Huntsville is “The Rocket City” due to Dr. Wernher von Braun’s work here. But why Huntsville? And who came up with the nickname?
The truth is, we narrowly missed the desert town of El Paso, Texas, getting that wonderful title. And we really have one man to thank — Holger “Ludy” Toftoy.
If it wasn’t for Ludy, Huntsville would probably be a city the size of Decatur (the two towns were of comparable size in the 1940 Census), and perhaps it would still have the sleepy moniker of “The Watercress Capital.”
Not known to many, Redstone Arsenal was originally a chemical weapons facility during World War II. It had been deactivated after the war and there were even plans to sell the arsenal to private industry.
So, the fruits of Operation Paperclip, including von Braun, were originally transferred to Fort Bliss in El Paso.
Ludy, head of the rocket/missile program in 1949, begged his superiors to transfer the program to Huntsville.
Ludy argued that Redstone’s shuttered chemical weapons facilities would be perfect for rocket research. He’s even been quoted as saying “General, I’m on my knees about this project.” (It’s unclear as to whether he literally got on his knees while pleading his case at the Pentagon, but I’d like to think he did.)
Fortunately for Huntsville, Ludy was persuasive.
On April 15, 1950, von Braun stepped off an airplane onto a tarmac in Huntsville cementing our legacy as the city of rocket research.
But we weren’t “The Rocket City,” as least, not yet.
Three years later, John McCormick, an English professor at what would become the University of Alabama in Huntsvile, published a booklet called “Rocket City U.S.A.” about the story of Huntsville.
Crafty entrepreneurs hijacked the book’s title for their marketing ploys with the first being a used car salesman (shocker!) In the following years, the nickname grew in popularity almost as fast as the city’s population.
No hate to El Paso, but I’m glad Ludy preferred us to that desert town on the Rio Grande. And I’m thankful to Professor McCormick for his beautiful bit of municipal branding.
Bart Siniard is a personal injury attorney with the Huntsville law firm of Siniard, Timberlake & League, P.C. Bart frequently contributes stories to 256Today about north Alabama history due to his love of the subject matter.