“Oak Mountain State Park was going to be Alabama’s “Little Smoky Mountain National Park,” exclaimed Lauren Muncher, naturalist at the park.
That was the plan in the 1930s, she told me in a recent interview about Oak Mountain.
In this, our first installment about Alabama State Parks, let us explore the state’s largest park that is at Birmingham’s doorstep.
First, a little bit about Lauren Muncher, who gave me a historical and natural tour of the park. At 28 years old, she is a gifted storyteller.
A native of Birmingham, Lauren grew up in Center Point and went to Samford University. Before becoming Oak Mountain’s naturalist, she worked at the Alabama Wildlife Center and the Interpretive Center when it was operated by Samford. She has been going to the park literally since she could walk, taking hikes with her family as a child.
“This park has always meant a lot to me. It is part of who I am. I was shaped by this park.”
Oak Mountain National Park?
According to Muncher, the state of Alabama purchased the original 940 acres of public land that is today Oak Mountain State Park via the Alabama State Land Act of 1927. In the early 1930s, the National Park Service acquired an additional 8000 acres surrounding the state’s original purchase with the intention to create a future national park.
“They acquired it from private landowners, mostly homesteads all along the Double Oak Mountain area,” described Muncher. “You can actually still see remnants of the old homesteads today in the middle of the woods and ridge.”
If establishing a national park in Alabama seems far-fetched, remember almost simultaneously the Great Smoky Mountains National Park (GSMNP) in Tennessee and North Carolina was being developed. What would become the nation’s most visited National Park, the Smokies, did have one advantage back then—a wealthy benefactor named John D. Rockefeller, Jr.
Dedicated in 1940 by President Franklin Roosevelt, Rockefeller donated $5 million in the middle of the Great Depression to help purchase the land for the park.
Civilian Conservation Corps
Meanwhile, in the 1930s, Oak Mountain and the GSMNP both used the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and Work Projects Administration (WPA) to build the infrastructure for the parks.
About the CCC’s role, Muncher added, “The CCC was charged to build a National Park here by Company 487, a bunch of young men from the Birmingham area and beyond. They actually camped out in the Bessemer area at a CCC camp. They built the culverts, shelters and cabins that still stand today. By the mid 1930s, the young men were transferred to Yosemite National Park in California. The same hands that built Oak Mountain State Park, built Yosemite.”
After the CCC left, the Works Project Administration came in to build the dam for Oak Mountain’s Lake Tranquility. A centerpiece of the park’s recreation area, it was used by the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts into the 1960s and 1970s.
In 1943, the NPS abandoned the idea of a national park in Birmingham when they deeded their 8000 acres and facilities to Oak Mountain State Park. An additional 1000 acres was later purchased, making it the largest state park in Alabama.
It is a mystery why the NPS did not move forward with a national park here. We definitely didn’t have a financial backer like Rockefeller. You can imagine that by 1943, in the middle of World War II, the national and local political will was probably not there.
“It was perhaps not large enough or up to par to work out,” said Muncher. “Maybe they decided to put their efforts into some of the bigger places in other states.”
More than a Park
After learning about how Oak Mountain almost became a national park, I thought my story was complete. It wasn’t.
There is so much more natural history to learn about the land that is Oak Mountain State Park.
For example, according to Muncher, the history of Oak Mountain can be traced as far back as 1000 A.D. As recently as six months ago, the park has discovered Mississippian era artifacts that include arrowheads, tools and pieces of pottery. Because of the park’s natural springs there is evidence that the area was a hunting ground for bears, elk and deer.
Fast forward to the 1920s—Oak Mountain State Park was called the ‘Moonshinest’ place in Alabama.
“It was a hotspot for bootleggers,” described Muncher. This land provided most of the illegal alcohol for Birmingham. Even to this day, we find remnants of stills all through the park—barrel rings near water everywhere.”
Overall, she estimates 30-50 places where stills once existed. In the past year, they have discovered 3 additional stills.
Rare trees, plants and wildlife
Of course, as a naturalist, Lauren takes pride in the rare forests, trees and animals that reside in Oak Mountain State Park.
This includes several hundred acres of one of the oldest mountain longleaf pine stands in the state and the Southeast. In fact, a few of the pine trees may be two centuries old.
Another interesting fact – longleaf pine forests are dependent on fire to survive and it is used to restore habitat for critters such as the threatened Red-cockaded woodpecker. This past spring, The Nature Conservancy in Alabama, Alabama Forestry Commission and the Alabama State Parks planned to conduct a prescribed burn at Oak Mountain. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic the “burn” was postponed.
Alongside the old growth longleaf pine trees at Oak Mountain, there’s also a tree called the Boynton Oak—a very rare six-foot tall oak tree.
The extremely slow growing oak can only be found in a handful of places throughout Alabama. Abnormally small and whimsical, the Boynton Oak is one of the rarest oaks in the world, according to Muncher.
Last on our list of rare trees and animals in the park, is a pair of bald eagles that love to frequent and hunt for fish at Lunker and Beaver lakes. The best time to see them is either in the early morning or late afternoon. Local avian experts believe they nest either in or or near Lake Purdy. They are in the eagle world considered “a married couple.”
This past December, Muncher got to witness through her binoculars their courtship display, locking talons while falling to the earth. She said it was one of the most exciting events she has ever seen.
Alabama’s Most Popular State Park
Today, more than 500,000 people visit Oak Mountain State Park annually. Even though it is not a national park, Oak Mountain is a destination spot for trail runners, hikers, mountain bikers, swimmers, golfers. wildlife watchers and so many others who enjoy it.
It is the kind of place someone like Lauren Muncher can grow up in, fall in love with, become its naturalist and discover something new every day.
Next Up: History of Alabama State Parks and why they matter