Retrospect: Turning little rocks into big business

The early years of the Birmingham Slag Co.

Slag heaps in Birmingham circa 1908. Photo courtesy of the Birmingham Public Library Archives.

On the final day of 1956, executives of the Birmingham Slag Co. acquired New Jersey-based Vulcan Detinning. A few days later, on January 2, 1957, public shares of the newly styled Vulcan Materials Co. were traded on the New York Stock Exchange at a starting price of $12.69 per share. The acquisition and expansion left the Birmingham company well prepared for anticipated growth from President Dwight Eisenhower’s $50 billion interstate highway system. But that growth was built upon the company’s early history of transforming slag, a cast-aside material, into a construction industry behemoth.  

By the turn of the 20th century, the furiously industrializing city of Birmingham was awash in slag. A by-product of the iron and steelmaking processes, slag is rather inglorious looking stuff.

Roughly one ton of slag is produced for every ton of pig iron. Thus, as the amount of iron and steel made in Birmingham grew, so too did the heaps of gray slag.

Some businessmen saw opportunity within these drab piles, however.

Research showed the adaptive uses of the by-product as seemingly boundless. Depending on how it was processed and refined, slag could be used in the creation of cement, as ballast (the rocky bed upon which railroad tracks sit) or to create a hard roadbuilding surface called macadam. There were even agricultural possibilities for some mineral-rich slag because of its high concentrations of nitrogen and phosphorous.

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Solon Jacobs. Photo courtesy of the Birmingham Public Library Archives.

Enter businessman Solon Jacobs. Born in Kansas, Jacobs first came to Birmingham in 1887 at the age of 22 as a railroad freight agent. In 1903, he went into business for himself as a merchant selling mining supplies. His industry knowledge no doubt helped him discern the prospect represented in Birmingham’s many slag heaps, all ripe for proverbial harvest.

For help, Jacobs turned, as one does, to a banker. Henry L. Badham had worked in Jefferson County financial institutions since 1886 and was a major stockholder in several area land and steel companies. He made for a good, if mostly silent, partner for Solon Jacobs’ new enterprise. Their connections ensured that their Birmingham Slag Co. could corner the market, gobbling up the heaps of the four largest steel mills around the city, including Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Co. (TCI) and Sloss-Sheffield, at rock-bottom prices.

Henry Badham. Photo courtesy of the Birmingham Public Library Archives.

Using three steam shovels, workers could load 200 railcars a day, shipping materials throughout the region. In the summer of 1910, the growing company was incorporated with Jacobs as president. The capitol stock at the time was $20,000. Jacobs and Badham held the majority of shares.

The fortunes of the company rose alongside Birmingham’s industrial might. In 1914, TCI received a contract to supply the St. Louis & San Francisco Railroad with 36,000 tons of steel rail lines; Birmingham Slag was awarded the contract to provide 100,000 tons of ballast for the railbed beneath.

The following year, another railroad ordered 50,000 tons of ballast. Orders of similar size were placed by roadbuilders seeking to improve traveling conditions for the growing number of automobiles throughout the South. In 1916, the company dispatched its secretary to secure a contract with Gulfport, Mississippi, for enough slag to improve its beachfront boulevards. 

After less than a decade in operation, Birmingham Slag Co. caught the eye of a new investor. In January 1916, businessman Charles Lincoln Ireland purchased the company, adding it to a manufacturing empire that included quarries in his native Ohio, as well as Indiana, Michigan and Kentucky. Ireland’s timely acquisition brought with it a retirement of sorts for Solon Jacobs.

That same year, Jacobs’ politically involved wife, Pattie Ruffner Jacobs, accepted a position on the board of directors of Susan B. Anthony’s National American Woman Suffrage Association. Solon Jacobs was an enthusiastic supporter of her many Progressive-Era political and social efforts. Over the next several years, Jacobs and Badham sold their remaining shares of the company they had founded.

Charles L. Ireland served as general counselor for Birmingham Slag. He also shored up his investment with new equipment, traveling to the Panama Canal Zone to purchase used steam shovels and a steam-powered drill for a song of a price: $6,590. To oversee operations, he dispatched his sons Glenn, C. Eugene and Byron to the Yellowhammer State. Subsequent generations remained with the company.

The Irelands knew the aggregate business well and oversaw the expansion of the main crushing facility, located near TCI’s Ensley furnaces. Completed in November 1917, the plant could refine 4,000 tons of slag a day. In 1918, Birmingham Slag opened a processing plant in Fairfield, near the newly completed TCI steel works. That facility specialized in refining slag for agricultural uses.  

Birmingham’s Ramsay-McCormack Building was constructed with Slagtex material from Birmingham Slag Co. Photo courtesy of the Birmingham Public Library Archives.

Birmingham Slag experienced incredible growth in the early 1920s. In 1921, it launched Slagtex, a “new and better building brick,” made from crushed stone at its Ensley facility. Employees produced 30,000 Slagtex bricks a day. Several prominent area construction projects used the bricks, including the Protective Life Building and Ensley’s Ramsay-McCormack Building, which housed the local offices of U.S. Steel. In 1922, Birmingham Slag benefitted greatly from a $25 million state bond issue to construct better roads. And in 1923, the company expanded into the sand and gravel business.

The company entered 1924 with projections of handling some 750,000 tons of crushed stone products, a 1,000% increase in capacity in just five years.

Further evidence of the company’s prominence came later that fall, when vice president and general manager C. Eugene Ireland received an invitation to address the American Steel Institute in New York on the topic of construction products made from slag. It was clear that Birmingham Slag was here to stay. The successes of the 1920s helped the company weather the Great Depression, leaving it well positioned for the post-World War II construction boom and all that came thereafter.

Today, under the name Vulcan Materials, the company ranks among the nation’s leading producers of construction aggregate and, more than a century after its founding, is one of the most successful companies in Alabama history.  

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

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

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