Birmingham has long been known as “Pittsburgh of the South.” All of the materials required to make iron are abundant within thirty miles. Unlike Pittsburgh, there are no major rivers. So Birmingham’s industrial might depended on the arrival of the railroad. Even today, 82 trains a day roll along the main line next to Sloss Furnaces.
Sloss Furnaces, built in 1881, were the second commercial furnaces built in a city that eventually supported 66 iron ore furnaces. Early furnaces, based on designs from northern producers, had to be modified because the minerals from these hills were different. Nicole Herzog explains, “They were spending more time cleaning the furnaces than making iron, until they adjusted the process and the facilities.” The Sloss Furnaces continued to upgrade and expand well into the early1900’s as they optimized production.
But times changed. Now there are only specialty iron producers in Birmingham. Sloss shut down completely in 1971. The furnaces sat abandoned until they were named a National Historic Site in 1983. Now, Sloss Furnaces is a historic and educational center.
Nicole pointed out one attribute of iron production in Birmingham that was quite different form up north: the differences between accommodations for the Black workers and the White workers. “A lot of the Civil Rights work grew out of places like this. Blacks and Whites worked together and lived together, yet there were all these laws to keep them apart. They had separate baseball teams, but each group went to watch the other group play. 65% of the workers here were Black, but the first Black promoted to a management position wasn’t until the 1960’s. When you come out of the furnace, you’re all the same color.”
How will we live tomorrow?
“I think a lot like we live today, if you’re just talking about tomorrow. It’s amazing when you see what these men created in the 1880’s. Now, I have engineering visitors and they say, ‘This is the way we do it today.’ We used five million gallons of water per furnace per day to keep them cool. The fountains we have here are a small part of the cooling spray that was larger than a football field. The furnaces generated so much excess power they sold it. They dealt with all the same things we deal with, over a hundred years ago.”