Explore industrial history at Sloss Furnaces in Birmingham

by Jan 21, 2024Alabama

Sloss Furnaces Freeway View

A national historic landmark, Sloss Furnaces blast furnace plant in Birmingham was once the largest maker of pig iron in the world. Today, the 19th-century industrial site is preserved as a museum. Take a tour in photos at its collection of historic buildings, towers, machinery, and furnaces.

Driving into Birmingham from the east, the towering chimneys and rusty furnaces at Sloss Furnaces dominate the horizon. You may have come to this Alabama city to learn about the civil rights movement, but Birmingham’s industrial impact on the world is also huge. Now preserved as a national historic landmark, Sloss Furnaces in Birmingham was once the largest manufacturer of pig iron in the world and remains a monument to the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century.

I had the special treat not only of touring the sprawling 32-acre site as a part of my visit to Birmingham, but also of photographing the industrial plant at night when it is normally closed in an attempt to capture its historical impact.

An abandoned industrial plant that remains rusty and dirty like Sloss Furnaces may not seem like a place to tour, let alone to photograph. Let me reassure you, it is both. Not often do people get this kind of close-up look at that kind of history, plus the dramatic scale of storage towers and chimneys soaring into the sky above you offer a realistic peek into what pushed Birmingham to develop in the way that it did. Getting the opportunity to creatively photograph this history at night just added to the interest. A number of those images are here to give you a look at this site in photos.

Sloss Furnaces Overhead With Stars

For three nights I was able to wander the walkways, wind in and out of tunnels, dodge under pipes and boilers, and around overgrown abandoned equipment. I picked my way around railings and wheels, ducked into engine rooms, and through slag pits, all in search of great photographs that showed either the tiny detail or the monumental size of Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark. At the same time, I could nearly hear the heaving and groaning of those who worked there – or maybe I thought I did since it is said to be haunted with the ghosts of those who toiled so hard … and of those who died doing so.

A little history of Sloss Furnaces

After the Civil War, developers saw the riches available in the hills around Birmingham. All the ingredients needed to make pig iron were there within a 30-mile radius – iron ore, coal, limestone, dolomite, and clay. By 1871, its exploitation had begun. One entrepreneur was the namesake of Birmingham’s historical landmark – Colonel James Withers Sloss. He began construction in 1881, including stoves that were 60 feet tall and 18 feet in diameter. The Sloss plant changed hands several times but roared to even greater success during World War II.

Sloss Furnaces Under The Boilers

Segregation also continued at Sloss with black laborers treated poorly, paid poorly, and remaining on the bottom rung. Indeed, civil rights are entwined in the history at Sloss, and you will see that detailed on interpretative signage on a self-guided tour or hear about it on a guided tour. If you go online, you will also find virtual tours for education to get a better look from afar.

Sloss Furnaces received national historic landmark status in 1981, although the oldest of the towering structures and other buildings remaining date back to just 1902. The plant permanently closed in 1971 and is the only 20th century blast furnace in the United States being preserved and interpreted.

Sloss Furnaces Landscape View

Of course, being surrounded by this kind of machinery and metal pushes you to try new compositions that will better tell the story of an historic industrial site. That included more black and white photos than I normally take, as well as calling out detail that helped paint a picture of the site.

Sloss Furnaces Shadows And Light

Shadows and Light

Sloss Furnaces Pipes

Furnace Pipes

Sloss Furnaces Dusty Control Room

Dusty Control Room

Sloss Furnaces Control Tower

Temperature and Timing Tower

Sloss Furnaces Building Shadows

Building Shadows

Looking up through the pipes and machinery at Sloss brings home the dramatic scale. Using the magic of longer exposures, the natural beauty of stars and clouds are revealed to help contrast the stark metal edges.

Sloss Furnaces Clouds Overhead

Clouds Overhead

Sloss Furnaces Towers Cloud Trails

Cloud Trails

Sloss Furnaces Towers Star Trails

Towers and Star Trails

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About The Author

Therese Iknoian

Passionate traveler, wordsmith, photographer, and observer of people and place, Therese lives a life full of all the above. Trained as a newspaper journalist and a member of a Pulitzer Prize-winning news team, she now applies those skills to feed her globe-trotting curiosity – and hopes her storytelling in photos and words encourages others to do the same. Winner of multiple awards for photos and stories, Therese loves to get outdoors, be personally immersed in adventurous experiences, and have a front-row spot with her camera and notebook to document stories that offer authentic insights about a place or its people. And she’s never met a cheesecake she doesn’t have to taste, a ghost town that doesn't demand exploration, or a trail that doesn't beckon.