Sloss Furnaces in Birmingham, Jefferson County, stopped production in 1970 after nearly a century of iron manufacturing. A leading force in Alabama industry, the Sloss Furnace Company and its founders were integral to the city's rise as an industrial power in the South. As manufacturing declined and Birmingham began to transform itself from an industrial giant to a city dependent on medical and professional services, a heated debate arose about what to do with the tract on which the idle Sloss Furnaces stood.
In 1969, the Jim Walter Corporation acquired the site and donated it the following year to the Alabama State Fair Authority. The Fair Authority concluded that the site was not salvageable and decided to demolish it. The Sloss Furnace Association (SFA), an organization comprised of individuals from all backgrounds interested in preserving the site, was formed and succeeded in having the site placed on the National Register of Historic Places in July 1972; however, no funds were available for its development. During this time, the site deteriorated as a result of vandalism and neglect. Civic leaders considered converting it into a theme park, but the projected $65 million cost was deemed too high and the 18-acre site too small.
In 1976, the Historic American Engineering Record (HARE), a project of the U.S. Library of Congress, conducted a detailed survey of Sloss Furnace property, jointly funded by the city council and the National Parks Service, to assess its historical significance and prepare a permanent architectural record. In the spring of 1977, Birmingham earmarked $3 million for refurbishing the furnaces and turning them into an industrial museum. In a series of meetings at City Hall in autumn 1977, Jim Waters, president of the SFA, outlined a plan to restore the site, increase its accessibility to the public, and renovate the former employee bath house for use as an administrative office and visitors center.
Work began to renovate and repair the various structures and add informational and visual displays. In May 1981, the tract became one of what were at the time only 87 sites in the United States to be given the designation of National Historic Landmark. In April 1982, the site hosted a celebration commemorating the first run of iron that had flowed from the original Sloss Furnace No. 1 a century earlier.
About two-thirds of the historic structures on the site were stabilized using bond funds approved by the Birmingham voters in 1977. Other parts of the site were adapted for use as a center for community and civic events and for an innovative program in metal arts. Sloss now hosts concerts, festivals, and conferences, as well as workshops and exhibitions of metal arts. These programs keep Sloss an active and important part of the community.
Sloss is currently the only twentieth-century blast furnace in the United States that has been preserved and interpreted as
a historic industrial site. The scale and complexity of the plant's industrial structure, machines, and tools make a unique
contribution to the interpretation of twentieth-century iron-making technology and present a valuable perspective on the era
when the United States grew to world industrial dominance. At the same time, Sloss is an important reminder of the hopes and
struggles of the people who worked in the industries that made only a few men wealthy and gave Birmingham the nickname of
the "Magic City."
Committee for the Humanities in Alabama. Like It Ain't Never Passed: Remembering Life in Sloss Quarters. Birmingham, Ala.: Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark, 1985.
Lewis, David W. Sloss Furnaces and the Rise of the Birmingham District: An Industrial Epic. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1994.
Windham, Kathryn Tucker. The Ghost in Sloss Furnaces. Birmingham, Ala.: Birmingham Historical Society, 1978.
Published February 20, 2009
Last updated March 15, 2013