Alabama #3: Sloss Furnaces

 A series of Wednesday posts about Birmingham, Alabama and the surrounding area.                     See Post #1 and Post #2.  This is Post #3.

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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.

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5 thoughts on “Alabama #3: Sloss Furnaces

  1. Andrew says:

    What an excellent summary of the site! I’ve always wanted to visit, ever since I learned about it in my Industrial Preservation class at UMW. I’ve had the chance to visit a couple of steel mills in PA, but none that have the significance and level of preservation/integrity as Sloss.

  2. cynthia carter says:

    my father worked at sloss mill in the early sixtys.i grew up a few blocks away over the bridge on 47th st.i went to the mill many times with my mother to pick my father up after work.men died all the time. daddy would talk about it at night,so i always would hear about how horrible it was to be burned alive then just disapear,no body left behind.also the falls from the towers. men lost their lives because they were rode like slaves and worked like mules.if you didnt do what you were told to do, no job. most people had big familys like we were so it was the best paying job to be had.i got lucky and my daddy lived through those horrible years.he served in ww2 and made through sloss.theres hundreds that didnt come out of sloss alive.

  3. C.J. says:

    Visited the Sloss Furnaces site ~today~ before flying home to the West Coast from Birmingham. I’d seen the mill from the road the day before & remarked to the other half how awesome it looked, it would be sooooo cooool to check it out…if only we could somehow sneak past company security…Only to “sneak” past a construction crew the next day and discover–discover that IT’S A NATIONAL LANDMARK OPEN TO THE PUBLIC (at least until 1600).

    Yes, this is truely a place I could have spent all day–wish I had brought my sketchbook with me! Of course w/ the rest of the fam’, in December temps that saw snowflakes coming down last night and this morning, an hour of nosing around was a treat! The visitor center/giftshop is closed on Monday, but the park remains open for a self-guided tour. Truely a Magnificent monument to American Industry. Dwarfed by the exhaust stacks, Blast Furnaces, etc, I found it difficult not to imagine the plant as a working site as I passed through–the men, the heat, the pace at which work must have proceeded.

    Although the Sloss plant has been closed for many years, and was a gift to the city of Birmingham in 1971, I could feel the spirit of American Industry yet here. Probably the keenest feature of this site is the fact that visitors have the opportunity to explore independently for the most part (though guided tours are also offered during the week), and are afforded the opportunity to walk or climb into a number of areas for a closer look. There are several guidemarkers that explain the manufacture of pig iron, as well as remembrances and tributes to the employees of Sloss. Overwhealming, Humbling, yet approachable. If you visit Birmingham, Alabama or are just passing through, CHECK THIS OUT!!!

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