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Sloss Furnaces

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Sloss City Furnaces
1881–1883, Harry Hargreaves, engineer; 1926–1928 modernization, James P. Dovel, engineer; 1980–1985 rehabilitation and adaptive reuse, Jim Waters; Edah Grover, landscape architect; 2002–2003 masterplan, HWK Associates; 2010–2011 visitors’ center, Fred Keith. Bounded by 26th and 32nd sts., 4th Ave. N., and Norfolk Southern railroad tracks.

The striking silhouette of Sloss Furnaces and the still-busy railroad tracks around them in downtown Birmingham tell the story of why the city came into being shortly after the Civil War. Due to its large deposits of iron ore, coal, and limestone, within a decade and a half of Birmingham’s founding, six blast furnaces lined the railroad tracks. The gargantuan scale of the furnaces, stoves, and stacks dominated the skyline, and stood as a testament to an industrial process that drove the country’s economy and dwarfed the human figures working it. Birmingham became the nation’s leading foundry iron producer from the late nineteenth century until the 1960s. Today, only the long-dormant Sloss complex remains.

Originally blown in 1882 and 1883, the two blast furnaces were extensively rebuilt and modernized during the 1920s, resulting in a daily capacity of 400 to 450 tons. They continue to anchor a group of some forty iron-making structures, including steam boilers, a powerhouse, blowing engine room, hot blast stoves, expanded slag machine, slag pits, cast houses, office, cooling towers, spray pond, gas washing equipment, storage bins, bathhouse, and railroad tracks. Now a National Historic Landmark, the complex is a monument to Birmingham’s origins and a pioneering model for preserving and interpreting a historic twentieth-century industrial site.

The oldest extant building, dating from 1902, houses immense vertical steam-driven blowing engines used to provide air for combustion in the furnaces. Boilers installed in 1906 and 1914 produced steam for operations until production ceased in 1970. The causes of the shutdown were complex: a declining market for merchant pig iron, satisfying air pollution requirements, and the high cost of metallurgical coke. In 1977 Birmingham voters, faced with a proposal to demolish the city’s last remaining historic furnace complex, approved a $3 million bond issue to convert it into an industrial museum, which opened in 1983.

In addition to on-site interpretation that counts the structures among its primary exhibits, the city-owned museum conducts an innovative metal arts program and hosts exhibitions and workshops that include casting and blacksmithing artists working on site. Concerts, festivals, conferences, and social events also draw people from throughout the community, bringing new life and new attachments to the historic furnaces. The opening of a new visitor center in 2015 further expanded offerings for study, interpretation, and events.

References

“History.” Sloss Furnaces. Accessed April 10, 2017. www.slossfurnaces.com.

Kulik, Gary B., “Sloss-Sheffield Steel and Iron Company Furnaces,” Jefferson County, Alabama. Historic American Engineering Record (HAER AL-3). National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Washington, D.C.

Lewis, W. David. Sloss Furnaces and the Rise of the Birmingham District: An Industrial Epic. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1994.

Morris, Philip A. and Marjorie L. White. Birmingham Bound: An Atlas of the South’s Premier Industrial Region.Birmingham, AL: Birmingham Historical Society, 1997.

Writing Credits

Author: 
Alice Meriwether Bowsher
Coordinator: 
Robert Gamble
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Data

Timeline

  • 1881

    Built
  • 1902

    Current blowing engine building built
  • 1906

    Extant boilers installed
  • 1926

    Extensive rebuilding and modernization, including the 1926–1929 rebuilding of the two blast furnaces, under the direction of engineer James P. Dovel, to adapt to southern raw materials, enlarge, and refit with mechanical charging equipment, doubling the plant’s production capacity.
  • 1980

    Stabilization of historic structures with some limited adaptation for new uses, such as converting the bathhouse for administrative offices, orientation, and gift shop. Jim Waters, architect; Edah Grover, landscape architect
  • 2002

    Creation of master plan
  • 2010

    Visitor Center design
  • 2012

    Visitor’s center built

What's Nearby

Citation

Alice Meriwether Bowsher, "Sloss Furnaces", [Birmingham, Alabama], SAH Archipedia, eds. Gabrielle Esperdy and Karen Kingsley, Charlottesville: UVaP, 2012—, http://sah-archipedia.org/buildings/AL-01-073-0026.

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