Monday, November 24, 2014

Sloss Furnaces – Birmingham, Alabama.

Sloss Furnaces - Birmingham, Alabama
Founded 1881

The survival of Alabama has always been rooted in the earth. Literally, built from the ground up, Alabama’s Iron Industry carried the American industrial revolution to the forefront in the late 1800’s. Pig Iron has been forged in Birmingham since 1881 and the Sloss furnaces were among the many foundries that made up the heart and soul of Alabama’s steel production capital. Sloss was established by James Withers Sloss. He was born in Limestone County, Alabama on April 7, 1820 and became one of the state’s wealthiest plantation owners. Starting out as a butchers apprentice at fifteen, he later became a merchant, and in 1860 he was involved in the expansion and construction of the L&N (Louisville and Nashville) Railroad and served as its first president.

During the 1880’s, the production of iron in Alabama flourished. Starting out as a post war industry, with cheap black laborers, 68,995 tons grew into 706,629 tons of iron being produced at the Birmingham foundries. Birmingham’s close proximity to rich iron mineral resources helped make the city a leading manufacturer of iron in the United States. Less than twenty steel and iron furnaces existed in Alabama at the time and the great demand to rebuild the South (as well as northern industry) also required great demand from the Alabama foundries.

In 1886, John W. Johnston purchased the Sloss foundry for $2 million and built the “Sloss Quarters”. This allowed the workman and their families to live together. The rent for these mill village homes was: $2 for a single dwelling, $4 for a double dwelling and $6 for a three dwelling. Forty eight of those family units were segregated for black laborers. Many African American’s found the transition from farmer to the industrial job line difficult but the pay was much better. Workers were paid in “clacker”, a form of money that could only be used at the commissary and stores located in the Sloss Quarters. Sloss also provided its workers with a doctor, and labor and delivery services for expected mothers.

Many families living in the Sloss villages found it relatively sound. Schools and education for black children were almost unheard of in other parts of the South. However, the value of the clacker declined and many families often owed more to the companies they worked for than they could afford to pay back. This trapped families into having to work for generations in order to pay off depths.

The iron industry was growing and eventually became so massive that workers came from as far away as parts of Europe to work in the Alabama steel mills. In 1900, Sloss produced 25% of the nation’s iron and steel, far surpassing the steel industries in Pennsylvania. After World War I, the great depression hit the South hard. Sloss would need to upgrade to keep up with demands and a $625,000 renovation project was organized in order to secure the future of the mill. These substantial renovations enabled the foundry to produce 450 tons of Iron instead of 250 tons, adding the need for more workman. The foundry was not unionized until July 17, 1933. At that time, the company was forced to pay laborers better wages and offer benefits.

During World War II, war time contracts had the foundry working harder than ever. Cast Iron marine machinery, air plane machinery, bombs and mortar shells were all made at Sloss. 60% of the grenades used during WWII were cast at the Sloss foundries along with compressors, brakes drums and camshafts for military vehicles. Other military issued implements such as cooking and field equipment for United States troops were also manufactured at Sloss Furnaces.

Conditions at Sloss were rigorous and required a hearty workforce. Laborers who worked at Sloss were prone to accidental deaths, loss of limbs and other misfortunes due to the hostile work environment. Those who worked in the foundry also said the heat was nearly unbearable. Temperatures inside the mill could reach well over 100 degrees inside the casting shed and blower rooms. Every inch of the foundry felt like the hottest corner of hell. Winter was hot, summer was hotter and the men who worked in these conditions were considered disposable at best.

Because accidents and death were so common in Alabama’s steel mills, ghost stories of limbless workmen and spectral figures have long been a facet in these now silent steel beasts. The spirits at Sloss roam the furnace catwalks and engine room corridors, but there were other foundries in the iron districts of Birmingham were accidents and death were also common. These ghostly stories of the industrial dead are all now associated with Sloss Furnaces but they didn’t all begin there.

