If you’ve ever looked down on Birmingham from any of the surrounding hills, you’ve seen a massive, spidery-like complex just outside of the main downtown.
Sloss furnace was built in 1881 and opened a year later, becoming the first blast furnace in the city. In the early 1900s, James Dovel became superintendent of the factory and spent his time modernizing many of the furnaces and other equipment. In fact, Dovel was credited 17 different U.S. Patents for some of his innovations at the furnace as it shot up to become one of the largest producers of pig iron in the world.
As with pretty much anything in the south over 100 years old, Sloss furnace’s history is rife with racism and discrimination. Its early years saw much of the more dangerous labor roles filled by African-American convicts forced into labor by a justice system that definitely wasn’t trying to keep the institution of slavery even after the Civil War.
As the 1900s wore on, however, the black community at the furnace began to develop it’s own sense of pride, and the factory ended up building 48 houses in downtown Birmingham for workers and their families.
Eventually, the furnace was shut down due to emissions regulations. It sat abandoned for a while, but was designated in 1976 as a historic preservation site, and after some renovations, it became a National Landmark in 1981. Since then Sloss Furnace has been operating as a Historic site and museum in downtown Birmingham. You can spend hours wandering around the whole plant and checking out old-style brick boilers, steam turbines, blast furnaces, and coal conveyors.
It also hosts metal works festivals throughout the year, and probably the most famous haunted attraction in the state on Halloween every year. The stories of 19th century workers dying in unsafe industrial conditions is just fuel numerous ghost stories, and the decrepit equipment at night adds to the ambiance.
Honestly, though, I strongly suggest visiting during museum hours. You’ll learn more than you ever thought you wanted to know about 19th century factories, and get some really cool pictures in the process.
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Ed. Note: Sloss Nat’l Museum is located at:
Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark
20 32nd Street North
Birmingham, Alabama 35222
It is closed on Mondays, open Tues - Sat from 10-4, and on Sundays from Noon-4. They’re on the web here.