Historic Structures

Sloss Furnace Sloss-Sheffield Steel & Iron Company, Birmingham Alabama

Date added: April 29, 2016 Categories: Alabama Industrial Steel Mill

The Sloss Company's city furnaces, built in what is now the center of Birmingham, Alabama, in 1881-1882, produced pig iron for the foundry market until their close in 1970. The furnaces, rebuilt most recently in 1927-8, stand today in disrepair. They remain a central element of Birmingham's skyline, a visual reminder of its past. When operating, the slag and iron runs lit up the night sky, illuminating the workers who kept the furnaces fired twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The location of the furnaces brought home the spectacle of iron making to the entire population - from the motorists who drove along side, and the workers who lived along side, to the fashionable young middle-class of an earlier period whose entertainments consisted of Sunday afternoon "furnace party" picnics.

The furnaces were given to the City of Birmingham in the early 1970s. Several years and several plans passed before a decision by the Alabama Fair Park Authority to demolish the furnaces led to their recording in the summer of 1976 by the Historic American Engineering Record. This documentation brought national attention to the site. A tour of the site, intended to encourage public support for demolition, ironically led to the formation of the Sloss Furnace Association, a loosely-knit crew dedicated to preserving the furnaces. In 1980, SFA succeeded in recruiting support at the polls for the passage of a major City Bond issue authorizing funding for restoration of the furnaces as a city museum and community center. Portions of the furnace site opened to the public for the first time on Labor Day, 1984. City and federal appropriations have funded successive restoration of historic fabric. The Furnaces, now a museum of the City of Birmingham, have become a national and international center for the pouring and smithing of metals (with artists working on the site), and exhibits, workshops and special programs.

The history of the furnaces parallels that of Birmingham an industrial "boom-town" whose rapid and tumuluous growth was spurred by the iron industry and underwritten by the area's rich mineral resources. The Sloss Furnaces mirror the major themes of Birmingham's economic history from 1880 to 1930: rapid but unstable growth; increasing reliance on Northern capital; artificially high transportation cost and slow development of regional markets; the strengths and limits of the area's mineral base; and the existence of an independent, and at times militant working class.

The most striking feature of the site is that its major operating equipment - blast furnaces, charging and casting machinery - was installed between 1927 and 1931. These five years mark the high point of technological change. Between 1927 and 1928, the two furnaces at the site were rebuilt, enlarged, and refitted with mechanical charging apparatus. Prior to that change, both furnaces had been hand-filled. In the same years, the company first installed pneumatic devices for opening and closing the iron notch, (the opening at the base of the furnace from which the molten iron ran), work previously done by hand under hot and onerous conditions. In 1931, the company installed a pig casting machine at the site. The machine, which has since been dismantled and sold, replaced the older, heavily labor-intensive, methods of sand-casting. All of these changes were labor saving, not primarily in the sense that they reduced individual human toil (though in fact they did), but because they made it possible to hire far fewer workers.

In this concentrated program of modernization Sloss adopted systems which had been in widespread use for twenty to thirty years. The mechanical charging of furnaces was the central feature of the "Duquesne Revolution" which drastically altered blast furnace practice in the mid-1890's.

Pneumatic and electric drills and mud guns were used to open and close furnaces by 1900. Ironically, the first successful pig casting machine was invented in the mid-1890's by Sloss furnace superintendent Edward A. Uehling. Uehling, who never installed the machine at Sloss, eventually moved north and sold his patent rights to Carnegia. By the the late-1890's his invention was in place at three major furnaces in the Pittsburgh district: the Lucy, the Duquesne, and the Edgar Thompson. It was not installed at the Sloss city furnaces for over thirty years.

In attempting to account for this delay in technological change, we may begin by dismissing two propositions; first, the Southern iron.and steel industry was generally backward in its acceptance of new technology, and second, the Sloss Company was a marginal producer unable to afford costly innovation. The first proposition is easily refuted. The Ensley Furnaces, built in 1886, bought out by Tennessee Coal & Iron in 1888-9, and later swallowed up by U.S. Steel in a 1907 merger requiring the tacit approval of President Theodore Roosevelt, were the South's technological pacesetter. Located just west of Birmingham, the furnaces were the site of the South's first commercially successful effort at steel making. By 1909, they were equipped with both pig casting machines and mechanical charging devices. Ensley was also the location for 120 by-product coke ovens built in 1897-8 by the Solvay Process Company of Syracuse, N.Y. These were the first by-product ovens built in the South, and were one of the first four installations in the U.S. Thus, there was no shortage in the district of best-practice technology or innovative example.

Second, Sloss was not a marginal company. By 1900 it was one of the South's major merchant pig iron companies (companies which produced only pig iron and sold it directly to the foundry market), and the second largest iron producer in the Birmingham district. At one point the company operated seven blast furnaces and owned almost 120,000 acres of coal and ore land. Throughout their history, the Sloss Company invested in capital improvements - new boilers, the new steam blowing engines, hot-blast stoves, and gas cleaning equipment. None of these were direct labor-saving improvements. For a company as technologically advanced as any, and which constantly improved much of its operating machinery, the failure to innovate in laborsaving equipment is all the more striking.