Bessemer is situated in the midst of the iron ore and limestone district of Alabama, in the southern part of the 3-mile wide Jones Valley. Iron ore was mined on the hills on the city's southeast side, coal was (and still is) mined to the north and west, and limestone deposits were also nearby. All three ingredients were necessary for steelmaking, which led to the area becoming a major steel center from about 1890 through the 20th Century. Steel is no longer made within the city limits, but is still manufactured in nearby Fairfield.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the city has a total area of 40.8 mi², almost all on dry land.
Bessemer was surveyed and given a post office (35020) in 1887. The name was chosen by founder Henry DeBardeleben to honor Sir Henry Bessemer, inventor (in 1855) of the "Bessemer process" for smelting iron. Its rapid growth over the next several years led to the nickname of "The Marvel City," a moniker which still finds occasional use today.
A satellite Jefferson County courthouse is located in downtown Bessemer. This practice hails from the special county government district known as the "Bessemer Cutoff," established in the middle of the 20th Century when Bessemer was a major city in its own right; the "Cutoff" even had a separate series of Alabama license plates, with a different numeric prefix than the rest of the county. Bessemer's status in that respect has largely been supplanted by other Birmingham suburbs such as Hoover, but Bessemer retains its own branch courthouse to this day, and the term "Bessemer Cutoff" remains in everyday usage by area residents.
Economics and Industry
In 1900 Bessemer ranked eighth in population in the state, second in amount of capital invested in manufacturing, and fourth in the value of its manufactured product for the year. By 1911 ore mining, iron smelting and the manufacture of iron and coke were the chief industries of Bessemer; truck farming was also an important industry.
Today, ore mining has ended as supplies exhausted. Manufacturing remains a factor with the Jim Walter Industries U.S. Pipe division ductile pipe plant on the city's north side. The city was home to a large railroad car manufacturing factory operated by Pullman Standard for many decades and later Trinity Industries, but the plant ceased most production in the 1990s, though other industries have relocated to this facility.
With the exhaustion of the mines and the exodus of the steelmaking and railcar manufacturing industry, the city faced an economic crisis in the early to mid 1980s with percentage of un-employed workers reaching into the mid 30s. Since that time the city has been successful in diversifying it's economy and is recognized for its business growth.
As with most cities and counties in Alabama, the tax structure forces Bessemer to be heavily dependent on sales taxes from retail stores. In recent years, the city has benefitted from new retail developments in the area of the Academy Drive interchange with I-20/I-59, as well as Watermark Place, an outlet mall near Alabama Adventure.
As of the census of 2000, there were 29,672 people, 11,537 households, and 7,868 families residing in the city. The population density was 729.0/mi². There were 12,790 housing units at an average density of 314.2/mi². The racial makeup of the city was 28.93% White, 69.55% African American, 0.28% Native American, 0.18% Asian, 0.02% Pacific Islander, 0.30% from other races, and 0.74% from two or more races. 1.14% of the population were Hispanic or Latino of any race.
There were 11,537 households out of which 30.5% had children under the age of 18 living with them, 34.6% were married couples living together, 29.2% had a female householder with no husband present, and 31.8% were non-families. 29.0% of all households were made up of individuals and 13.0% had someone living alone who was 65 years of age or older. The average household size was 2.52 and the average family size was 3.12.
In the city the population was spread out with 26.8% under the age of 18, 9.6% from 18 to 24, 26.1% from 25 to 44, 21.1% from 45 to 64, and 16.4% who were 65 years of age or older. The median age was 36 years. For every 100 females there were 82.9 males. For every 100 females age 18 and over, there were 75.8 males.
The median income for a household in the city was $23,066, and the median income for a family was $28,230. Males had a median income of $29,413 versus $21,552 for females. The per capita income for the city was $12,232. About 24.2% of families and 27.2% of the population were below the poverty line, including 37.8% of those under age 18 and 24.7% of those age 65 or over.
The Jefferson County Board of Equalization evaluated 8,840 homes in Bessemer and determined that their average market value for 2007 was $68,728, a 5.2% increase since 2006.
