The History of Tuscaloosa
Tuscaloosa is a city located along the Black Warrior River in West Alabama. Conveniently situated along the Interstate 20/59 corridor 57 miles southwest of Birmingham, Tuscaloosa is within a few hours driving distance of such Southern business and cultural centers as Atlanta, Nashville, Memphis, Mobile, Montgomery, Jackson, Chattanooga, and New Orleans.
Tuscaloosa became an incorporated town on December 13, 1819, two years after Alabama achieved its status as an American territory and just one day before Alabama was admitted to the Union. But the area’s heritage goes back much further than that. In 1540, Hernando DeSoto of Spain was the first European to explore the area, where he had a fateful encounter with the famed Creek Chief Tuskaloosa (whose name means “Black Warrior” in Choctaw).
Throughout history, various Indian tribes settled along what would come to be named the Black Warrior River. Those original inhabitants left along the shoals of the river a network of trails, which brought the first white explorers in the first decade of the 19th Century. After the War of 1812, more white settlers ventured into the area and honored the famed chief by naming their new town “Tuscaloosa.”
Tuscaloosa was the capital of the state of Alabama from 1826 to 1846, a period that saw the establishment of The University of Alabama in 1827. In 1831, the University enrolled 52 students. Because of the large water oaks that lined the streets during this time, Tuscaloosa was nicknamed “The Druid City.” By 1845, the population of Tuscaloosa stood at 4,250, although that number dropped sharply when the state capital was moved to Montgomery the following year. The founding of Bryce Hospital – which is still in operation as the state mental hospital – in 1850 helped restore Tuscaloosa to prominence in the State.
During the Civil War, the University furnished about 3,500 men for the Confederate cause. Because of the University’s military affiliation, a Federal raiding party burned the campus to the ground during the last weeks of the war in 1865, leaving just four buildings – the President’s Mansion, the Little Round House (a guard station), the Gorgas House, and Maxwell Hall (the old University Observatory) – undisturbed.
Tuscaloosa suffered economically after the Civil War, but a system of locks and dams constructed by the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers in the 1890s opened up commerce between Tuscaloosa and the Gulf seaport of Mobile. This stimulated mining and metallurgical industries in the region throughout the 20th century.
In addition to the area’s heritage of river commerce and gravel and coal mining operations, Tuscaloosa and its quickly growing cross-river neighbor Northport (population approximately 20,000) have in recent years entered the realm of manufacturing centers. First, Michelin tires and JVC electronics – which produces the bulk of its compact discs in Tuscaloosa – came to the Tuscaloosa area and later, Mercedes-Benz. In the early 1990s, the German luxury car company chose the nearby town of Vance for its first and only U.S. production center in North America, where the M-Class sport utility vehicles have been manufactured since 1997. The Mercedes plant offers daily tours of the factory and automotive museum. For more information on Mercedes or to set up a tour, call 1-888-2-TOUR-MB or visit www.mbusi.com.
In addition to the many University-related activities, the area also offers a variety of special events, including the annual Kentuck Arts Festival (held in late October in Northport).
With a county population of more than 160,000, a city population of approximately 80,000, and a vibrant university community of approximately 20,000, Tuscaloosa is the fifth-largest metropolitan area in the State of Alabama behind Birmingham, Montgomery, Mobile, and Huntsville. Thus, nearly every important local, state, and federal government agency has a strong presence in The University of Alabama vicinity. Whatever your interests, you should be able to easily access the proper resources within a few miles of campus.