Retrospect: James W. Sloss and his BIrmingham furnaces

City's future was secured when he brought the L&N Railroad to Jones Valley

A postcard of Sloss Furnaces from around 1909. Photo courtesy of the Alabama Department of Archives & History.

Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark possesses a unique kind of industrial aesthetic. The rust-colored array of structures, easily viewed from the nearby interstate, invites the imagination to drift back to the early days of Birmingham, when smokestacks outnumbered skyscrapers, when the magic that made the Magic City was still new, and when the promise of iron and steelmaking signaled the start of an epochal era in the state’s economy.

One of the men at the center of this new era was James Withers Sloss. Born in 1820 in Mooresville, Limestone County, he spent much of his youth living in Florence. At the age of 18, he began working in general mercantile in Athens. Sloss then followed a familiar route into the business of railroads, first as part of the Nashville & Decatur line. 

Relocating to Birmingham, Sloss became a key member of a small group of early industrialists and investors who sought to capitalize on the resources of the Jones Valley, beneath which lay the essential elements of steel production — iron ore, limestone and coal. So great was the supply of minerals, and in such close proximity, that many felt a fully industrialized Birmingham could rival America’s iron and steelmaking titans. It was Sloss who secured Birmingham’s future when, in 1871, he struck a deal that brought the tracks of the Louisville & Nashville Railroad to Jones Valley. Sloss convinced L&N President Albert Fink to absorb the failed North & South Railroad and its Birmingham route.

James Withers Sloss. Photo courtesy of the Alabama Department of Archives & History.

In 1878, Sloss joined with industrialists Henry DeBardeleben and James Aldrich to form the Pratt Coal and Coke Company — named for Debardeleben’s father-in-law, the industrious Daniel Pratt. Soon thereafter, Sloss decided to strike out on his own, secure in the support of his industrial partner DeBardeleben, who had more business than he could handle. Pratt mines would supply Sloss’ furnace with coal. The terms were five years at cost plus 10%. With a spate of financial backers that included several current and former L&N Railroad executives, the Sloss Furnace Co. formed in March 1881 with $300,000 in capital stock. Sloss’ eldest sons, Maclin and Frederick, were officers in the enterprise. 

From the Elyton Land Co. Sloss secured a 50-acre site on the northeast side of town between 28th and 32nd streets with access to both the L&N and Great Southern Railroad terminals. Construction began in June 1881. In assigning the contracts for the project, Sloss “spared neither expense nor pains.” European-born engineer Harry Hargreaves oversaw the construction project, bringing the patented Whitehall hot-air blast stoves to Birmingham. Next to the furnace was the casting shed, 128-feet long and sitting on a bed of sand. Here the molten iron would flow into ingot molds and cool into pig iron, the company’s chief product.

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Workers labored into the night to complete the furnace. One local paper noted that a passerby who was ignorant of the great construction project underway “might very easily imagine, from the noise of hammers, that he had stumbled upon the forges of the fabled Cyclops.” Similar otherworldly scenes would soon become commonplace in Birmingham, where more than a dozen more furnaces were built by decade’s end.

When Sloss’ furnace fired for the first time on April 12, 1882, a small crowd gathered to watch. The molten iron ran down a trench, guided by expert workmen’s hands into smaller, uniform segments called “pigs,” because they resembled a suckling piglet. There the iron cooled, forming ingots weighing 125 pounds each. They were loaded by hand onto smaller mule-drawn carts and removed to nearby storage or awaiting railcars. Furnace workers responsible for these tasks, nearly all of them African American, typically were paid less than $1.50 in daily wages (about $46 today). 

Within the month, Sloss fulfilled its first order, shipping a carload of pig iron to Louisville, Kentucky. By the summer, the furnaces were producing at peak efficiency — 96 tons daily in mid-August, 102 tons a month later. Construction of a second furnace, one that would increase the daily capacity to 250 tons, was already underway, along with the company’s towering smokestack, marking a distinct feature of the Magic City’s skyline. Sloss produced 24,000 tons of pig iron in its first year. 

Though the furnaces were capable of producing quality materials, problems abounded for the company. As it turned out, there was a flaw in the original construction. Both furnaces proved ill-suited for the particulars of southern raw materials, which were different in marked ways from those in other parts of the U.S. and Great Britain. The remedy to this foundational problem was time-consuming and expensive. Furnace No. 2 was down for several months in the winter and spring of 1883-84. Competitors and newspapers in rival cities made notice of the delays. By the summer of 1884, Furnace No. 1 had been shut down for some two months and the output from the larger No. 2 was a paltry 5 beds of pig iron a night.

In 1886, nearing 70 years of age, weary from setbacks and watching the rapidly changing business world around him, the entrepreneurial James W. Sloss decided the iron and steel business was surely the domain of younger men. Secure in his reputation and fortune, in November 1886, he announced a sale of his furnaces to Virginia-based investors for some $2 million. The acquisition brought the retirement of Sloss and his two eldest sons. Sloss was among the richest men in Alabama when he died on May 4, 1890.

Now a historical landmark, precious little remains of all that was built during the era of founder James W. Sloss in the early 1880s. A few years ago, urban archaeologists from the University of Alabama at Birmingham uncovered the remnants of one of the support pillars to the original casting shed. Although barely protruding from the ground, this otherwise unremarkable bit of building material marks the place where, in April 1882, ingots of pig iron first cooled, heralding the arrival of a new Birmingham business. 

Historian Scotty E. Kirkland is a freelance contributor to Business Alabama. He lives in Wetumpka.

This article appears in the April 2023 issue of Business Alabama.

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