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Sloss Furnaces and the Rise of the Birmingham District
An Industrial Epic
By W. David Lewis
The University of Alabama PressCopyright © 1994 The University of Alabama Press
All rights reserved.
From a lofty eminence atop Red Mountain in north-central Alabama, a huge statue of Vulcan, Roman god of fire and the forge, looks across one of the world's most remarkable geological settings: Jones Valley. Here, the three raw materials needed to make iron — coal, ore, and limestone — are closer together than at any other place on earth. The colossus symbolizes the spirit of industry. Towering 56 feet high and standing on a 124-foot base, it is the largest cast-iron statue ever erected.
Below Vulcan's feet lies Birmingham, Alabama's biggest city. Standing by an anvil and clutching a hammer in his left hand, the fire god holds aloft a torch pointing toward a long-dormant industrial complex on the valley floor. Much of the metal that forms his body came from this once-vibrant facility. Motorists entering the city from the south on the Red Mountain Expressway catch a momentary glimpse of it, neatly framed between two high-rise apartment buildings, but may be in too great a hurry to wonder about its significance. Just as the lofty spires, pointed arches, and flying buttresses of Gothic cathedrals symbolize the unquestioning religious faith that once prevailed in such places as Bayeux or Chartres, the massive stacks, dome-topped stoves, and slanting skip hoists of Sloss Furnaces are mute reminders of the industrial heritage of the Birmingham District. Now officially designated a National Historic Landmark, the complex has become an outdoor museum that attracts up to 100,000 visitors a year. On summer nights, musical groups ranging from the Alabama Symphony Orchestra to rock bands give concerts in one of its cavernous casting sheds. Throughout most of its history, however, it played a dramatically different role. As one of the district's economic mainstays, it epitomized the dynamic spirit of southern businessmen who believed that Birmingham was destined to become the world's greatest center for the manufacture of iron and steel.
Sloss Furnaces derive their name from Col. James Withers Sloss, one of Birmingham's greatest pioneers, who founded the Sloss Furnace Company in 1881. His creation was at least partly demonic from the beginning; like Vulcan himself and his Greek cousin Hephaestus before him, the installation had a sinister aspect. Due to not only the fires that metalsmiths tended but also the crippling effects of arsenic, mercury, and other substances with which they came into daily contact, many of the ancient gods identified with metallurgy were linked with destruction and depicted as lame and misshapen. Sloss Furnaces lived up to such mythological associations. People who lived in Birmingham when the complex was still active recall riding at night along the viaduct running past the site and seeing giant "bull ladles," each capable of holding 125 tons of white-hot pig iron, pouring incandescent casts of molten metal into an endless chain of molds, lighting the sky with an eerie glow. Others drove to the top of Red Mountain to get a different, but equally spectacular, view. It was a fascinating and terrifying sight, from which those who witnessed it formed lasting ideas of what Hell might be like. Belching soot and smoke, the furnaces blanketed the city with a pall of dust that blackened buildings, clogged window screens, soiled clothing, and helped raise Birmingham's abnormally high incidence of lung disease.
Like Vulcan and other mythic figures that embodied tension between opposites, however, Sloss Furnaces also played a creative role. Their acrid fumes imparted the breath of economic life to the aggressive, dynamic community they helped spawn. Along with other ironmaking enterprises that sprang up in Jones Valley during the 1880s, the stacks erected by Colonel Sloss undergirded Birmingham's transformation from an empty field into a thriving urban center with such swiftness that it became known as the Magic City. Giving substance to the visions of such prophets as Richard Hathaway Edmonds and Henry W. Grady, the sudden metamorphosis typified what Paul M. Gaston has called the "New South Creed," premised on a belief that industrialization was the key to fulfilling the region's hopes for the future.
But the status that Birmingham attained as a leading symbol of the New South was paradoxical. The city was in fact deeply rooted in the old plantation order. It had been conceived before the Civil War by a group of wealthy Alabama landowners who invested in railroads, banks, ironworks, and textile factories in the belief that such ventures were vital to the diversification and growth of a predominantly agricultural state whose prosperity was based on its role as an exporter of a single cash crop, cotton, to other parts of a vast international business system. Rejecting a northern style of industrialization based on free labor, these planter-entrepreneurs favored a southern model of manufacturing built upon the institution of slavery. Deeply involved in the development of towns and cities, they promoted the growth of Montgomery and helped it replace Tuscaloosa as Alabama's state capital. During the 1850s, amid a nationwide surge of economic expansion, they became fascinated by the prospect of exploiting the rich mineral resources of Jones Valley by creating an ironmaking city at the base of Red Mountain and using slaves to operate its blast furnaces and rolling mills. Realization of their plans was delayed by opposition from communities opposed to Montgomery's interests, the outbreak of the Civil War, and the hardships of the arduous period immediately following the Confederate surrender at Appomattox. Not until the 1870s, as Radical Reconstruction came to an end and white supremacists took control of Alabama's state government, did surviving members of the group finally succeed in founding the city about which they had dreamed, brashly naming it Birmingham after its famous British industrial counterpart.
