Many communities often find themselves in a unique position when their industries change. Where one door closes with creativity a new one can open and with that Birmingham, Alabama turned a once thriving industry which had fallen to the wayside to a landmark which now tells the rich history of what once drove their community to the top of the industrial boards.
Sloss Furnaces once burned bright and with smoldering heat. From 1882 to 1970 the furnaces operated with a glow which would light up the night sky. The iron industry of the area spurred the community of Birmingham in 1871. It was the perfect location as it was within 30 miles of the three ingredients which were needed to create iron, thus making it perfect for industry in the area.
By 1880 the first furnace reared its head and began to create iron at a rapid pace. Located between two railroads this was the perfect location for both receiving materials and quickly being able to disperse them throughout the United States upon completion. Within 10 years of the first furnaces construction, Birmingham had 28 furnaces moving the production with around 816,000 tons of iron moved out in 1890.
Sloss Furnaces were constructed as a part of the many furnaces built within that 10 years and were named for James W. Sloss, an influential man of the time which helped bring industry to the area and aided with the placement of the railroad. Sloss created a market for iron with what they called at the time “pig-iron” a product which could be produced and converted into items such as stoves, trains, railroads, pipes or even toys.
The furnace roared 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year with workers working in 12 hour shifts. The work was tiresome but the industry continued to evolve and increase its need for the materials produced so they pressed onward throughout the years. Though tough work, this spawned the influx of people to the Birmingham area with a population increase in only 20 years of over 4,200%.
Many of these new residents came from farming backgrounds or were a part of the African American communities which were seeking new opportunities. Because of this the steady work appealed, despite its difficult nature. In addition, many immigrants flooded into the city from European countries.
Sloss really began to take off in the 20’s when World War 1 forced many companies to change their focus. Sloss already was on track with their production and turned their focus to the war efforts by selling its iron to industries which were creating military items. They turned profits of $2 million a year during this time, which would be equivalent to $25 million in todays standard.
By the end of the second World War need for iron was dwindling. Newer technology in many industries were pulling away from the use of iron created in the traditional ways which had been so popular in the hay day of Sloss. Jobs were starting to see a decline and with that modernization continued to limit opportunities for large furnaces to make up the ground they once had held firmly. By the 60s iron was on its ways out and by 1971 Sloss closed its doors and cooled its furnaces for the first time in almost 90 straight years of burning bright.
The furnaces which once powered the backbone of the city laid in ruin for another 12 years at which time the City of Birmingham and the citizens put together a proposal to save the furnaces. Not for use but for keeping the memory of what had made them strong and alive. In 1983 the beginning of the preservation opened with a small museum set to represent the character and spirit of the South’s industrial heritage.
Today a lot has changed at Sloss. What once stood as a thriving industry now has cooled only to a few pours of iron for its art program. The craft of metal work are now taught here and on display in the museum entry. Once burning hot furnaces are now made available for visitors to walk through and see how the industry worked, learn more through pamphlets and take an occasional tour. The structures look more architectural than ever and shine bright with their bold orange tones jutting up into the sky line.
A trip to Sloss is unlike any National Landmark you will find. If you stop and listen closely you can hear the rattling of the wind on the catwalk, the echo of the empty chambers which once were the beginnings of all industry, or through the unique water features you can take time to close your eyes and imagine the feeling of being there in the midst of all the clatters.
Sloss is a free location to visit and one you will not soon forget should you take the trip. Unique and interesting a day at Sloss really is a day walking through history.
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