We couldn’t leave Birmingham, AL without visiting one of the main reasons for its growth and early years of prosperity: Sloss Furnaces. Located on the east side of the city, after producing much of the country’s steel for nearly 90 years, this monument to industrialism was nearly lost in 1971, when it was argued that maintaining the facility would not be feasable, and therefore it was recommended the furnaces be dismantled. Luckily, a dedicated group of citizens known as the Sloss Furnace Association fought for its preservation with the help of a number of other organizations, and 12 years later, on Labor day in 1983 the site was dedicated as a National Historic Landmark.
Making iron requires three components that are found in abundance in the Birmingham area: iron ore, limestone, and coke, a derivative of coal. The process of making iron goes something like this: the aforementioned raw materials are brought to the furnace by rail car, where they are unloaded into a stock bin located close to the blast furnace (the structure in the first photo that looks like it has a platform on top). Next a skip car, attached to a conveyor hoist, is loaded from the stock bins and and the raw materials are transported up and into the mouth of the furnace. Upon entering the furnace, the raw materials are blasted with extremely hot air that is blasted from the bottom of the furnace. The hot air blasts burns the coke which produces a chemical reaction with the iron ore, and the limestone acts as a cleansing agent which removes impurities from the ore. This reaction creates molten iron which would collect at the bottom of the furnace, along with the impurities, a stony waste matter known as slag. The slag was lighter than the iron, and would sit on top of it in molten form, where it would then be drawn off the top at the bottom of the furnace through a higher notch, while the iron would be drawn out through a lower one.
The remainder of the facility was dedicated to producing the hot air, which needed to reach 1400ºF in order to be effective. Among the essential components of this network is the Boilers, the Blower Building, and the Hot Blast Stoves. Water was boiled in the Boilers, which run alongside the Blower House, in order to create steam which was probably the most important element in the running of the furnaces. Steam produced the power to run the skip car hoist, the generator producing electricity for the furnace, and the steam engines/turboblowers which produced the air that ran to the Hot Blast Stoves. The Blower Building housed the enormous engines that produce the air. Eight engines standing at more than thirty feet each turned flywheels (giant cogs) at speeds of 70MPH. One of the more gruesome sounding deaths at Sloss (of which there were 20) was of a man that was eating lunch in the Blower House with a co-worker. He was leaning close to one of the flywheels, and the story goes his co-worker looked at him, looked away for a second, and looked back and he was gone, sucked into the flywheel. By the time they could stopped the engine, nothing remained of him. It’s stories like this that lead many to believe that Sloss is haunted.
Pictured above is a couple of the Hot Blast Stoves which were responsible for heating the air before it was sent into the furnace. Constructed of steel shells, lined with a layer of heat-resistant bricks, and a lattice of bricks called checkers. The waste gases from the furnace were burned in order to heat the checkers, which in turn heated the air before it was carried to the furnace through a series of large pipes.
One of the coolest things that I learned about Sloss Furnaces is that they turn it into a Haunted House for Halloween. This place is perfect for it. While the self-guided tour is a lot of fun, be sure and try to make time for the guided tour, which is led by a Sloss historian who clearly loves the place, and has many interesting stories to relate. I encourage everyone to visit if they ever happen to be in Alabama, especially around October 31st!