Much had changed in two decades since Birmingham had first been envisioned, and the onset of a severe business depression in 1873 nearly killed the infant city. But there were still many reasons to believe that the industrial exploitation of Jones Valley would ultimately yield large profits. Slavery had become illegal, but furnaces and other installations could be operated by low-paid, severely disadvantaged black workers. Some of these laborers were convicts, leased at cheap rates from state and county governments. By capitalizing on low labor costs and abundant raw materials located in close proximity to one another, Birmingham's promoters expected to make iron at much less expense than it could be produced anywhere else. Using labor-intensive methods would help compensate for one of the South's greatest problems, a scarcity of capital. Levels of mechanization that were already becoming common in the North could be avoided by adopting new and advanced equipment only selectively, as required for operations that could not be performed in traditional ways. Skilled workers or engineers who were needed to provide expertise unobtainable within the region could be imported from other places and paid for out of the savings that would result from Birmingham's unique locational advantages. All that remained to complete the picture was a way to carry iron from Jones Valley to the outside world. Railroads and oceangoing steamships would supply that crucial missing element.
All of these developmental strategies had already proved successful to a limited degree in the South's prewar experience. In antebellum Alabama, they had been stubbornly resisted by plain folk who realized that the resulting profits would enrich a small planter aristocracy. Now, after Reconstruction, it was precisely such privileged people and their descendants who ran the state. Birmingham's founders did not expect that wealth derived from shipping iron to the outside world would be more widely distributed than the profits that large landowners had earlier gained from the cotton export trade. From the outset, the fiercely aggressive young city that emerged in Jones Valley was a distinctly southern enterprise. But it also had much in common with new communities that were springing up all over the country in the late nineteenth century, for whatever was unique about the South was far overshadowed by the ways in which the region was similar to other parts of a recently reunited nation. Putting sectional animosities aside, Americans returned to the relentless drive for material acquisition that had been so much in evidence in the 1850s. Birmingham's headlong growth was not merely a sectional phenomenon but part of a frenzied scramble for wealth that would make the United States the world's greatest industrial power within only a few decades.
Like the economic transformation of the nation as a whole, Birmingham's burgeoning development was based on seemingly limitless natural resources inherited from the remote past. The foundations of the city's sudden rise and of Alabama's equally rapid emergence as the South's leading industrial state rested on events that began in the Cambrian period of geologic time, 570 to 500 million years ago, when a shallow inland sea extended like an enormous crescent between what later became the states of New York and Oklahoma. As eons passed, sediments flowed into the sea from a low-lying area to the northwest, and volcanic debris fell upon it from earthquake-prone islands to the southeast. As these materials accumulated, the floor of the sea sank deeper and deeper under their weight. During Ordovician times, 500 to 440 million years ago, deposits of calcium, magnesium, and silica were transformed into limestone and dolomite. Known as fluxes, such materials promote fluidity; in time, they helped remove impurities from iron ore in the roaring bellies of Alabama blast furnaces.
Geologists differ about how iron ore came into being in the inland sea, agreeing only that deposits began to be formed during the Silurian age, 440 to 400 million years ago. Iron is one of the commonest elements in the earth's crust, but it is not clear how large amounts of it became united with oxygen and other elements to form vast ore deposits that later proved commercially valuable. According to one theory, grains of sand, rolled back and forth across the floor of the inland sea by the motion of water, were slowly surrounded by layers of rusty scum excreted by tiny organisms. It is also possible that a process similar to petrification occurred as iron-rich waters invaded porous limestone. Iron-fixing bacteria, inhabiting restricted arms of the inland sea, may also have produced ore formation. One way or another, enormous amounts of iron ore were laid down.
Two types of iron ore evolved in what later became north-central Alabama. One, containing variable amounts of iron and water in irregular surface masses embedded in clay, was limonite, better known as brown ore. Well suited to the needs of charcoal-fired furnaces built before the Civil War, vast quantities of it underlay at least twenty Alabama counties. Not utilized until later, but extremely important after the Civil War, was a second type of ore: red hematite. Containing no water, it took its name from the Greek word haima, "blood," because of its color when exposed to air. Red Mountain, stretching ninety miles across north-central Alabama, contained huge amounts of this substance. Some seams were thirty-five feet thick.
In mining and metallurgical terminology, Alabama's red hematite deposits were "lean," containing only modest amounts of iron proportionate to other materials. Much ingenuity was required to make their commercial exploitation profitable. Early accounts boasting Jones Valley's advantages produced false impressions about its industrial potential; prospectors were misled by the richness of weathered deposits near the surface, where nature had leached out impurities. Once surface ores had been mined, remaining deposits produced much lower yields; it took about three tons of red ore to make one ton of iron. A high silica content resulted in large quantities of thick, lava-like slag, more than double the amount yielded by northern furnaces. Pittsburghers contemptuously called Red Mountain ore "ferruginous sandstone."
