The towering hot blast stoves have stood like giant sentinels over the city of Birmingham since 1881, when Magic City was barely ten years old. James Withers Sloss founded the blast furnace after serving as a Confederate Army colonel during the Civil War. Recognizing that the area surrounding Birmingham had an abundance of limestone and coal, the raw materials needed for making pig iron, Sloss developed the huge furnace to compete with the high cost of doing business with large plants to the North. Over the next 90 years Sloss Furnace expanded and changed hands several times, continuing to turn out iron and provide jobs and housing for local workers.
Early labor was provided by slaves and sharecroppers working long hours in harsh and dangerous circumstances. Several horrific deaths occurred due to the unsafe conditions that are inherent with producing iron. Precarious scaffolding, hazardous gases and scalding steam are just a few of the deadly threats that took the lives of several men. One such incident is recorded by Walter David Lewis in his book, Sloss Furnaces and the Rise and Fall of the Birmingham District: An Industrial Epic. Lewis relates the account of Aleck King and Bob May. The two men were lowered into No.1 Furnace to remove the coke and ore that had baked into the checkerboard of heat resistant brick lining the huge furnace. As they cleaned, the residue fell into the smoldering embers below and the resulting smoke and toxic gases overcame them causing them to fall to their deaths. A crowd gathered to gawk at the unfortunate men, but nothing could be done to save them.
Another notable incident that occurred may not have been an accident at all but something more sinister. A story that headlined in an August 1897 edition of the New York Times describes the sad fate of a man identified as Joseph F. Webb. Webb was employed by Southern Railway and had stopped by a local bar for a drink before going home late one night. After showing off brand new pairs of shoes that he had just purchased for himself and his wife, Webb told friends that he was headed home. Unfortunately Mr. Webb never made it home. A young boy made a gruesome discovery the next morning when he found Webb’s “cooked” body in a furnace tank, the two new pair of shoes floating beside him. Friends ruled out the possibility of an accident and speculated that Webb was murdered since he lived nowhere near Sloss Furnaces. The occurrence of these and the deaths of many other men has given rise to many legends that surround Sloss Furnaces to this day.
By the 1920’s Sloss was one of the two largest producers of pig iron in the U.S., with Alabama having more foundries than any other state. Although earnings remained high throughout the 1950’s, overseas competition began to take a toll by 1958. With the help of U.S. foreign aid, Japan and Germany began to export iron to the United States cheaper than it could be produced here. This was the beginning of the end for a once thriving industry in Birmingham. Coke-fired iron became uneconomical to produce, and in 1971 Sloss (by then owned by United States Pipe and Foundry Company) closed down the last remaining active furnace in Birmingham.
I have always noticed those huge silent smoke stacks as I passed through Birmingham, and wondered at the history behind them. Recently Abby Rose and I were driving through Birmingham and we decided to get a closer look. We drove into an empty parking lot and looked through a chain-link fence that surrounded the site. As we stood peering into this complex site we were approached by someone that worked for the Sloss Furnace National Historic Landmark Office. Although the office was closed on Mondays, we were invited in and told that we could explore the site on our own for the next hour or two. Abby and I were fascinated by the huge hot blast stoves and mysterious looking machines that we discovered in the cavernous buildings. As we walked through a dimly lit tunnel, water dripping in the distance, we could almost hear the whispers of the men that once worked there. This place has an eerie beauty all it’s own, and we thoroughly enjoyed spending the afternoon photographing the shapes and colors of this historic landmark. If you are ever in Birmingham and looking for an unusual way to spend an hour or two, stop by and discover a unique part of our southern heritage.