1920s Sloss Furnace - Sloss-Sheffield Steel & Iron Company, Birmingham Alabama

The history of the Sloss-Sheffield Company from the start of World War I through the 1920s was characterized by two sharp realities. First, the company found itself, like all merchant pig iron producers, in a deteriorating economic environment. Second, the company was faced with, the problem of continuing black migration. Despite these pressures, the company survived and continued to produce pig iron. Their successful adaptation resulted from timely technological change, the development of a local market, and proximity to raw materials.

The number of Alabama blast furnaces decreased from 49 to 35 between 1905 and 1925. By 1936, only 22 blast furnaces were left in the South, and only 15 of those were operating. Pressure on the merchant pig iron industry was particularly severe. The industry produced 42% of the total pig iron manufactured in the U.S. in 1903. By 1927, its share of the market had fallen to 23%. There were three reasons for this. First, steel plants were buying less pig iron in the open market. Instead, they were making extensive use of scrap and were producing more pig iron than they needed. Second, the excess pig iron was increasingly offered for sale in the foundry market. Third, advancing freight rates restricted markets and further undermined the merchant's furnaces' ability to compete with the large steel companies. The merchants were generally not part of the vast merger movements of the 1890s, nor were they a part of that inner circle of iron and steel magnates, under the leadership of U.S. Steel's Elbert Gary, which attempted to control markets and competition after the mergers failed to do so.

The pig iron industry was weakest in the South. The number of companies active in the U.S. iron industry in 1929 was only 60% of what it was ten years earlier. In the South, over the same period it was only 47% of its former size. This was partly the result of inefficiencies induced by a slow technological change. As late as 1924, nine of twenty-four blast furnaces in the Birmingham district were still hand-filled, and all the districts merchant furnaces continued to cast in sand. While blast furnace productivity in the nation doubled from 1912 to 1927, Southern furnaces showed an increase of only 50% for the period 1917-1927, and the gap between the two regions was widening during the first half of the 1920s.

Though Southern furnaces were less mechanized than Northern ones in this period, the Southern furnaces' central problem was their distance from the large iron-markets of the North and Mid-west. Efforts to establish a Southern market continued. In 1880, only 10% of Alabama iron remained in the South. By 1910, the percentage had doubled to 20%, and by 1914 it was 60-70%. The most important local outlet for pig iron was the cast iron pipe industry. works built between 1900 and 1914 were built in Alabama. The demand for soil and pressure pipe kept the furnaces operating. In 1914, the president of the Birmingham Chamber of Commerce stated that, without the pipe industry, "there would be no furnace in operation today on foundry iron in the South."

With a part of the company's marketing problem solved, Sloss-Sheffield became a leader in the effort to restructure freight rates. Along with other Alabama and some Tennessee iron companies, they initiated a case before the Interstate Commerce Commission on November 7th, 1912. The companies argued that current rates discriminated against the South. The ICC decided in their favor on July 7th, 1914 and rates were reduced between 35 cents to 75 cents per ton. J. W. McQueen, Sloss-Sheffield vice-president, stated the new rates would increase Birmingham's competitiveness, but would not put the district on the same competitive footing as Pittsburgh. The company took advantage of the new rates and continued its efforts to market iron in the North. In 1920, they were selling enough in the North to justify establishing a permanent pig iron storage yard on the municipal wharf in Providence, Rhode Island.

Despite gaining some relief from the ICC, the district continued to operate at a geographical and manipulative disadavantage. The policy of "Pittsburgh Plus", initiated by the steel trust, severely discriminated against the South. The policy fixed the sale price of iron and steel based on rail shipment cost from Pittsburgh to the point of sale, regardless of where it was made. If Sloss-Sheffield shipped iron to the West, for example, the final price was determined by rail shipment costs from Pittsburgh, not from Birmingham. The policy sharply underlined Birmingham's position as a captive industrial center and an "outpost" of Northern capital. The full implications of "Pittsburgh Plus" have yet to be studied, but it appears the policy stifled competition and retarded Birmingham's growth. With pressure from the Federal Trade Commission, and after the damage had been done, U.S, Steel ended the policy in the summer of 1924.

Sloss-Sheffield made one particularly important economic and technical adaptation in the years immediately after World War I. The company built 120 Semet-Solvay by-product coke ovens at their North Birmingham plant, and two years later added 30 Kopper ovens. The technology had been developed in Germany in 1881, and made its first appearance in the United States in 1893 at Syracuse, New York. Four years later, it was introduced to the Birmingham district. Despite initial objections, the new technology eventually replaced the bee-hive ovens. By expert accounts, by-product ovens produced higher yields of good quality coke. The major advantage of the new ovens was that their by-products, gas, tar, and ammonia, could be sold. In some cases, the sale of by-products was sufficient to pay for the labor necessary to operate and maintain the ovens. By 1930 use of the ovens became so important that one furnace manual argued the by-product oven was the chief reason merchant furnaces were able to operate successfully. The ovens, still in place in North Birmingham, provided gas for the city; benzol, a gasoline additive; coal tar, used for creosote, a wood preservative; sulphate of ammonia, a fertilizing agent; solvent naphtha, a base for month balls and an ammonia base for household use.

The introduction of by-product coke ovens did not significantly reduce the number of workers and was not motivated by any sense of the long-term effects of black migration. Black migration, however, continued "steadily and quietly." From 1922 to 1923, 90,000 blacks left the state of Alabama, because of the continuing crisis of Southern agriculture, industrial opportunities in the North, the revival of the Klu Klux Klun, and other public and private reasons. Although indices of internal migration have always been incomplete, it is clear the percentage of blacks living in the South declined from 85.2% in 1920 to 78.7% ten years later. This was the sharpest percentage decline yet recorded. In that same ten-year period, the total number of Alabama blacks in the iron and steel workforce decreased by approximately 4,000.