In 1911, the town was served by five railroad lines: Alabama Great Southern (Queen & Crescent route), the Louisville & Nashville Railroad, the Kansas City, Memphis & Birmingham Railroad system), the Birmingham Southern Railroad, and the Atlanta, Birmingham & Atlantic railways. By 2006, these companies had consolidated to CSX Transportation, which has lines to Birmingham and Brookwood; and the Norfolk Southern Railway, with lines to Birmingham, Mobile and New Orleans; Birmingham Southern continues in service. A major railroad feature is the "High Line," constructed by Tennessee Coal & Iron (predecessor to U.S. Steel) to ship iron ore from the mines on the city's south side to the steel works in nearby Fairfield. This elevated line traverses the eastern side of the city, and though tracks were removed over much of the High Line when the mines closed, part of the lines is still used by the Birmingham Southern, and all of the roadbed and bridges remain in place.
Bessemer is served by the small Bessemer Airport to the southeast of the city.
Bessemer operates its own school system independent of Jefferson County schools. The system includes:
- Hard Elementary located on Arlington Avenue.
- Jonesboro Elementary located on Owen Avenue (Eastern Valley Road). Principal: Darryl Aikerson
- Greenwood Elementary located on Roselyn Road. Principal: Deborah Billups.
- Abrams Elementary located on 23rd Street. Principal: Brenda Rumley.
- Westhills Elmentary located on Glenn Road. Principal: Mildred Posey.
- Davis Middle School located on Clarendon Avenue. Principal: Albert Soles.
- Jess Lanier High School located off of 4th Avenue. Principal: Jerome Cook.
The Board of Education also operates the Quitman Mitchell Opportunity Center, located caddy-cornered from the Board on 5th Avenue and 17th Street, which includes an adult learning center, Even Start child care center, and New Horizon Alternative School.
Bessemer is served by a weekly newspaper, The Western Star. Daily newspaper coverage of the area comes from The Birmingham News, which also publishes a weekly section devoted to news from Bessemer and surrounding communities; the News also maintains a news bureau in downtown Bessemer.
One radio station, WZGX (1450 AM), operates within the city; it broadcasts Spanish language programming and music aimed at the growing Mexican population of Jefferson County, but continues a tradition established by previous owners of broadcasting high school football games on Friday nights (in English). All of metro Birmingham's stations are heard in Bessemer.
Television station WDBB (channel 17) is licensed to Bessemer, but it actually broadcasts from studios in Birmingham, simulcasting with WTTO (channel 21). All of Birmingham's Television stations are viewed in Bessemer, and some have established news bureaus there.
Points of Interest
Bessemer is home to a theme park, Alabama Adventure. The park was originally built as Visionland, and operated by a consortium of Jefferson County cities and the county itself. After a series of financial difficulties and finally Chapter 9 bankruptcy, the park was sold in 2002 to Southland Entertainment Group, which has since operated the park successfully; the company announced the name change and major expansion plans to begin the 2006 season.
The Bright Star Restaurant, a local institution located in downtown Bessemer, is billed as the state's oldest continuously-operated eating establishment. Founded in 1907 as a small café, the restaurant has expanded several times over the years, most recently in 1985.
The Bessemer Hall of History, a museum dedicated to the history of Bessemer and Western Jefferson County. The musuem is housed in the former AGS depot which was constructed in 1916. The building is listed on the National Historic Registry.
The Downtown Bessemer National Historic District. Bessemer, Alabama's downtown is listed as a National Historic District.
- Neil Bonnett, NASCAR driver
- Alex Bradford, composer, singer, arranger, and choir director
- Thornton Dial, Africa-american folk artist
- Frank House, born in Bessemer, major league baseball player
- Bo Jackson, NFL football and MLB baseball player
- Sun Ra, Avant-garde jazz musician and metaphysical progressive
- Diana Ross, singer
- Andre Williams, singer and producer
- Bessemer, Alabama. (2007, January 9). In Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. Retrieved 02:00, January 20, 2007 
- Foscue, Virginia O. (1989) Place Names in Alabama. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press. ISBN 081730410X