The first time I drove by Sloss Furnaces in Birmingham, Alabama, I thought it strange that this obviously abandoned factory would be left there for all to see.
From the highway (US Route 78), it’s appears to be an eyesore and a strange first impression on people coming to this modern city now known for banking and medicine.
Curiosity finally got the best of me, and I decided to find out why Sloss Furnaces, now known as the Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark, was left standing.
WOW! Did I ever learn a lot.
Here’s what I discovered!
Sloss Furnace History
You can’t discuss the history of Birmingham without including Sloss Furnace History!
Birmingham was founded in 1871, a merger of three small farm towns during reconstruction at the “intersection” of two major railroad lines. Most of the early residents of the area were of English descent, though Irish, Italian and African-Americans also settled here.
Birmingham was dubbed “The Magic City” because it seemed to grow from nothing almost overnight.
But, it didn’t grow from nothing.
In fact, Birmingham is the only place in the United States to have all the elements needed for making steel — iron ore (which was mined at Birmingham’s Red Mountain), limestone (which is also abundant in the area) and coal (which was mined just north of the city). During the Industrial Revolution, that steel industry built the city of Birmingham — and the skyscrapers of New York.
Southern states didn’t have the organized unions of the northern states, so making steel here was cheaper than in places like Pittsburgh.
And so, the city of Birmingham grew.
The heyday of Sloss Furnaces
From its beginning, Sloss Furnaces was one of the largest manufacturers of steel in the world. The railroad brought iron ore, limestone and coal to the factory, where it was used to create “pig iron.”
The term “pig iron” comes from early steel processing techniques. Workers poured hot ore from the blast furnace into long trays called runners. The ore ran from a main branch to smaller side branches. At some point, someone said the offshoots looked like piglets with a sow, and the name pig iron stuck.
From 1882 to the 1920s, they kept expanding the blast furnaces to keep up with demand created by the Industrial Revolution.
The workers, especially from the 1880s to 1930s, were mostly new immigrants. They worked long hours without breaks in dangerous circumstances. Many people died from burns or from succumbing to the poisonous gases that came from the furnaces.
Sloss Furnace history includes a chapter on World War II, of course.
The war led to significantly increased demand for iron and steel. By 1941, about half the people in Birmingham worked in steel and mining.
Sadly, segregation also played a role in Sloss Furnace history — African-Americans assigned to the dangerous, physical labor while white people served in management roles. The company segregated more than labor, though, with separate bath houses, lodging areas, company picnics and even lunch areas.
This is how Sloss Furnaces ran through 1970.
When did Sloss Furnace close? and WHY?
In 1970, Sloss Furnaces shut down abruptly. Environmental regulations that called for clean air proved too expensive to upfit the furnaces, so they quit.
Just like that!
The workers lost their jobs. The factory lost its purpose. It sat there — abandoned — for years. And the people of Birmingham debated what to do with it.
Should they tear it down to build a mall? Or housing? And who would pay for that?
As the debate continued, some forward thinking individuals fought to preserve Sloss Furnaces — and this critical piece of Birmingham history.
Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark
Today, Sloss Furnaces stands as a recognized national historic landmark, telling the story of steel production in the south. It’s a proud reminder of Birmingham’s early days.
More than that, Sloss Furnace National Historic Landmark is the only 20th century blast furnace in the United States being preserved as a historic industrial site. It’s preservation and tours provide perspective on the Industrial Revolution, the era when the United States became a world industrial leader. Sloss Furnace also reminds us of the hopes and heartache of the people who shaped early, industrial America.
When you visit, you’ll learn about the materials used to make steel, the steel making process, and the people who built the city. As you walk through the furnaces, try to imagine the heat, the noise and the danger those workers faced. It’s almost overwhelming.
Visiting Sloss Furnace in Birmingham
Today, Sloss Furnaces has a new role in the city of Birmingham, Alabama, serving as an important national landmark.
