Col. James Withers Sloss
Sloss became involved in railroads in the 1850s and fifteen years later ended up as president of the Nashville and
Decatur line. During this postwar period, Sloss not only promoted the development of Southern rail, but became one of the
chief proponents of Alabama’s postwar industrial development. In 1871 he struck a deal with the L&N Railroad to
complete a 67-milegap of the South and North Railroad between Birmingham and Decatur. Ultimately reaching theGulf of Mexico,
the L&N invested more than $30 million in furnaces, mines, wharves, steamshiplines and other Alabama operations. By 1888
it was hauling annual tonnage of iron, coal, and other mineral products outweighing the nation’s entire cotton crop.
Sloss’s decision to bring in the L&N transformed Birmingham from a squalid jumble of
tents,shanties, and boxcars into a thriving community. Anxious to tap the rich mineral resourcessurrounding Birmingham, Sloss,
along with fellow Birmingham promoters Henry DeBardeleben and James Aldrich, acquired 30,000 acres and formed the Pratt Coal
and Coke Company. Pratt soon became the largest mining enterprise in the district. In the early 1880s, with the backing of
Henry DeBardeleben, Sloss founded the Sloss Furnace Company, and two years later ‘blew-in’ the second blast furnace
in Birmingham. Called City Furnaces, the plant was located at theeastern edge of downtown, at the intersection of two major
railroads. The majority of Sloss pigiron ended up in Cincinnati, Louisville, Chicago, and Cleveland. Pig iron costs in Northern
plants averaged $18.30 per ton in 1884 while pig iron in the South could be produced for $10-$11 a ton. By the 1880s Birmingham
was booming and had earned the nickname The Magic City.
Sloss retired in 1866 and
sold the company to a group of financiers who guided it through a period of rapid expansion. The company reorganized in 1899
as Sloss-Sheffield Steel and Iron, although it was never to make steel. With the acquisition of furnaces and extensive mineral
lands in northern Alabama, Sloss-Sheffield became the second largest merchant pig ironcompany in the Birmingham District.
James Withers Sloss continued to be interested in iron and steel-making until his death in May
of 1890. Praising Sloss, an obituary in the national trade journal, "Iron Age", stressed "hisfarseeing discernment,
indomitable energy and modern ideas."
Although Sloss initially focused on the production of pig iron, he
aspired to make steel, an iron-carbon alloy in high demand because it was easily shaped and resistant
to abrasion, thus ideally suited for rails. Unfortunately, Birmingham's raw materials were poorly suited for steel, and Sloss
was unable to secure patent rights to any of the innovative processes that would overcome their limitations. Amid declining
markets for pig iron, he sold control of his enterprise in the winter of 1886-87 to a group of investors, largely from Richmond,
Virginia, that had greater access to funding. In the process, Sloss Furnace Company reorganized as the Sloss Iron and Steel
Company (SISC), indicating the owners' intention to pursue steel manufacture.
Sloss FurnacesJoseph Bryan, a young attorney, led the Virginia syndicate and played a strong
role in Birmingham's development for more than two decades. The son of a wealthy tobacco planter, he was rooted in the upper
classes of the antebellum plantation-agriculture system and had strong ties with northern bankers active in financing the
shipment of southern agricultural commodities to Europe. Bryan and his fellow Virginians, mostly veterans
of the Confederacy, were attracted to the postwar South because they believed that labor costs would be low, given the region's
large pool of African Americans seeking to escape the exploitation of sharecropping. This outlook permeated the future development of Sloss Furnaces. The Virginia
industrialists also took advantage of the convict-lease system, which allowed them to lease prisoners at little cost to work in mines and
other dangerous jobs. Sloss employed large numbers of convicts in its mines, including the Coalburg mine, which was known
for its deplorable conditions and for its high death rate. In 1890, 90 of 1,000 prisoners died in the mines. Indeed Sloss
continued using convict labor after other large companies, including the Tennessee Iron, Coal and Steel Company (TCI), ended the practice. Bryan and his associates developed a satellite
community, North Birmingham, where they built two additional blast furnaces and, in addition to Coalburg, established an increasing
number of mining camps and company towns, including Blossburg, Brookside, and Cardiff, which was named for the predominantly
Welsh immigrant workers who lived at the camp.
