Things to do in Birmingham – Take a Tour of Sloss Furnace

Introduction to Sloss Furnace National Historic Site

Birmingham, Alabama, has a rich and complex history that is intertwined with the city’s industrial past. At the heart of this story is Sloss Furnaces, a sprawling complex of blast furnaces, conveyor belts, and towering smokestacks that dominated the city’s skyline for much of the 20th century. Today, Sloss Furnaces is a National Historic Landmark and a popular destination for visitors who want to learn more about Birmingham’s industrial heritage. In this blog, we’ll take a deep dive into the history of Sloss Furnaces, explore its significance to the city of Birmingham, and learn more about the guided tours that are available to visitors.

History of Sloss Furnaces:

Sloss Furnaces, located in Birmingham, Alabama, was established in 1882 by James Withers Sloss, a prominent industrialist who recognized the potential for Birmingham to become a center for iron and steel production. The site chosen for the furnace was situated near a rich deposit of iron ore and coal, making it an ideal location for a heavy industrial complex.

Over the next several decades, Sloss Furnaces grew in size and complexity, with new blast furnaces, rolling mills, and other facilities being added on a regular basis. By the early 20th century, Sloss Furnaces had become one of the largest iron-making operations in the South, employing thousands of workers and producing millions of tons of iron and steel each year.

At its height, Sloss Furnaces consisted of two large blast furnaces, as well as numerous other buildings and structures used in the iron-making process. Raw materials such as iron ore and coal were brought in by rail and processed in the furnace to produce pig iron, which was then transported to nearby rolling mills to be shaped into a variety of finished products, including rails, nails, and other building materials.

During World War II, Sloss Furnace in Birmingham, Alabama, played a crucial role in the war effort by producing iron and steel for tanks, airplanes, and other military equipment. The furnace operated around the clock, with workers laboring in dangerous and often grueling conditions to keep up with the demand for steel.

The federal government contracted with Sloss Furnace to produce steel for the war effort, and the furnace became one of the leading suppliers of iron and steel in the South. The furnace produced pig iron, which was then shipped to other mills to be converted into steel.

To meet the demands of the war effort, Sloss Furnace increased its production and expanded its operations. Additional workers were hired, and the furnace operated at full capacity 24 hours a day. Workers were required to work long hours, often with little rest, and the conditions were challenging.

Many workers at Sloss Furnace during World War II were women, who took on jobs traditionally held by men who were serving in the military. These women worked in the furnace’s offices, laboratories, and as crane operators, making significant contributions to the war effort.

Despite the challenges, Sloss Furnace and its workers played a critical role in the success of the war effort. The iron and steel produced at the furnace were used in tanks, airplanes, and other military equipment that helped win the war.

Despite its success, Sloss Furnaces was not immune to the economic challenges that faced the steel industry in the mid-20th century. By the 1950s, competition from cheaper foreign steel and other factors had taken a toll on the company’s profitability. In 1969, Sloss Furnaces was finally shut down, ending an era of industrial dominance in Birmingham.

After its closure, the site fell into disrepair and became a target for vandals and scrap metal thieves. However, in the 1970s, a group of concerned citizens banded together to save the site from demolition and preserve it as a historic landmark.

Saving Sloss

The efforts to save and preserve Sloss Furnaces began in the 1970s, when a group of concerned citizens formed the Sloss Furnaces Association with the goal of saving the historic site from demolition. The association was made up of a diverse group of individuals, including local historians, community leaders, and artists who recognized the importance of preserving the site’s history and cultural significance.

At the time, the future of Sloss Furnaces was uncertain. The site had been closed since 1969 and was in a state of disrepair. Vandals and scrap metal thieves had damaged many of the buildings and structures, and the future of the site was in question.

To save the site, the Sloss Furnaces Association launched a public awareness campaign, highlighting the importance of the site to the history of Birmingham and the South. They organized rallies, wrote letters to local and state officials, and worked to educate the public about the value of preserving the site.

Their efforts paid off when, in 1976, the Birmingham City Council passed a resolution to purchase the site and begin the process of restoring it. The city worked with the Sloss Furnaces Association and other community groups to develop a plan for the restoration of the site, and in 1978, work began on the first phase of the project.

