If you have ever driven past an old foundry or chemical plant and you thought it would be cool to explore, but you don’t because you don’t want to go to jail for trespassing, then this old iron smelting furnace in the southeastern United States is a place you should visit. In the center of Birmingham Alabama is a complex of chimneys, towers and pipes and at rising from the core is a water tower with the word SLOSS painted across the top of it.
Colonel James Withers Sloss was one of the founders of Birmingham and in 1881 he began construction of the city’s first iron smelting blast furnace creating the Sloss Furnace Company. In 1886 Sloss retired and sold the company to a group of investors who reorganized it in 1899 as the Sloss-Sheffield Steel and Iron Company. To boost profits they found a source of cheap labor by using convicts as slave labor. The local sheriffs would arrest mainly African-Americans on charges such as vagrancy and then they would be forced to work in the furnace to pay off their debt to society. It was horrific working conditions with molton metal, steam and sparks not to mention climbing to high elevations and the risk of falling. Several workers died at the facility and rumor is one man fell into the furnace and his body vaporized to never be seen again.
The area around Birmingham was abundant with iron ore and coal and could feed the huge appetite of the furnace. Around the time of World War 1 it was one of the largest producers of pig iron in the world. Pig iron got its name because workers would dig troughs in the sand near the furnace and then dig small pockets of the trough for ingots or iron to form. To the workers they looked like little piglets feeding on a sow so it got the name pig iron.
With the changing environmental regulations, and more efficient methods of producing, iron the Sloss furnace closed in the 1960s. The furnace and land was donated to the Alabama State Fair Authority for use as an industrial museum. Without funding they determined it would be best to demolish the complex. In the 1970s, The city of Birmingham raised funds to take over the historic furnace and clean up the site saving it from demolition. In 1981, The Sloss Furnace site became a National Historic Landmark and opened to visitors to explore its jungle of metal structures and piping. If you are traveling through Birmingham, it is worth a couple hours to stop and visit the historic furnace and explore its maze of equipment. Admission is free but you need to stop in the newly constructed visitors center and sign in and agree that you will not graffiti or climb on anything before you tour the site.
The Sloss Furnace National Historic Landmark is located at 20 32nd St N, Birmingham, AL 35222 you can find more info at their website HERE ( if you plan on visiting be sure to visit there website because sometimes they close for private events.)
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