Sloss Furnaces Events
I love this aspect of Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark.
Every September, Sloss Furnaces hosts Furnace Fest, a 2 day music festival bringing in a variety of bands for an incredible weekend of music under the furnace. Tickets sell out far in advance.
Other special events include photography workshops, where light and shadows are explored, art festivals, holiday markets, and historic night tours that share the history of Sloss Furnaces and take guests to areas not open to the public.
Throughout the year, Sloss Metal Arts programs offer a modern perspective on metalwork. With artists in residence and visiting artists, Sloss Furnaces provides a great setting to learn about metal arts.
In the past, the site has hosted Sloss Furnace ghost adventures and Dia de los Muertos events. The Fright Furnace event, hugely popular but also disruptive, was discontinued in 2019 — to better preserve Sloss Furnaces as a national historic landmark.
Plan your visit to Sloss Furnace Birmingham, AL
Sloss Furnaces Hours: Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Gates close at 3:30 p.m., though.
Sloss Furnace Address: 20 32nd St N, Birmingham, AL 35222
Sloss Furnace Parking and Admission: Sloss Furnace parking is free. Sloss Furnace admission for self-guided tours is also free.
Guided tours are available on a limited basis, and must be scheduled in advance. Guided tours are $10/person.
Start your tour of Sloss Furnaces in the Visitor Center where you will get your self-guided tour brochure after watching a short, introductory video on the history of Birmingham and Sloss Furnaces.
When you visit do not climb on any structures and obey all rules for your safety.
Tips for visiting Sloss Furnaces
- Built in the 1880s, Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark is not wheelchair or stroller friendly. Though, the visitor center is accessible.
- Wear close toed shoes. The factory wasn’t clean — and the ground is not level. You’ll be walking on gravel, uneven stairs and in wet areas. Wear close toed shoes that offer good traction for your safety.
- If taking kids, I strongly encourage you to watch the YouTube video to help them understand what they’ll be seeing. The National Landmark is unlike anything kids are likely to have seen before, and they have no frame of reference to understand it. With a little background, they’ll appreciate it a lot more!
- It takes between one and two hours to take the self-guided tour, depending on how much you want to read at each stop.
- Parking and admission are free.
Now that I have visited Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark, I better understand why the people of Birmingham chose to save it. I also better understand how Birmingham grew as a city, and its role in the Industrial Revolution. Sadly, I also understand even more the deep hurt of discrimination in Birmingham in the 1960s. Science, history, politics — they all play a role in the story of Sloss Furnaces. I encourage you to visit and learn about it for yourself.
More to see in Birmingham
Birmingham, Alabama is an unusual city — a little bit southern, a little bit metropolitan. It’s a mountain city in the deep south. There’s a lot to discover in Birmingham that you won’t (and can’t) see anywhere else!
Vulcan Park and Museum: Standing sentry over the city, Vulcan is a proud reminder to all who visit Birmingham how this city came to be. Vulcan Park is a great complement to Sloss Furnaces for even greater understanding of the impact of the steel industry on Birmingham.
Red Mountain Park: Hike the trails at Red Mountain Park where iron ore was once mined to see relics of the mining days. At the end of the trail, enjoy amazing views of the city in the distance.
Birmingham Civil Rights Institute: Head to the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute to challenge your thoughts about our nation’s history — and the specific incidents that happened here. My heart broke at some of what I learned, but the museum experience ends with hope.
Kelly Ingram Park: Across the street from Birmingham’s Civil Rights Institute, Kelly Ingram Park stands — a stark reminder to what happened here during the 1960s.
While there is a lot of Civil Rights history in Birmingham, the city thrives today as an urban center with vibrant entertainment districts.
Railroad Park: Downtown Birmingham is also a place of renewal. Railroad Park, which runs along the railroad tracks downtown, has become a gathering place for locals for concerts, recreational activities and playgrounds for the kids. It’s one of my favorite places in the city.