The restoration of Sloss Furnaces was a massive undertaking, requiring a significant amount of funding and expertise. The first phase of the project focused on stabilizing the existing structures and preventing further damage to the site. This involved repairing roofs, stabilizing walls, and removing hazardous materials from the site.

Once the site was stabilized, the focus shifted to the restoration of the buildings and structures themselves. This included the reconstruction of several of the original structures, including the steam engine room and the steam hammer building.

To help fund the restoration efforts, the Sloss Furnaces Association organized a series of fundraising events, including concerts, art shows, and festivals. They also applied for and received grants from a variety of organizations, including the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Park Service.

In addition to the restoration efforts, the Sloss Furnaces Association also worked to develop educational programs and interpretive exhibits that would help visitors understand the history and significance of the site. They worked with historians and scholars to develop accurate and engaging exhibits, and they trained guides to lead tours of the site.

The efforts to save and preserve Sloss Furnaces were not without their challenges, however. As with any historic preservation project, there were disagreements and debates over how best to approach the restoration and interpretation of the site.

One of the most significant debates centered around the use of the site. Some argued that the site should be left as a historic relic, preserved in its original state as a testament to the industrial past of Birmingham. Others argued that the site should be re-purposed, perhaps as a cultural center or arts community.

Ultimately, a compromise was reached, and the site was opened to the public as a historic landmark and arts center. Today, Sloss Furnaces is home to a thriving arts community, with numerous artists and artisans working in the site’s former industrial spaces.

The efforts to save and preserve Sloss Furnaces have been widely recognized as a success. In 1981, the site was designated as a National Historic Landmark, and it has since become one of the most visited historic sites in Birmingham.

Today, Sloss Furnaces is open to the public for guided tours, educational programs, and other events. It is also home to a thriving arts community, with numerous artists and artisans working in the site’s former industrial spaces.

The preservation of Sloss Furnaces serves as a reminder of the important role that industrial history plays in our understanding of the past. By preserving sites like Sloss Furnaces, we can better understand the challenges and triumphs of the people who built our cities and shaped our world.

The Furnace Today

One of the most striking features of Sloss Furnaces is its massive blast furnaces, which rise up to over 60 feet in height. Visitors can walk around the base of these towering structures and learn about the intricate process of smelting iron ore and coke to create pig iron.

Another important feature of the site is the water tower, which provided water for use in the iron-making process. The tower was designed to hold over 300,000 gallons of water, which was transported to the site by an extensive network of pipes and canals.

Other buildings and structures at Sloss Furnaces included the boiler house, where steam power was generated to drive the machinery used in the iron-making process, as well as the steam engine room, where the massive engines that powered the furnace and rolling mills were located.

Sloss Furnaces Tours:

One of the best ways to experience Sloss Furnaces is through a guided tour. These tours are led by knowledgeable guides who provide visitors with a detailed look at the site’s history, as well as its current uses and significance to the city of Birmingham.

The Birmingham Historic Touring Company provides two different tours that feature Sloss Furnace.  Our Historic Highlights Tour covers the basics of the iron process and includes a general overview of the site, while our Iron and Steel tour goes into the depth and breadth of the history of the site and the ironmaking process.

During a tour of Sloss Furnaces, visitors will have the opportunity to explore the site’s many different buildings and structures, including the blast furnaces themselves, the water tower, the boiler house, and the steam engine room. They will also learn about the different processes involved in iron and steel production, from the smelting of raw materials to the rolling and finishing of finished products.

One of the most striking features of Sloss Furnaces is its massive blast furnaces, which rise up to over 60 feet in height. Visitors can walk around the base of these towering structures and learn about the intricate process of smelting iron ore and coke to create pig iron, which was then used to produce a variety of finished products.

Another highlight of the tour is the boiler house, which was responsible for generating the steam power that drove the machinery throughout the site, while also generating electricity for the site and the surrounding area.

The Birmingham Historic Touring Company tours that include Sloss Furnace can be found HERE

Sloss Furnace’s website can be found here

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