The intense heat radiating from every metal surface combined with the acrid stench of leaking smelter gas made Sloss Furnaces a living hell on earth in the early 1900s. This hell was ruled by the devil incarnate named James “Slag” Wormwood, the foreman of the graveyard shift. An evil, barrel-chested psychopath, “Slag” took ruthless pleasure in placing his subjects in harm’s way, pushing them to work faster in order to impress his bosses. Under “Slag’s” reign of terror, over forty men lost their lives and scores of others were horribly maimed and injured. Then around midnight, during the autumn of 1906, “Slag” slipped and fell into Alice Furnace #1 (Big Alice) where he disappeared into a molten pool of iron.
Interestingly, “Slag” had never before climbed to the top of the furnace during his entire tenure at Sloss Furnaces. He preferred to stay grounded in order to more easily brutalize the poor desperate souls subjected to his iron fist. It is rumored that the workers revolted and laid down their tools long enough to drag “Slag” to the top and feed him to the furnace. However, there are no court records to indicate that any man was ever charged or convicted for this heinous crime. In the weeks that followed “Slag’s” untimely death, his ghost returned to exact his revenge on the tormented workers. Strange accidents occurred regularly, often with critical results, to the point where the danger forced the plant’s management to shut down the graveyard shift forever.
Even though there are no records to substantiate this incredible story, the legend of James “Slag” Wormwood and the Sloss Furnace seem to grow larger each year. There are numerous police reports, filed by workers, of paranormal activity that range from sightings of apparitions and unexplained voices to tools moving on their own. The reports gained enough traction to attract investigation by numerous national TV shows including the Fox Family “Scariest Places on Earth,” Lifetime’s “Beyond Chance,” and Syfy’s “Ghost Hunters.” Since the majority of the ghostly activity seems to happen around September and October, it might be safe to conclude that the legend originated from, and is perpetuated by, Sloss Fright Furnace. But who can really know with certainty.
The importance of the iron industry to the development of the “Magic City” of Birmingham, Alabama was previously documented in my posts “Hiking in Red Mountain Park” and “Tannehill Ironworks Historic State Park.” The Sloss Furnaces, which operated from 1882 until 1971, were major players in the Jackson County post-Civil War industrial complex which contributed to the rapid growth of the Birmingham area.
Named after its founder, James Withers Sloss, the first workers at Sloss Furnaces were mostly former sharecroppers and slaves. Cheap labor, combined with an abundance of nearby raw materials, provided a huge economic advantage to Sloss over the Northern pig iron producers. Despite the early success of Sloss Furnaces, Sloss retired and sold the plant in 1886 to a Virginia investment group, just four years after it became operational.
The new owners changed the name of the company to Sloss-Sheffield Steel and Iron Company, but ironically, due to the type of raw materials locally available, the Sloss Furnaces never produced an ounce of steel. In 1931, the original furnaces were torn down and replaced with the furnaces that still stand today. The company was subsequently sold to the U.S. Pipe and Foundry Company in 1952 and was sold again in 1963 to the Jim Walter Corporation. With the dwindling availability of local iron ore and facilities unable to comply with the U.S. Clean Air Act, the Jim Walter Corporation shut down the Sloss Furnaces just a few years after the purchase.
The planned demolition of Sloss Furnaces generated a grass roots effort to preserve the site as a symbol of Birmingham’s early history. A three million dollar bond to finance the preservation of the facility was approved by Birmingham’s citizenry in 1977 and on May 29, 1981 it was designated a National Historic Landmark. Sloss Furnaces is the only large industrial iron producing facility of its kind to gain that designation in the United States.
How does a furnace make iron? The actual chemical process is as much a mystery to me as a Hogwarts potion. The raw materials needed for one ton of iron are two tons of iron ore, one ton of coke (not the soda, but the residue left after heating coal in the absence of air), a half ton of limestone, one eye of newt, and a dash of unicorn blood. These ingredients are fed into the top of a blast furnace (tower shaped steel structure lined with fire brick) while super hot (1400 degree F) air is blasted from the bottom up through ingredients causing a chemical reaction. The result is molten pig iron, which sinks to the bottom of the furnace where it is drawn off, and slag, which is lighter than iron and floats on top where it is also drawn off.
Pig iron is a brittle material with a high carbon content that is further refined to produce wrought iron, cast iron, and steel. In the early days, the molten iron flowed from the furnace directly onto the sand floor of the casting shed where it continued to flow into channels called runners. Holes were dug at right angles to the runners to receive the molten iron and the resulting grid arrangement was reminiscent of piglets being suckled by a sow. Thus, the name pig iron was created (piglet iron just did not work for these burly workers). After the metal cooled enough to harden, the workers broke the pigs off the runners and loaded them for further transport.
The Sloss Furnaces Tour
The raw materials arrived to the Sloss Furnaces from the nearby mines by rail. From the elevated trestle, the bottom doors of the loaded railroad cars would open and dump their cargo into the bins waiting below. When needed, the material was loaded into a Scale Car for weighing. The electric Scale Car was sent down the 250 yard long stock tunnel to the base of the Skip Hoist for the blast furnaces, where it would dump its cargo into Skip Buckets. The Skip Buckets would then ride the Skip Hoist to the top of the furnace where the cargo would be dumped to fall to its fiery death.
The heart of the Sloss Furnaces operation was the boilers. The boilers boiled water (no surprise there) to produce the steam that powered the Skip Hoist, the generators that produced electricity, and the Blowing Engines that put the blast in blast furnace. In other words, if there was no steam, there was no iron so there was a lot of pressure to never let the fire get low. The primary fuel used was waste gas from the furnace, but when that was insufficient, workers toiled for hours stoking the boilers with coal.
Built in the early 1900s, the eight steam engine air compressors housed in the Blower Building are the oldest pieces of equipment remaining at Sloss Furnaces. One can only imagine the sight and sound of these giant 20 foot flywheels turning at nearly 70 miles per hour to produce the compressed air need for the blast furnace. It is reported that a couple of workers were eating their lunch here many years ago when one of the workers looked away for a second, and when he looked back, his friend was gone, having been caught by the flywheel and crushed to death in the bowels of the machinery. Ironically, the building next door houses a couple of turboblowers, with no external moving parts, that replaced the steam compressors around 1950.
After the air is compressed, it moves to the Hot Blast Stoves where it is super heated. These steel cylinders are filled with a lattice work of fire bricks called checkers. Waste gas from the furnace is burned to heat the checkers. Then the gas is turned off and the compressed air is routed through the checkers on its the way to the blast furnace.
Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark is located at 20 32nd Street North, Birmingham, Al 35222 and their website is here. In addition to preserving a living history of Southern industry, Sloss Furnaces is a popular venue for a variety of activities from weddings and family reunions to the Magic City Brew Fest and the Sloss Music & Arts Festival.
Although we toured the Sloss Furnaces on a cool, bright Spring day, it was not difficult to image the horrific conditions facing the workers at this site. While my opening story might have been fictional, the heavy machinery, toxic fumes, and high heat were clear and present dangers before OSHA provided a level of protection to the American industrial complex. It will never be known exactly how many men died while working at the Sloss Furnaces because most of the men on the job were African American laborers and their deaths were either not documented or the reports were incomplete. But if you are very quiet, you might hear the spirit of James “Slag” Wormwood whisper, “Get back to work!”