James W Sloss and Early Alabama Steel Sloss Furnace - Sloss-Sheffield Steel & Iron Company, Birmingham Alabama
Despite Birmingham's problem with phosphorus and low ore content its growth from 1880 to 1900 was impressive. Then blast furnaces were in place prior to 1885. By 1900, an additional 29 were put in blast, quadrupling production. Investment in Southern iron and steel doubled from 1880 to 1900, and over the same period, production trebled. Birmingham, as the center of Southern iron and steel, absorbed a major share of those increases. Growth hinged not only on raw materials, but on the construction of an effective rail line. A key figure in that effort was James Withers Sloss, merchant, planter, and railroad entrepreneur.
Sloss, a farmer's son born in Limestone County, Alabama, in 1820, figured prominently in the early history of Birmingham. He had a major part in the successful completion, 24 September 1872, of the rail line connecting the Birmingham mineral district with Montgomery and Nashville. Sloss had been involved in efforts to build such a line since the 1850's. But his company's first efforts, like those of the state's antebellum iron industry, were laid to waste during the Civil War. When construction began again in the late 1860's, the live was threatened by capital scarcity and the duplicity of Chattanooga railroad interests. The history of the line was, in fact, marked by more than the usual rapacity and double-dealing characteristic of the "Gilded Age." At a critical point in 1871, when it appeared that the line would not be completed, Sloss helped to convince the Louisville & Nashville Railroad to provide capital, assume responsibility for the line, and to complete the final 67 miles from Birmingham to Decatur, Alabama. With the railroad forming the key transportation link, large-scale development of coal and iron became possible.
It would be a mistake to view the development of Birmingham as the simple and inevitable result of a mixture of raw material endowment, entrepreneurial foresight, and the railroad. The depression of 1873, an outbreak of cholera, and numerous lawsuits springing from a precipitous decline in the land company's stock almost destroyed the city and any dreams of future aggrandizement. In the long run, the city's growth was dependent, not only on transportation and raw materials, but upon technical experiments in iron making, recruiting skilled and unskilled industrial labor force, the continuing commitment of the Louisville & Nashville, and periodic infusions of Northern capital. Sloss had a hand in each of these processes.
In the midst of the depression of 1873, Sloss joined with other local interests to form the Cooperative Experimental Coke and Iron Company. As one of three managers of the company, Sloss oversaw efforts to produce coke-fueled iron at the Oxmoor Furnace. The Oxmoor was originally built in 1862 on the side of Red Mountain. Destroyed in the Civil War, it was rebuilt in 1872 by the transplanted New Hampshire man, Daniel Pratt. Pratt was a leading spokesmen for Southern industrialism and a manufacturer of cotton gins and cotton cloth. His attempt to revive Oxmoor failed in 1873.
The experiment with coke, however, proved successful on February 28, 1876, and the furnace was rebuilt and put back in blast.
The ability to produce iron with coke fuel was critical to Birmingham's development. Charcoal produced high quality iron but was of limited usefulness in large-scale production; was expensive to make, and had to be used in large quantities; its cellular structure resisted the effects of air, making it less combustible than coke; its use restricted furnace height because it was friable and could not support large amounts of ore and limestone; and it tended to deforest areas.
Oxmoor first produced coke in Belgian patent Shantle Reversible Bottom Ovens. Shantle himself supervised construction, but the ovens were actually built by Dublin-born, Frank P. O'Brien later mayor of Birmingham - two examples among many of the importance of skilled European immigrants to Birmingham's industrial growth. Shantle's ovens were probably a type of bee-hive oven, so-called because of its shape. Long rows of bee-hive ovens, built of stone and fire-brick emitting volumes of sulphurous smoke, became a characteristic feature of Alabama mines and furnaces. They were the primary means of converting Alabama bituminous coal to coke through the first decade of the 20th century.
Oxmoor also experimented with hot-blast stoves, presumably of iron pipe construction. These were rebuilt by the experienced Southern furnacemen, Levin S. Goodrich and John Veitch. The site, its equipment dismantled in 1928, was an important center of innovation for the district. Iron masters, furnacemen, and entrepreneurs, like Sloss learned and profited from its technical experiments.
With Oxmoor a technical success (it had yet to demonstrate that it could turn a profit), the old furnace company was rechartered and recapitalized. As a result, the Louisville & Nashville regained its interest in the district. The economic reversals of 1873 had made the railroad's expansion into Alabama appear foolhardy, which, in turn, may have resulted in the resignation of Albert Frank, the chief architect of the expansion.
But with the events at Oxmoor and the personal intervention of Sloss, the L&N committed new capital, built special spur lines, and encouraged immigration.
Sloss played an important role in the reorganization of the Oxmoor company and retained his close connection to Louisville capital. In return for its capital the L&N received special treatment. One agreement between the L&N and the Warrior Coal Company, negotiated by Sloss, stipulated that the mine furnish the railroad with coal at fifty cents per ton below market price. By 1876, the Louisville St Nashville owned one-half million acres in Alabama.
Before Oxmoor could be deemed an economic success., it was necessary to find and extract good quality coking coal from local seams. In this effort, Sloss joined with Henry Fairchild DeBardeleben, Daniel Pratt's successor and the colorful descendent of a Hessian soldier, and New York-born mining engineer, Truman H. Aldrich. The seam was found in the coal lands of the Warrior basin, just northwest of Birmingham, in an area shortly to be known as Pratt City. In January 1878, Sloss, DeBardeleben, and Aldrich formed the Pratt Coal and Coke Company. The presence and stability of the company, according to most historians of the district, marked a turning point. Within four years, it. was followed by the Birmingham Rolling Mills; the Chaba Mining Company; the Alice Furnace; the Sloss Furnace Company; Pratt Coal and Iron; the Williamson Furnace; Woodward Iron and the Mary Pratt Furnace.