A Birmingham newspaper article, dated September 10, 1887 read:
A Horrible Death – A Workman Falls Into Alice Furnace Number One
The Alice Furnace was located adjacent to the Sloss City Furnace in 1887. It was the first within the Birmingham city limits owned by Henry DeBardeleben and T.T. Hillman. Theophilus Jowers started working there when he, and his wife, Sarah, moved to Birmingham with their small children in search of work. On that September morning, Theo Jowers went to work like always. He was preparing a new bell in the furnace and was holding the rope attached to it when he suddenly slipped, plunging head first into the furnace. The heavy metal bell managed to break his fall but the immense heat from the furnace reduced his body to mush and ash almost immediately. Some of his body parts managed to be fished out; his head, hip bones, and bowels.

In 1905 The Alice furnaces were torn down. Years later, Theo’s son, John, took his son, Leonard Jowers to Birmingham on business. As their 1927 Model T sputtered across the viaduct overlooking the Sloss furnaces, John pulled over to the side of the bridge and John and his son stepped out to watch the production. A hail of sparks burst from the glowing furnace when John grabbed his son’s arm and pointed toward the stacks. He couldn't believe what he was seeing. The glowing apparition of a man was moving across the molten steel, engulfed in flame and smoke. As John gasp at the sight of the apparition, it smoldered out and dissipated into a dense puff of black smoke. For twenty years workmen at the Alice foundry told stories about the ghostly sightings of this smoldering ghost, believing it was the spirit of Theo Jowers.  

The Jowers ghost isn't the only spirit from the iron age of Birmingham. Another, more sinister story of a malicious specter only known as, “Slag” is far worse than the watchful spirit of Theo Jowers. The term, “Slag” (by steel industry standards) is the material that is melted off or discarded during the smelting process. It’s essentially the garbage and impurities left over from the pure ore that makes iron and steel. 

The tunnels beneath the furnaces at Sloss were used to
transport water to the multiple furnaces. The activity and
phenomenon most associated with this location
consists of hearing voices and even being touched. 
The legend of Slag began at Sloss many years ago. According to the story, he was an ill-mannered foreman with a temper hotter than any furnace in Birmingham. He was rumored to have abused his workers by denying them water, breaks from the heat, and even physically abusing some of them. This type of behavior most likely earned him the name, “Slag” and it certainly seems fitting for such an ominous character.

When Slag was in charge of the night shifts at Sloss, he was often found walking on the catwalks, overseeing everything the men did. He forced them to take dangerous risks and many lost their lives under his supervision. As only karma can provide in a story like this, Slag was pacing the catwalks on top of a very high furnace one evening and, like Theo Jowers, lost his footing and fell into the furnace, burning him until nothing was left. According to slag’s stories, not one shred of him could be found. It’s likely the story was concocted out of pure myth and perhaps elements of the Jowers legend but it doesn’t stop the sightings of spirits at Sloss.

Ghost hunters, historians, enthusiast and urban adventurist, come to visit the National Historic Landmark every year. Most come to visit and see the history behind Birmingham’s industrial age. Others leave with more than they bargained for. Apparitions of the smoldering ghosts aren't as common since the casting foundry was closed in the 1970’s. However, the misty figure of a man walking on the furnace catwalks has been seen over and over again by visitors during the day and at night. People driving over the viaduct have also seen a white, floating apparition near the top of the furnaces. 

Spectral lights and glowing orbs are photographed in this location by hundreds of ghost hunters every year and the haunting sounds of an industrial workforce still echoes in the skeletal remains of the old steel mill. Sloss may house these earth bound energies by harnessing their natural power, much like the foundries of the previous age did in making and casting iron. There’s a certain quality to Sloss that makes it unique to most haunted locations. Its rusty steel exterior seems to shelter the decaying bowels of a fiery beast that refuses to die. Sloss may not be a working foundry anymore, but you can't tell that to the men who worked and died there. They’re still making sure the fires at Sloss stay hot, pouring molten steel and calling out orders, even from the afterlife. 

Photos captured by the Alabama Ghost Hunters (Alabama Paranormal Research Team) from Sloss
during a paranormal investigation.
A shadow anomaly that formed in the same location as the picture above
(seconds after the first photo was taken). The image
has been labeled as inconclusive evidence
of the supernatural phenomenon associated with Sloss Furnace. 


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