this era, Bryan and his associates acquired brown-ore deposits near Leeds and integrated them into their growing industrial
empire; Sloss researchers had discovered that the plentiful red ore in Jones Valley made a better grade of iron if combined
with long-used brown ore. In competition with TCI, Birmingham's largest enterprise, Bryan and SISC took control of blast furnaces,
coal mines, and ore beds in Alabama's northwest corner whose owners had gone under in the economic depression
of the 1890s. The acquisitions resulted in a reorganized entity, the Sloss-Sheffield Steel and Iron Company (SSSIC), indicating
a continued interest in steel, a goal ardently desired by most of Birmingham's businessmen. In 1899, TCI scored a coup by
adopting complex new methods to produce the first significant output of steel ever in the Birmingham District at commercially
competitive prices, leading boosters to dream that it would become the steelmaking capital of the world.
Sloss-Sheffield was expected to follow TCI but did not. Bryan and his colleagues were cautious,
using new technologies selectively. In 1895, they had rejected the adoption of an ingenious mechanical pig-iron-casting system
developed by engineer Edward A. Uehling, who then left SISC to work for steel magnate Andrew Carnegie in Pittsburgh. Bryan
and his allies and supporters also overcame the objections of Edward O. Hopkins, an executive who wanted to embrace steelmaking.
In 1902, Bryan's forces decided to concentrate on producing high-quality pig iron for conversion into cast iron, a ferrous
alloy for which Alabama iron ore was ideally suited because it contained a high level of phosphorus, which promoted liquidity.
Cast iron could be readily molded into a large variety of intricate
shapes, including engine valves, steam fittings, stove plates, automobile engine blocks, and piston rings, meeting the needs
of the burgeoning automobile industry. Its resistance to corrosion also made it highly suitable for waste and sewer pipe,
which carried liquids underground, and pressure pipe, which conveyed liquids in industrial applications. Although proponents
of steel felt betrayed by Bryan, events proved that he had made a sound decision. Because of the special characteristics of
southern iron, foundries from northern bastions like Pennsylvania moved steadily southward and to Alabama in particular. In
time it was said that there were two categories in the foundry trade: Alabama and the rest of the United States. Sloss-Sheffield
and another local firm, the Woodward Iron Company, founded in Anniston, became America's two main producers of foundry pig iron. Paradoxically,
the Sloss Iron and Steel Company and the Sloss-Sheffield Steel and Iron Company never made a single ounce of steel.
Slag Pile at Sloss
FurnacesBefore Bryan died in 1908, he selected his chief lieutenant,
John C. Maben, to replace Hopkins, and Maben led SSSIC into a major period of expansion. During World War I, Maben delayed responding to government pressure to abandon antiquated "beehive"
ovens, which allowed potentially valuable gases to escape during coke production, and he was forced out by new leaders, including
Birmingham native James W. McQueen. As president, McQueen oversaw construction of massive by-product coke ovens that conserved
gases for industrial use while also generating large quantities of electricity. Before McQueen died in 1925, he began modernizing
Sloss-Sheffield's blast furnaces by introducing slanting "skip hoists" that replaced vertical elevators carrying
raw materials to the top of a stack and dumping them into "charging bells" that opened and closed to keep furnace
gases from going to waste. Around this time, SSSIC was taken over by Allied Chemical and Dye Corporation, a New York-based
company formed in 1920 and now known as Honeywell.
Hugh Morrow, a University of Alabama graduate, succeeded McQueen in 1925. Under Morrow and Allied Chemical and
Dye, engineer James P. Dovel replaced the two original furnaces built by James W. Sloss in the 1880s with two completely new
stacks that were adapted to southern raw materials and integrated them into an up-to-date layout in 1926. In 1942, Sloss-Sheffield
became a subsidiary of the U.S. Pipe and Foundry Company, which built a huge new blast furnace in North Birmingham in 1958
that was designed to maximize scientific control over every aspect of making foundry pig iron. During the 1970s, increasing
environmental regulations and energy shortages drove production prices to the breaking point, forcing the company to shutter
its Alabama factories in 1980. The new blast furnace was torn down after being put out of operation, but the 1920 plant designed
by Dovel was saved after a group of concerned citizens lobbied for its preservation. It was designated as Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark in September 1983, with the help of a grant from the National Trust for