Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark
Once the Largest Producer of Merchant Pig Iron in the World
Inducted in 2000
The Sloss Furnace Company (later known as the Sloss Iron and Steel Company, Sloss-Sheffield Steel and Iron Company, and U.S. Pipe and Foundry Company) oper-ated in Birmingham from 1881 to 1970 and in that almost 100 years became the largest producer of merchant pig iron in the world. In 1876, railroadman James Withers Sloss came to Birmingham from north Alabama to develop the areas great
stores of iron ore, coal, and limestone — the necessary ingredients of ironmaking. In 1881, following heavy investment in railroads, coal mines, and blast furnaces, he launched the original Sloss Furnace Company. The company eventually owned fully integrated ironmaking facilities with blast furnaces, iron-ore mines, coal mines, coke ovens, and limestone quarries, all within the borders of Alabama. In 1900, some 2,000 workers ran the furnaces day and night. Today this hallmark of Birmingham is designated the Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark, a museum of city history and industry and a performing arts center. Open for free public tours, the Sloss Furnaces comprise 17 industrial buildings, 7 building ruins, 10 exhaust stacks up to 170 feet high, 12 hot-blast stoves up to 70 feet high, three water towers up to 106 feet high, 16 steam boilers, and associated facilities.
By the late 1960s, the plant faced technological obsolescence, air pollution concerns, and economic conditions that meant more profit selling the blast furnace’s coke than using it in iron. The furnaces were closed, and after several years, plans were made to tear them down. However, a group of citizens embarked on a campaign to save the site (which the Jim Walter Company donated to the people of Birmingham) from destruction, securing from city voters a three-million-dollar bond issue to begin historic preservation. In taking on this task, the newly formed museum became a pioneer of protocols to stabilize sprawling, 20th century industrial remains. Sloss Furnaces is the world’s only modern blast furnace actively being preserved; it is a model for similar efforts just beginning in Pennsylvania and Germany.
Years of stabilization work were required before the Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark was opened to the public on Labor Day weekend in 1983. In addition to tours and changing exhibits, the museum features an active foundry that demonstrates historic cast iron production processes and contributes to the understanding of engineering’s impact on the history of Alabama. The collection details how raw materials for ironmaking were mined, moved, and loaded into blast furnaces; how railroads, heavy industry,
and business entrepreneurs joined forces to industrialize the South; and how cast iron and its byproducts were used. Museum walking tours roughly follow the path of the physical scale of an old-style industrial plant. As noted by the journal Federal Archeology, when it reported on the Sloss Furnaces landmark in 1994, “In the post-industrial age of the microchip, the sheer immensity of the industrial plant almost defies belief.” Indeed, a great deal more than molten iron flowed from the Sloss Furnaces. “Our whole culture did,” according to one preservationist. “A whole way of life.”