Sloss Furnaces in Birmingham, Alabama is a National Historic Landmark and the only 20th century blast furnace in the country to be preserved and interpreted as a historic industrial site. Sloss Furnaces began operating in 1882, and in the 1920s, at its height, 500 workers produced 400 tons of pig iron per day. Pig iron is smelted iron ore and coke (fuel derived from coal) that is used to make wrought iron, cast iron, and steel. Birmingham is often referred to as the Pittsburgh of the South, for the abundance of iron producing resources located within 30 miles of the city: minerals, coal, ore, and clay. The furnace, just one of many around Birmingham, operated until 1971, after undergoing modernizations and holding out in a dying industry to due changing production methods.
Sloss Furnaces has been a National Historic Landmark since 1981, the first industrial site of its kind to be considered for this designation. The Historic American Engineering Record (HAER) documented the site. To see the documentation (photographs, data pages, documents, measured drawings), see here, in the American Memory project of the Library of Congress. Today Sloss Furnaces serves as a historic site as well as a location for community and civic events.
Visiting Sloss Furnaces was a unique experience. We could walk almost anywhere we wanted to, gaze at old engines, furnaces, pipes, and other unidentifiable (to us, anyway) mechanisms. We arrived with about 30 minutes to spare before closing, but could have easily spent much more time wandering around inside and outside. Without having industrial knowledge, it is difficult to describe. Yet, it was my favorite place in Birmingham. To walk around in this place and imagine how it must have smelled, the sounds, the dust, the employees working long hours in the heat, is almost like stepping back in time.
There were a few engraved, informational plaques throughout the furnaces, but mostly it was unguided in all senses of the word. Nothing was blocked, though common sense tells you not to walk down the basement stairs that will lead to two inches of standing water in the same way that it tells you not to climb up the ladder to the ceiling even though it’s open and within reach. Having only experienced places where everything is so guarded, an opportunity to roam free and see everything on your own was amazing. The downside was that we couldn’t really answer our own questions, whereas a guide could have helped. However, we did not visit the gift shop and information desk before walking through (again, we were short on time) – but it would have been a good idea.
It seems like there would be many liability issues with open stairwells and so many mechanisms (albeit nonfunctional) within everyone’s reach. But I hope that the freedom for visitors of Sloss Furnaces remains because being able to slip around a corner and not feel like you’re on this forced path is a rare chance at historic sites. Some paths are clearly marked on the outside, but once inside it was the free roaming experience. Most of us cannot imagine what it was like to work during the industrial age. Visiting Sloss Furnaces increased my appreciation and awe for this period of history. I would gladly go back to spend a few hours (with more information to enhance my visit).
Because there are so many pictures to share, I’m including a gallery. Click on the photograph to get the larger image. Depending on your browser, you may be able to zoom in further. Some remain unlabeled because I do not know what it is.