Located in Southern Alabama, Montgomery is a charming mix of old and new. Not only does this one-time capital of the Confederacy boast a bevy of historic sites, but it’s also home to the modern day legislature and a state-of-the-art automobile plant. And although many of the buildings in the downtown area date back to the Civil War, access upgrades have been added over the years. Today Montgomery is a great choice for wheelers and slow walkers, as both the period and modern buildings are accessible; and the city itself offers enough variety to satisfy just about every taste.
The best place to begin your Montgomery visit is at the Union Station Visitors Center, located at 300 Water Street. There’s accessible parking in back near the accessible entrance, and plenty of room to navigate a wheelchair through the building. Inside, you’ll find interpretive exhibits about Montgomery, accessible restrooms, lots of maps and brochures, and volunteers who are happy to field questions on just about any subject.
After you get the lay of the land, it’s time to hit the road. The good news is there are plenty of wide sidewalks and curb-cuts throughout the downtown area. The bad news is that as you approach the capitol — which is a mile away — it gets a little steep. Still, the immediate area around Union Station is level and there are lots of historic buildings to enjoy.
Those interested in civil rights history should download the free Civil Rights Walking Tour (visitingmontgomery.com/play/see-and-do/civil-rights-audio-tour) from the Montgomery Convention & Visitors Bureau website. The audio program includes information on 21 sites, with details about the people and places that were instrumental in the civil rights movement. Many of the sites are within walking distance of the Visitors Center, and you can do the self-guided walk at your own pace.
One of the best ways to get around downtown Montgomery is to hop on the downtown trolley. There is lift access to the trolley, which departs from the Visitors Center, and stops at most of the popular attractions in the downtown area. You can just ride the whole route and listen to the narrated tour, or get off along the way to explore the attractions. Best bet is to buy a day pass at the Visitors Center, and use the trolley for transportation while sightseeing.
Step Back in Time
One of the most notable historic buildings in downtown Montgomery is the First White House of the Confederacy (334-242-1861, www.firstwhitehouse.org), located on the corner of Washington Avenue and Union Street, just across from the state capitol.
Once the home of Jefferson Davis, this historic building served as the seat of the Confederacy in 1861. After that, the confederate government was relocated to Richmond for the duration of the war. Today this Italianate style house is furnished with period pieces from Civil War times, and it’s set up as it was when Jefferson Davis lived there. It also boasts the largest collection of Jefferson Davis artifacts in the world.
Although there are steps at the front entrance, there is a level accessible entrance around the corner, on Union Street. Accessible parking is located next to the accessible entrance, as well as in front of the house. As an added bonus, wheelchair-users get a close look at the presidents’s study, as they are routed through it from the accessible entrance.
There is barrier-free access to all of the first-floor rooms including the bedrooms of Jefferson and Mrs. Davis, two parlors, the dining room and the study. The president’s bedroom has one of the most striking displays, including his last portrait. It’s filled with his personal effects, and arranged just as he kept it.
Unfortunately the second floor is only accessible by stairs. Still, there are just five smaller bedrooms up there, and the first-floor houses the more interesting artifacts. It’s definitely worth a visit, even if you can’t see the whole house.
While you’re in the area, make sure and stop in and have a look at the Alabama capitol (334-242-3935, preserveala.org/capitol.aspx), located just down Union Street. Built in 1851, the Greek Revival building is a National Historic Landmark, as well as the seat of modern day Alabama government. The building was last restored in 1992, and access upgrades have been added over the years.
This working state capitol houses a number of rotating exhibits as well as a museum store. To be honest though, the historic rooms are the biggest draw; in fact, the Confederacy began in the original senate chamber.
The accessible entrance is located on Union Street, and there’s good pathway access throughout this historic building, as well as elevator access to all floors. Save some time to wander through the old governor’s office, supreme court and house of representatives. And don’t miss the rotunda — it’s quite striking.
Made in the USA
For a look at modern Montgomery, make sure and include a tour of the Hyundai Automobile Plant (334-387-8019, www.hmmausa.com) in your itinerary. There’s plenty of accessible parking near the Tour Meeting Center, where you can browse through the gift shop or check out the latest Sonatas and Elantras on the showroom floor.
After a short orientation session and a film, it’s time to board a tram for a tour of the factory floor. There is ramp access to the tram, with plenty of room for a wheelchair aboard, and companion seating nearby.
The tour first travels through the stamping shop, where robotic cranes lift large rolls of steel into blanking machines to make body parts for the cars. It continues on to the welding shop, where more robots weld the parts together to form the car bodies. Next it’s off to the paint shop, where the bodies spend nine hours, while 81 robots apply primer, a base coast, a top coat and a clear coat. The tour then moves on to the general assembly and engine shop areas where the final touches are applied. And things wrap up with a stop at the test track, to see how the new cars are put through the paces.
It’s a great tour, and because of the tram, it’s truly accessible to everybody. Additionally, everyone wears a headset, so it’s very easy to hear the tour guide in the sometimes noisy assembly areas.
Although there is no charge for the tour, advance reservations are required. Tours are held on Monday, Wednesday and Friday days, as well as Thursday evenings. Make your reservation early though, as this popular tour fills up fast. It’s a definite must-do while in Montgomery.
If You Go
Montgomery Convention & Visitors Bureau