Location: Birmingham, Alabama
Webpage: National Historic Landmark
General Description: Sloss Blast Furnaces produced pig iron from 1881 to 1971 and represents Alabama pre-eminence in the production of pig iron, the raw material for many ironworks and cast iron pipe. It provides an example of the post-Civil War efforts to industrialize the South and the economic competition between the agrarian South and already industrialized North. The furnaces underwent numerous improvements winning awards for innovation over the years. Due to growing concern for clean air and water, Federal legislation including the Clean Air Act encouraged the closure of older smelters that were major contributors to pollution. The Sloss Blast Furnace continued in operation until 1971 and donated to the Alabama Fair Authority as a location for a museum to the iron industry that was so important to the history of Birmingham. Currently the Sloss Furnaces includes a small museum to the industry and a self-guided tour of the complex with interpretative signs and cell phone descriptions that tell the history and steps in the manufacturing of pig iron.
1) It has been over 40 years since the furnaces were shut down and the huge complex is showing the ravages of time. While there is a lot to see and learn about the functioning of a blast furnace, much of the complex is full of rubble and collapsed structures. You need to stay on the tour path and not go exploring on your own. I enjoyed learning the history of the Sloss furnace and was very surprised to learn that it was still in operation up to 1970.
2) The sheer size of the furnace cannot be appreciated without seeing it for yourself. The electric turbines that were used to produce the “blast” of the furnace are probably the largest machines I have ever seen. I also found it interesting that the large stacks that blasted the iron ore are really only a small part of the complex. Most of the complex is devoted to the storage and transportation of the raw materials, the area used to cool and form the beams of pig-iron, and by far the production of the heated air blast to smelt the iron ore.
3) I was disappointed, but not surprised, that nothing remains of the community of 48 small cottages for black workers known as “the Quarters”. They have managed to preserve one of the cottages, as well as, a foreman’s cottage so you can get a sense of their living conditions. I cannot imagine the sound or smell of living and working at the location, but the accounts of the workers was a bleak and difficult living. As this is downtown Birmingham, it is not surprising that the community was sold and converted into other industrial buildings and factories.