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Rocket City without rockets? Experts say technology and re-invention are in Huntsville's DNA

“The Space Age, the Rocket City, doesn’t so much change Huntsville, as it was just the next evolution of what was already going on," said David Hitt, the president of the Huntsville Madison County Historical Society.

Posted: May 17, 2019 7:59 PM
Updated: May 21, 2019 7:40 AM

Huntsville’s identity is so closely tied to the space program now, it’s impossible to separate them.

But, what if that team of German scientists led by Wernher von Braun had not relocated here, had not developed the Saturn V rocket and the Apollo program and had not won the space race? If you think this would be nothing more than a sleepy farming town, those who know Huntsville’s history say you’d be selling the city short.

David Hitt mentioned that Huntsville was minding its own watercress business when the German rocket team showed up. Well, fun fact! In the late 50s and early 60s, Huntsville was known as the Watercress Capital of the World. Photo is courtesy of Huntsville-Madison County Public Library

David Hitt is president of the Huntsville Madison County Historical Society, and he says technology and re-invention have always been part of the city’s DNA.

“I can image a Huntsville that’s still in a lot of ways, smaller certainly, but in a lot of ways, not unlike it is today,” said Hitt. “Huntsville had one of the first municipal water systems.”

By the dawn of the twentieth century, Huntsville was a nationwide leader for textile mills. It’s been a commercial hub ever since, and Hitt says it would still be a thriving, growing business and technology center even without NASA.

“In 1892, one of the first cities with residential indoor electric lighting,” said Hitt. “I think you end up with a Huntsville that is still a smart place, still a technological leader, still on the cutting edge of a lot of things, because that was the Huntsville that you had already seen for a 150 years.”

Dr. Raymond Watson is a historian, engineer and inventor. He literally wrote the book on Huntsville’s Technological Evolution. At nearly 93, he still goes to work every day at his engineering consulting firm in Research Park. From his perspective, Huntsville’s place on the map was ordained by ordinance.

“It was the first incorporated city in the state. It was the first capital of Alabama,” said Watson. “It was built into the largest weapons manufacturer in the world during World War II, Huntsville was.”

By the 50s, Huntsville was well on its way to claiming a top-tier technology ranking.

“They picked Huntsville because it was a good transportation center. It already had two railroads going here, and it had the Tennessee River,” said Watson.

The Army relocated von Braun and his team from Fort Bliss, Texas to research, develop, assemble and test flying weapons.

“Again, there’s kind of this perception that Huntsville was this sleepy little southern town that was just sitting here minding our own, you know, our own watercress business, when the German rocket team suddenly showed up and brought us kicking and screaming into the future," said Hitt. "The reality is, the rocket team came here because we were uniquely poised to receive them.”

With the brainstrust developing guided missiles and rockets already in place, when President Kennedy challenged Russia in a race to the moon, Huntsville was the obvious choice.

“And they had already started missile development at Redstone Arsenal, so they just sent him (von Braun) here and made him a part of it. And so that’s how he came to Huntsville,” said Watson.

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