Sloss Furnaces

Birmingham’s history forged in iron at Sloss Furnaces

Pathway leading from the visitors centre to main industrial buildings.
Pathway leading from the visitors centre to main industrial buildings.

Just outside the downtown core of Birmingham is the rusting hulk of the Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark. For 138 years, this towering collection of pipes, boilers, and other industrial facilities has defined the Magic City and the people that worked within.

The land in northern Alabama is rich in minerals, including iron. Here in 1882, Colonel James Withers Sloss, who built himself up on trade and railroads, founded the Sloss Furnace Company to process the iron ore found in the nearby mountains.

Colonel Sloss would retire six years later, selling the company he created to investors. Leading up to the US involvement in World War I, the furnaces expanded rapidly and were one of the world’s largest producers of pig iron. By the time World War II began, nearly half the city was employed at the furnaces, with close to two-thirds being African-American. Segregation continued into the 1960’s, with divided bath houses, punch clocks and company events.

Rusting infrastructure in the heart of the furnaces.
Rusting infrastructure in the heart of the furnaces.

Following the plant’s closure in 1970, a group managed to convince the city to preserve the much of the structure for public use in 1977. In 1981, the Sloss Furnaces were named a National Historic Landmark, and began receiving visitors in 1983. Today, the site hosts metalworking classes, concerts and other events, in addition to welcoming tourists interested in Birmingham’s history.

We visited the Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark on a sweltering Saturday afternoon. With the sun bearing down on us, we sought shelter inside the modern visitors centre where the air conditioning cooled us down while we read up on the history of the facility and enjoyed a short film made up of archival photographs. Samples of various minerals used in the ore refinement process are on display, as are pieces of metalwork made in classes hosted at the facility. There’s also a gift shop, but by the time we arrived, the lone staff member was preparing it for closure. Then it was time to head back outside and tour the facility itself.

One of the blast stoves.
One of the blast stoves.

Braving the September heat, we walked along a concrete path parallel to the shed housing metalworking classes towards the massive 400-ton blast furnaces. Under the shade of these massive metal monsters, it must’ve been hellish to work in the immense heat given off by the smelting process, not counting the outside temperature. It was tough, dangerous work, with injury and even death without safety practices many of us take for granted today. A number of plaques posted in key spots share stories from former employees as well as detailing the process of refining the ore and functions of the equipment.

Preserved bath house used by the African-American workers.
Preserved bath house used by the African-American workers.

Browsing through the smaller buildings, you can really see that the facility was complex: massive generators that provided electricity, lofty cranes to move equipment, imposing control panels for operating various portions of the facility. Nuts and other fasteners larger than size of my fist. Everything about this place is gigantic. Exposure to the elements has taken its toll on much of the machinery; many parts are severely rusted, missing or damaged. However, to see our industrial history, and how much of what we use in our daily lives that comes from these most basic metals,is important; not to mention the stories of the people who toiled day in day out under harsh conditions to make these resources usable.

The Sloss Furnaces are open daily, excluding Monday, between 10:00 am – 4:00 pm CDT, and 12:00 pm – 4:00 pm CDT on Sundays. Admission is by donation.

Photos from my visit at the Sloss Furnaces are available on Gallery.

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