Historic Markers Across Alabama



Ironmaking



Marker ID:  
Location: located near the base of the water tower on the grounds of Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark on 1st Avenue North (U.S. 11), Birmingham, Alabama
County: Jefferson
Coordinates: N 33° 31.254    W 086° 47.477
  33.5209    -86.79128333
Style: Interpretative Sign **
Waymark: None
 



Text:

The Industry That Built A City
The minerals needed to make iron-iron ore, coal, and limestone-are abundant in the Birmingham area, and for ninety years men turned these materials into pig iron at Sloss. Sloss pig iron was sold to foundries, where it was melted down and cast into iron pipe, machinery, and many other products.

The heart of the Sloss plant was a pair of blast furnaces that together produced as much as 950 tons of iron a day. In addition to the furnaces, the plant consisted of a large number of auxiliary machines and structures: steam-powered engines to pump air; stoves to heat air; boilers to produce steam to drive the equipment; and a network of pipes to carry water, steam and gas. You will see all of this on your tour of Sloss.

The Raw Materials
Iron Ore

Sloss obtained its iron ore from company-owned mines at several locations in Alabama and, after about 1950, from Brazil and Peru as well. In Birmingham the principal source of ore was the Red Mountain formation, a ridge of hills on the southern flank of the city Red Mountain ore, known as hematite, contains from 35 to 38 percent iron. Company lands in northeast Alabama produced brown ore, or limonite, which has an iron content of 40 to 50 percent.

Coal
The coal used at Sloss came from company mines in the Warrior Coal Basin, a source of high-quality bituminous coking coal that lies on Birmingham’s northwest border. After the coal was mined, it was converted to coke. Originally this was done in 288 beehive coke ovens here at Sloss. In the 1920s the company built a modern coke by-products plant in North Birmingham. The many by-products of the coking process, including benzol, tar, and ammonia, were also sold by the company.

Limestone and Dolomite
Substantial quantities of limestone and dolomite underlie the whole Birmingham area. Sloss obtained these minerals from company quarries in North Birmingham and Gadsden, and from other companies in the Birmingham area.

Limestone and dolomite are similar minerals. Both are used in the blast furnace as fluxes; that is, they combine with impurities to remove them from the ore. The combination of flux and impurities is called slag.

Air
The final raw material needed to make iron is air. Air for the furnace is preheated to a very high temperature and pumped into the furnace at high velocity. It is the blast of air that gives the blast furnace its name.

You will follow the path of the air and other raw materials as they travel to the furnace.

The People
Former workers report that at one time in the early 20th century nearly 2000 men worked at Sloss. The payroll gradually dwindled over the years as technological improvements reduced the number of men needed to work the furnace. Modernization of the plant in the late 1920s cut the payroll drastically. By the time Sloss closed in 1970 the number had reached a low of 250.

Many of the men who worked at Sloss lived nearby in company-owned housing called the Sloss Quarters. Designed specifically for black workers, the houses were typical shotgun-style structures, with two or three rooms set on foundation posts and no indoor plumbing. The company also ran a commissary, where workers could purchase an array of goods on credit, and sponsored community activities such as picnics and baseball teams. Although the Quarters were demolished in the mid-1950s, the commissary still stands just north of the viaduct at the 32nd Street exit from the Sloss grounds.

Over the years about 65 percent of the workers at Sloss were black. Still, the workplace was rigidly segregated until the mid-1960s. Men bathed in separated bathhouses, drank from separate water fountains, punched separate time clocks, attended separate company picnics. More important was the segregation of jobs. The plant operated as a hierarchy. At the top there was an all-white group of chemists, accountants, and engineers; at the bottom, an all-black “labor gang.” In the middle, a racially mixed group performed a variety of skilled and semi-skilled jobs. Even in the middle group, however, white workers held the higher paying, higher status “title” positions - stove tender, boilermaker, carpenter, machinist. Black workers were restricted to such “helper” roles as carpenter helper, machinist helper, boilermaker helper.

In this setting unionization played a complex and sometimes self-defeating role. The union brought higher wages and a shorter work day, better working conditions and safety standards, and increased personnel benefits. But opinions on its day-to-day effectiveness varied. White workers saw the union as an organization that worked for the common good. Black workers often acknowledged the benefit’s the union won, but suffered from the union’s reluctance to fight job discrimination.

Like any institution that exists over a long period of time, Sloss underwent many changes - in management, in labor force, in social and economic context. The story of these changes is the history not just of a company, but of the men who built an industry and a city.

Erected by Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark.







End of Ironmaking