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Thu, April 24, 2014

The History of Sloss Furnaces


For festivals, Halloween thrills, concerts, and even weddings, Sloss Furnaces can be a blast. A look at the landmark's origins.


January 08, 2009

Only in Birmingham, a city built on the iron industry, would a pig iron blast furnace be transformed into a venue where people can hear a concert or even get married. How did such a crude, industrial structure as Sloss Furnaces come to be a museum and a National Historic Landmark?

Sloss is one of just a few industrial sites—and the only blast furnace—in the United States preserved for public use. It is named for one of Birmingham's founders, north Alabama native Colonel James Withers Sloss. Sloss constructed the furnaces in 1882 on 50 acres of land donated by the Elyton Land Company. The furnaces began producing pig iron in April of 1882, and at the end of its first year of operations, Sloss Furnace Company had sold 24,000 tons of iron. (Pig iron is an intermediate form of iron produced from iron ore, which is then worked into steel or wrought iron.)

Pig iron production increased dramatically in the 1880s, and the men who had built Birmingham's iron furnaces became local heroes. The local press touted Sloss as a potential gubernatorial candidate. Instead, Sloss retired from iron making in 1886 and sold the furnaces. Over the next several years, during a period of rapid expansion, the new company, Sloss-Sheffield Steel and Iron, acquired more land (including several ore mines) and more furnaces. By World War I, Sloss-Sheffield was among the world's largest producers of pig iron.

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Photo by Randal Crow. (click for larger version)

World War II increased the need for iron and steel; according to the museum, "By 1941, when America entered the war, nearly half the labor force was employed by the iron and steel and mining industries; more than two-thirds of the industries' workers were African-American." Of course, those black laborers remained segregated from their co-workers until the 1960s. White men controlled the company, while black men did the hard labor, relegated to "helper" tasks. The company built 48 shotgun houses for its black workers, creating a small community referred to as "The Quarters." The homes were torn down in the 1950s.

Technological changes in the pipe industry in the 1960s and 1970s, including plastic piping and an increasing reliance on scrap iron, meant a downturn in pig iron production. Sloss suffered, and by 1971 the blast furnaces were shut down.

The company that owned Sloss at the time, the Jim Walter Corporation, donated the furnaces to the Alabama State Fair Authority, hoping they could be developed as a museum of industry. The State Fair Authority, however, decided that restoring the site and running it as a museum was not feasible, and they announced plans to demolish it. This pleased many who saw the site as an eyesore, but the threat of demolition caused an outcry among some community members who wanted to preserve what they saw as a critical part of Birmingham's history. They organized the Sloss Furnaces Association and lobbied to save the site. The project gained national attention. In 1976, several organizations, including the City of Birmingham, funded a survey of Sloss to document its national historic significance. The State Fair Authority transferred control of Sloss to the city, and in 1977 Birmingham voters passed a $3.3 million bond to begin the work of preserving the plant.

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Sloss received National Historic Landmark designation in 1981 and opened its gates in September of 1983 as a museum of the City of Birmingham. Its collection consists of two 400-ton blast furnaces and some 40 other buildings.

Nothing remains of the original furnace structures as they were constructed in the late 1800s; the structures on site today date from the 1920s, when the furnaces and equipment were updated. The oldest building on the site dates from 1902 and houses the eight steam-driven "blowing engines" used to provide air for combustion in the furnaces. The engines themselves date from 1900 to 1902 and recall the engines that powered America's industrial revolution. The boilers, installed in 1906 and 1914, produced steam for the site until it closed in 1970. Parts of the site have been altered for use for events such as festivals, concerts, and a metal arts program, which includes classes in ancient trades, such as blacksmithing.

Sloss is currently the only 20th-century blast furnace in the country being preserved and interpreted as a historic industrial site. It's probably the only one where The White Stripes have played, too. &

Sloss is located at 20 32nd Street North. Tuesday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–4 p.m.; Sunday noon–4 p.m.; also by appointment. Free admission. Tours available. 324-1911 or www.slossfurnaces.com.

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