Recovery from the Depression Sloss Furnace - Sloss-Sheffield Steel & Iron Company, Birmingham Alabama
Recovery from depression, helped by the war boom of 1898, brought expansion, reorganization, and the rebuilding of the city furnace site. An aggressive expansion policy included buying three defunct North Alabama furnaces, the Lady Ensley, the Hattie Ensley, and the Philadelphia, all in the Florence-Sheffield area. High rail shipment rates drove them under during the economic crisis of the 1890's. Sloss also bought 20,000 acres of brown ore land in Franklin and Colbert Counties, and 20,000 acres of coal land in Walker County. In the process, the company bought out twelve smaller companies, (making it the second largest in the district, after Tennessee Coal & Iron), and reorganized as the Sloss- Sheffield Steel and Iron Company, incorporated in New Jersey in 1899.
The company's drive for integration gave it a total of 63,603 acres of coal land and 48,000 acres of ore land by 1900. Sloss-Sheffield's five coal mines supported 1,100 bee-hive ovens and seven furnaces (six of which were in blast in 1900). Five McClanahan & Stone ore washers, five Robinson & Ramsey coal washers, all the necessary rolling stock, and a total of 1,400 worker tenements rounded out the firm's holdings.
Once again rapid expansion produced a large debt and the need for additional capital. In 1902, after a succession of three presidents in a six year period, Wall Street financier John Campbell Mahan assumed the presidency. Maben, descended from a Richmond cotton and tobacco merchant, had played an active role in the company since 1886, when he raised a substantial sum of New York capital. Within three years he eliminated the company's floating indebtedness. The price for financial stability was increased Northern control; in 1902 eleven of the fourteen directors were from New York and only one from Birmingham.
Maben presided over the company for fifteen years, during which the city furnaces were substantially rebuilt. There had been a few changes earlier. Four blowing engines built in Birmingham had been added while James Sloss still owned the company. In the mid-1890Ts, the number one furnace was rebuilt and two additional two-pass stoves were erected to complement the six already in place. In 1902, major changes occurred. A new brick blowing engine house was built and fitted out with three Allis-Chalmers blowing engines. The building and two of the blowing engines remain in place. The eight engines, 44x84x60 long cross-head types, are the oldest and most Important pieces of surviving technology at the site. Most of them were built c. 1900, but were acquired by Sloss-Sheffield second-hand during the 1920's. They represent the first modern blowing engine used on a large scale by coke-fueled, metal plate blast furnaces.
New stoves were added in the same period, raising to five the number used per furnace. These were stoves of Whitwell, or Gordon-Whitwell- Cowper, design. It is unlikely that any important elements of these c. 1900 stoves survive. The twelve current stoves, which include two built as spares in 1916 and 1971, have been thoroughly rebuilt since 1900. They have been relined, in some cases converted from four-pass to two-pass, raised in height, and probably replated. The major valves were replaced in 1927 and 1928.
By 1904, the number two furnace was rebuilt and a new steel casting shed was erected - both since removed. A battery of 400 hp capacity Rust water-tube boilers was built between 1910 and 1911. These vertical, straight tube boilers, which remain in place, represented the latest development in boiler construction. Because they were designed for easier cleaning, they had advantages for companies in continuous operation.
By 1911, the first period of technological change at the city furnaces was over. None of the changes were directly labor saving and with the exception of the Rust boilers, none introduced new technology. It is clear, however, that the company was attentive to new technology, and that New York control did not mean capital investment at the site was to be neglected. Although constant relining and refitting of furnaces and auxliaries continued at the site, it would be almost twenty years before important technological changes occurred again.