Because of its leanness, red ore required abnormally high temperatures for smelting. "The Southern operator blows as much wind to produce 500 tons of iron per day as the Northern operator does in producing 700 tons," stated one expert. Making a single ton of pig iron required about 2,500 pounds of coke, giving the district the highest rate of fuel consumption in the entire nation. Red ore's refractory qualities made it highly abrasive, and its distinctive chemical composition produced an above-average incidence of "scaffolding," a rapid buildup of deposits on the inner walls of blast furnaces. This necessitated frequent relining, impeded the flow of heat, and, by damaging furnace walls, led to periodic "breakouts," in which incandescent raw materials burst through weak spots with explosive force and sometimes lethal results.
High concentrations of phosphorus and silica made red ore unsuitable for steel production by the Bessemer process that was dominant in the United States in the late nineteenth century. By frustrating boosters who wanted to make Birmingham the world's greatest steelmaking center, raw material constraints cast a long shadow over Alabama's future. Local ore seams were severely faulted by vertical displacement of strata, impairing accessibility; they also lay far below ground level, slanting deep under Red Mountain before leveling off beneath Shades Valley to the southeast. This formation prevented open-pit mining and required costly underground operations; by the early twentieth century, some subterranean workings were fifteen miles long. Such conditions lessened the potential advantage of having vast deposits of ore close to huge amounts of coal and flux, forcing industrialists to find ways of maximizing the benefits of proximity while compensating for the district's less fortunate peculiarities.
Red ore did have some valuable characteristics. The lime carbonate content in deep deposits, for example, made them virtually self-fluxing. The chief industrial advantage inherent in the districts red hematite, however, was its sheer abundance. Avoided by ironmakers prior to the Civil War because it was hard to smelt in charcoal-fired furnaces, red ore came into its own in the postwar era when coke, made from bituminous coal, won preference over charcoal due to its greater heat potential and mechanical strength. Proximity to vast deposits of red ore, coking coal, and flux, local boosters believed, would enable iron to be made at less cost in Birmingham than anywhere else.
Alabama's enormous coal reserves were as basic to this vision as were the district's abundant ore deposits. Brown and red ore are both oxides, and their oxygen content had to be removed before anything useful could be done with the iron they contained. Removal required bringing the ore into contact with carbon monoxide, a strong reducing agent, at high temperatures. Charcoal, an impure form of carbon resulting from incomplete combustion of wood in the absence of air, met this need prior to the Civil War. Coke, however, was preferable, not only because it had greater latent heat but also because its superior mechanical strength enabled it to be mixed with a heavier burden of ore and flux without crumbling and thus impeding air circulation in a blast furnace. In coke, postwar ironmasters found a fuel suitable for larger, more productive furnaces than any that had previously existed in Alabama.
Massive deposits of coal, from which coke was later made, were formed during the Pennsylvanian era, 320 to 280 million years ago. By then the surface of the inland sea covering north-central Alabama abounded with swamps that teemed with plant and animal life. The decaying remains of these marshy areas were slowly incorporated into layers of carbon-rich materials; heat and pressure caused by the accumulating weight ultimately produced enormous concentrations of peat, lignite, and bituminous coal. Originally, all of Alabama's coal deposits lay in one vast formation, stretching all the way from the Coosa River on the southeast to the Sipsey on the northwest. This, however, became separated into three distinct fields. Two of these, the Cahaba and the Coosa, were less significant than their far more richly endowed neighbor, the Warrior. Seventy miles long by sixty-five miles wide at its broadest point, it covers about 3,500 square miles and encompasses ten counties, of which Jefferson, Tuscaloosa, and Walker are the most well endowed. Unlike coal from the Coosa and Cahaba beds, best suited for steam engines, the Warrior variety was good for coking.
Excerpted from Sloss Furnaces and the Rise of the Birmingham District by W. David Lewis. Copyright © 1994 The University of Alabama Press. Excerpted by permission of The University of Alabama Press.
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Table of ContentsContents
1. The Inheritance
2. James W. Sloss and the Birth of Birmingham
3. The Sloss Furnace Company
4. Joseph Bryan and the Virginia Connection
5. Takeover, Expansion, and Recession
6. A Sea of Troubles
7. Turmoil and Tenacity
8. Brown Ore, Basic Steel, and the Emergence of Sloss-Sheffield
9. The Turning Point
10. Progress and Paradox
11. Divergent Paths
12. The End of an Era
13. McQueen in Command
14. Morrow and Modernization
15. From Hugh Morrow to Jim Walter
16. Preserving the Heritage
17. In Retrospect: The Southernness of Sloss