Huntsville’s Enduring Spring

Marques Hayes


A karstic spring is a type of spring that is linked to a karstic hydrological system. Karst refers to the places where carbonate rock, namely limestone and dolomite, are dominant. Water dissolves some of the underlying rock to form underground channels. Water flows through these channels.

At the terminus of a karst hydrological system is a crevice. It is through this crevice that a spring will emerge, bringing water from underground. The water that comes from the subterranean channels of a karst spring can emerge on land, or in another body of water.

Huntsville’s Karst Spring

The city of Huntsville, Alabama is home to such a karst spring. Big Spring is a karst spring located in Huntsville’s downtown area where an eponymous park is built around the spring. Huntsville’s geographic location is among the karst topography of northern Alabama. It is the largest city in the Tennessee River Valley.

Rocket Park provides an overview of rockets developed at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama.  Photo: NASA/MSFC
Rocket Park provides an overview of rockets developed at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama. Photo: NASA/MSFC

Huntsville maintains the sobriquet of Rocket City, a reference to NASA having a large presence in the city. The Saturn V rocket was developed in Huntsville before being launched from Florida.

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While space flight and aeronautics represent what Huntsville is today, its spring represents a part of its enduring geography. 

Big Spring is the largest karst spring in northern Alabama. The spring’s flow varies throughout the year, ranging between 7 million and 20 million gallons of water.

Cave City

Before being called Rocket City, Huntsville was called Cave City. There are several caves underneath Huntsville, representative of northern Alabama’s karst topography.

Roughly 200 feet from Big Spring is the Madison County Courthouse. Underneath the courthouse is a cave. The water that emerges at Big Spring comes from that very cave. This water source has shaped Huntsville from the very beginning. 

A view of Big Spring Park in Huntsville where the spring emerges. Photo: Marques Hayes
A view of Big Spring Park in Huntsville where the spring emerges. Photo: Marques Hayes

An Important Source of Water for Huntsville

Around Big Spring is a limestone bluff. It was this bluff where John Hunt, Huntsville’s founder and namesake, would build his cabin. The water from Big Spring was among the factors that drew him to what is now Downtown Huntsville.

Big Spring would soon become an important source of water for the city of Huntsville. A public water system was built at Big Spring. It would be the first public water system west of the Appalachian Mountains. 

Big Spring provided more than just water for its residents. The Fearn Canal was built out of Big Spring during the early/middle 19th century. A canal is an artificial waterway constructed for the purpose of transporting water or for watercraft to travel over.

Alabama was a major cotton-producing state during the 19th century. The Fearn Canal connected Big Spring, and Huntsville, to the Tennessee River. Cotton was shipped to the Tennessee River via the Fearn Canal. 

Big Spring Becomes a Place of Recreation

Railroads would make the Fearn Canal redundant, as commerce could be conducted via rail transportation. The pumphouse where the city’s water treatment took place was torn down and a new water treatment facility was built further east.

Big Spring would continue to be the city’s water source until the 1960s. Big Spring was instrumental for the city’s founding and found practical uses as a water supply and a conduit for transportation. This karst spring would soon become part of Huntsville’s urban planning. 

Between 1898 and 1901, Big Spring Park was constructed. After the pumphouse was torn down, a fountain was placed at its original site.  The karst spring and the canal, which was no longer in use, would become part of the park. The park would expand in 1968, and this expansion would include a lagoon. 

The land around the Huntsville’s largest karst spring was turned into a place for recreational purposes. Today, many people gather in Big Spring Park. People go to the park to take part in a variety of activities. Many people walk around the park, with the spring, canal, and lagoon serving as a pleasant backdrop.

Big Spring Park has served as a place to hold events such as music concerts. The COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 resulted in many events being canceled, in particular, “Jazz In The Park”. Despite this, Big Spring continues to be a place for walking, bird watching, and watching the fish in the canal, lagoon, and spring. The movie “Constellation”, which is set in Huntsville, used Big Spring Park as one of its filming locations. 

A view of the larger lagoon at Big Spring Park with the friendship bridge in the foreground.  Photo: Marques Hayes.
A view of the larger lagoon at Big Spring Park with the friendship bridge in the foreground. Photo: Marques Hayes.

Within the park, there is a red Japanese bridge going across a narrow part of the park’s lagoon. This bridge was gifted to the city of Huntsville. Japanese Major General Mikio Kimata stayed in the city of Huntsville between 1964 and 1966. He was part of the Ordnance Guided Missile School program at Redstone Arsenal. Kimata was impressed with the hospitality that he was shown while staying in Huntsville. As a gift, he donated several cherry blossom trees and a friendship bridge (the iconic bridge that graces Big Spring Park today) to the city of Huntsville. 

The park itself has proven to be a unique habitat. Big Spring Park is like an urban oasis of sorts in the middle of Downtown Huntsville. In addition to attracting many people, there is animal life to be found in the area.

The waters that are part of the park are filled with koi carp. Koi carp are bred for decorative purposes. With an abundance of water, this also attracts ducks and other waterfowl. The bluff where the park’s spring emerges also serves as a home for pigeons. Pigeons are often associated with large cities. The pigeons that roam and fly around major cities throughout the world are feral birds. They are derived from Columba livia, the rock dove. This species of bird is most at home around coastal cliffs. For Huntsville’s pigeons, the bluff that flanks the karst spring serves as a natural home. There are trees in the park, which provide a home for birds, as well as a food source for squirrels. 

In many ways, Big Spring Park is a metaphor of the changes Huntsville has gone through in the last two centuries. The spring has changed from municipal water supply and source of water transportation, to a habitat for fish and waterfowl. The park serves as a human gathering place

The city of Huntsville now gets its water from the Tennessee River. Huntsville has gone from being a cotton producing center to a city known for rockets and aeronautics. From Cave City to Rocket City, Huntsville has changed rapidly.  The park is part of the city’s urban planning, of its karst topography, biogeography, and its human and physical geography. The spring that the park is named for is an enduring part of Huntsville. It represents an important aspect of Huntsville’s geography. 

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About the author
Marques Hayes
Marques Hayes is a GIS Analyst and a freelance geography writer. He has a Bachelor's degree in geography. Geography is a subject that Marques has a special interest in.