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Birmingham, the cultural center of our state, was built on a foundation of iron production. Slap dab in the middle of that is Sloss Furnaces. These days it’s more museum than manufactory. Concerts, weddings, historical field trips, and ghost hunts tend to take up the site’s scheduling. In fact, as a child the first I’d heard of Sloss Furnace was when Rick and Bubba did a ghost hunt there for their annual Halloween special. Do they even do that anymore? I digress.
Back in the day though, Birmingham was a boom town. Following the Civil War, at the tail end of Reconstruction, Colonel James Withers Sloss arranged for multiple business interests to align for the rich iron supply surrounding Birmingham to be harvested thoroughly. With the help of European engineer Harry Hargreaves, the furnaces were constructed in a manner that rivaled any Northern production. Following the furnaces’ first full year of production in 1881, 24,000 tons of iron had been sold. The company won a bronze medal at the 1883 Louisville Exposition for best pig iron.
Throughout the 1880s, more than 700,000 tons of iron were produced by Sloss’s 19 blast furnaces. Birmingham was by all means in business. James Sloss was treated with a vast degree of hero worship. Think of him as the 19th Century James Spann.
How did such an ambitious company succeed in such a grand fashion? Was it the genius of James Sloss? Birmingham’s rich and ample deposit of minerals? The benevolence of God Himself?
Possibly to some extent, but a large amount of the industry’s early success was because of cheap labor. A large portion of Sloss Furnace’s manual labor was done through nearly exclusive convict-leasing arrangements with the local courts. Though slavery had been abolished long before Sloss came along, labor abuses of minorities and immigrants were nothing new. We are all aware of the practice of sharecropping and its impact on impoverished farmers. Things had, however, reached a new low with the practice of convict leasing. Iron companies in the South negotiated a 10-year contract with Warden John Hollis Bankhead that entitled them to all able-bodied state prisoners. The companies paid between $9 and $18.50 a month per prisoner depending on their skills and abilities. The state saved money by not having to house or feed these prisoners, and made money by selling them.
More than 90% of state and county prisoners at this time were Black, many of whom had been incarcerated under Jim Crow laws like vagrancy. The companies were permitted to use whipping as a means of punishment. While technically many of these prisoners could complete their sentences and be freed, many of their sentences were extended in order to repay the state for any fines or court costs. However, once freed, approximately half of these prisoners were able to find employment with the iron production companies in Birmingham upon their releases.
These incarcerated laborers were often designated the most dangerous, hazardous jobs. The Coalburg mines were infamously dangerous, with approximately 9% of them dying on the job in the mine. In 1894 and 1895, more than 400 prisoners died in the Coalburg mines operated by Sloss Furnaces.
This impacted Sloss Furnaces’s finances minimally. The fact of the matter is they had an open employment pool for extremely cheap labor. If someone died in the mine, they could easily be replaced.
Sloss Furnaces and the other iron manufacturers definitely did a lot of good for the city economically. The industry helped to drag the South out of post-war depression. However, those industries were built on the backs of only slightly more than slaves. Men who were forced to work against their will without pay. This inhumane treatment reached a peak in 1924, when a prisoner was tortured by being dipped into a vat of boiling water. Sloss continued its practice of prison labor until 1928, with Alabama being one of the last states to ban these inhumane abuses.
Sloss Furnaces closed down in 1970. The company took a huge financial hit by no longer being able to indulge in slave labor, and by the 1960s Sloss lacked the funds to update its facilities in order to comply with the U.S. Clean Air Act of 1963. The business simply was not successful enough to stand the test of time on its own two feet. Considering the death, trauma and abuse that both literally and figuratively haunt its premises, that may just be for the best.