew across nearby hills north of the Tennessee River, adding textile mills, then munitions factories, NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center and the United States Army Aviation and Missile Command nearby at the Redstone Arsenal. The National Trust for Historic Preservation named Huntsville to its "America's Dozen Distinctive Destinations for 2010" list.
The first settlers of the area were Muscogee-speaking people. The Chickasaw traditionally claim to have settled around 1300 after coming east across the Mississippi. A combination of factors, including depopulation due to disease, land disputes between the Choctaw and Cherokee, and pressures from the United States government had largely depopulated the area prior to Revolutionary War veteran John Hunt's arrival and settlement in the land around the Big Spring in 1805. The 1805 Treaty with the Chickasaws and the Cherokee Treaty of Washington of 1806 ceded native claims to the United States Government. The area was subsequently purchased by LeRoy Pope, who named the area Twickenham after the home village of his distant kinsman Alexander Pope.
Twickenham was carefully planned, with streets laid out on the northeast to southwest direction based on the Big Spring. However, due to anti-British sentiment during this period, the name was changed to "Huntsville" to honor John Hunt, who had been forced to move to other land south of the new city.
In 1811, Huntsville became the first incorporated town in Alabama. However, the recognized "birth" year of the city is 1805, the year of John Hunt's arrival. The city's sesquicentennial anniversary was held in 1955, and the was celebrated in 2005.
Huntsville's quick growth was from wealth generated by the cotton and railroad industries. Many wealthy planters moved into the area from Virginia, Georgia, and the Carolinas. In 1819, Huntsville hosted a constitutional convention in Walker Allen's large cabinetmaking shop. The 44 delegates meeting there wrote a constitution for the new state of Alabama. In accordance with the new state constitution, Huntsville became Alabama's first capital when the state was admitted to the Union. This was a temporary designation for one legislative session only, and the capital was then moved to another temporary location, Cahawba, until the legislature selected Montgomery as the permanent location.
Huntsville initially opposed secession from the Union in 1861, but provided many men for the Confederacy's efforts. The 4th Alabama Infantry Regiment, led by Col. Egbert J. Jones of Huntsville, distinguished itself at the Battle of Manassas/Bull Run, the first major encounter of the American Civil War. The Fourth Alabama Infantry, which contained two Huntsville companies, were the first Alabama troops to fight in the war and were present when Lee surrendered to Grant at Appomattox in April 1865. Eight generals of the war were born in or near Huntsville, evenly split with four on each side.
On the morning of April 11, 1862, Union troops led by General Ormsby M. Mitchel seized Huntsville to sever the Confederacy's rail communications. The Union troops were forced to retreat some months later, but returned to Huntsville in the fall of 1863 and thereafter used the city as a base of operations for the remainder of the war. While many homes and villages in the surrounding countryside were burned in retaliation for the active guerrilla warfare in the area, Huntsville itself was spared because it housed elements of the Union Army.
After the Civil War
After the Civil War, Huntsville became a center for cotton textile mills, such as Lincoln, Dallas and Merrimack. Each mill had its own housing community that included everything the mill workers needed (schools, churches, grocery stores, theatres, and hardware stores, all within walking distance of the mill).
Lily Flagg broke the world record for butter production in 1892, spawning an elaborate party wherein her Huntsville-resident owner General Samuel H. Moore painted his house butter yellow and arranged for electric lights for the dance floor. An area south of Huntsville was named Lily Flagg before 1906. This area was later annexed into the city.
Great Depression 1930s
During the 1930s, industry declined in Huntsville due to the Great Depression. Huntsville became known as the Watercress Capital of the World because of its abundant harvest in the area. Madison County led Alabama in cotton production during this time.
World War II
By 1940, Huntsville was still a small, quiet town with a population of about 13,000 inhabitants. This quickly changed in early 1941 when of land adjoining the southwest area of the city was selected by the U.S. Army for building three chemical munitions facilities: the Huntsville Arsenal, the Redstone Ordnance Plant (soon redesignated Redstone Arsenal), and the Gulf Chemical Warfare Depot. These operated throughout World War II, with combined personnel approaching 20,000.
At the end of the war in 1945, the munitions facilities were no longer needed. They were combined with the designation Redstone Arsenal (RSA), and a considerable political and business effort was made in attempts to attract new tenants. One significant start involved manufacturing the Keller automobile, but this closed with only 18 vehicles built. With the encouragement of Senator John Sparkman, the U.S. Army Air Force considered it for a major testing facility, but then selected another site. Redstone Arsenal was then prepared for disposal, but, again with assistance from Senator Sparkman, it was selected for the Army's rocket and missile development.
In 1950, about 1,000 personnel were transferred from Fort Bliss, Texas, to Redstone Arsenal to form the Ordnance Guided Missile Center (OGMC). Central to this was a group of German scientists and engineers led by Wernher von Braun that had originally been brought to America by Colonel Holger Toftoy under Operation Paperclip. As the Korean War started, the OGMC was given the mission to develop what eventually became the Redstone Rocket. This rocket set the stage for America's space program, as well as major Army missile programs, to be centered in Huntsville. Toftoy, then a brigadier general, commanded OGMC and the overall Redstone Arsenal. In early 1956, the Army Ballistic Missile Agency (ABMA) under Major General John Medaris was formed.
The city is nicknamed "The Rocket City" for its close association with U.S. space missions. On January 31, 1958, ABMA placed America's first satellite, Explorer 1, into orbit using a Jupiter-C launch vehicle, a descendant of the Redstone. This brought national attention to Redstone Arsenal and Huntsville, with widespread recognition of this being a major center for high technology.
On July 1, 1960, 4,670 civilian employees, associated buildings and equipment, and of land transferred from ABMA to form NASA's George C. Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC). Wernher von Braun was MSFC's initial director. On September 8, President Dwight D. Eisenhower formally dedicated the MSFC.
During the 1960s, the major mission of MSFC was in developing the Saturn boosters used by NASA in the Apollo Lunar Landing Program. For this, MSFC greatly increased its employees, and many new companies joined the Huntsville industrial community. The Cummings Research Park was developed just north of Redstone Arsenal to partially accommodate this industrial growth, and has now became the second largest research park of this type in America.
Huntsville's economy was nearly crippled and growth almost came to a standstill in the 1970s following the closure of the Apollo program. However, the emergence of the Space Shuttle, the International Space Station, and a wide variety of advanced research in space sciences led to a resurgence in NASA-related activities that has continued into the 21st century. In addition, new Army organizations have emerged at Redstone Arsenal, particularly in the ever-expanding field of missile defense.
The main branch of the Huntsville-Madison County Library is located at 915 Monroe Street, Huntsville, AL 35801, telephone number (256)532-594. Most of the third floor of the library is the Heritage Room, dedicated to genealogy. More information is available on-line at http://hpl.lib.al.us/ .