The exodus could no longer be ignored. In 1921, Sloss-Sheffield made its first technological response. In that year, James Pickering Dovel, the company's furnace manager, erected a pig iron breaker of his own design. The basic idea was not new. Pig iron breakers were in use as early as the 1890's and Dovel's design was a modification of earlier technology. The device, a heavy frame casting mounted on a track near the top of the casting shed, operated with an 8" air-driven piston. The piston, with a 15" stroke and a chisel-nosed hammer at its tip, was designed to break pigs from the sow, after the sow was lifted into place by an overhead crane. The pig breaker eliminated the need for iron carriers, but sand cutters and a loading crew were still necessary. It was not as labor-saving technology as the pig casting machine, but its installation indicated the seriousness with which Sloss-Sheffield was beginning to face its problem of labor supply. Black migration from the South was finally forcing the mechanization of the Birmingham iron industry.

In 1924, the company machined casting for the first time. Between 1923 and 1924, Sloss-Sheffield acquired five additional North Alabama furnaces. Two of these, the Etowah furnaces in Gadsden, were the most modern merchant furnaces in the state. They were bought from the Skip hoists revolving Brown furnace tops, electric scale cars, and a Pollock steam dump, self cleaning cinder car had been used as early as 1908. In 1921, a new and bigger furnace had been built. Its spray cooled hearth jacket was replaced with rolled steel and cooling plates. A new receiving hopper was added at the top, and the shape of the furnace was slightly altered. A storage trestel was built and a Heyl & Patterson, single-strand pig casting machine, the first at an Alabama merchant furnace, was put in place. The casting machine reduced the necessary manpower from 305 to 160.

Sloss-Sheffield's expansion policy was ill-timed. The old inefficient North Alabama furnaces were too far from the coal fields. Isolated from large population centers, they may also have felt the crisis in labor supply before Birmingham. For these reasons, Sloss-Sheffield began to close its North Alamaba furnaces. By August 1927, the company had shut down all its furnaces except the four in the city limits of Birmingham.

While the North Alabama furnaces were being closed, the company decided to undertake a major renovation of the city furnaces. Between 1927 and 1931, the two furnaces were rebuilt and upgraded, fully mechanizing furnaces operation. Since existing company records were not made available, we do not know the reasons the company offered for mechanizing in those years. Fortunately, we do have records of the Woodward Iron Company for the period from January 1924 to June 1926. Woodward Iron, located twelve miles southwest of Birmingham, was a merchant pig iron producer. Like Sloss-Sheffield, Woodward drew its labor from the Birmingham area. Woodward's monthly reports, for the mid-1920s indicate a pervasive and consistent concern for labor supply. The company had a particularly hard time in filling unskilled positions at its mines and furnaces. Iron carriers and sand cutters were in particularly short supply. It was becoming harder to find men willing to do the hot and strenuous work in non-mechanized blast furnace operation when other opportunities were available. The iron carriers, always a source of difficulty for furnace managers, became more independent and more conscious of their value under conditions of labor shortage. Woodward's president, Frank H. Crockard claimed in December 1925 that iron carriers and sand cutters were "the most difficult class of labor with which we have to contend." The company saw no other choice but mechanization and in a statement of December 1924, justifying their decision, they left no doubt about their reasons: "The most laborious type of work around the blast furnace today is that of the pig iron carrier. As this type of workman is seemingly becoming extinct, in order to prevent serious decreases in production, arrangements are now being made to install mechanical means of handling the iron, which is now being handled by hand."

There is no reason to think Sloss-Sheffield's justification was any different. In December 1926 they began dismantling the Number Two city furnace. The new furnace, 82x21, with a capacity of 400 tons per day, was completed on July 25th, 1927. It was not only larger than its 200 ton per day predecessor, it incorporated a series of improvements patented by James Dovel. The Dovel patents included an improved hearth and bosh jacket, a modified cooling system, and altered interior furnace lines. The interior was designed with fewer fire bricks and a larger surface area at the top, increasing the amount of stock that could be contained in the furnace. Dovel claimed the increase in stock helped to retain heat, thereby increasing furnace output and reducing coke consumption. Dovel also patented and erected a gas washer and a heat recuperator. The latter, a large rectangular structure containing numerous iron heating pipes, was designed to preheat the cold blast prior to its introduction to the stove.

The key features of the new furnace were a McKee automatic top and an inclined skip hoist for mechanical charging. The skip cars, which traveled up the hoist with their load of stock, were driven by a double-drum Otis steam elevator. The effectiveness of the skip hoist was dependent on radical changes in the stock bins. A concrete charging tunnel, 747 feet long and 10 feet 8 inches high, was built in 1927. New stock bins were constructed over it with doors opening down into the tunnel. Rail tracks were laid in the tunnel and on top of the bins. The system, described previously, was designed to fill the furnace using a minimum of human labor.

In March 1928 work began on furnace Number One. It was replaced by a furnace to the new Number Two. Each new furnace was fitted with electric mud guns, designed to automatically close the iron notch, at the end of a pour work previously done by hand.

During the same years, the company upgraded other parts of the operation in 1927. A 68-foot water tank was moved from one of the company's deactivated furnaces in Florence, Alabama and installed adjacent to the southwest corner of the blowing engine house. One year later, a bank of 60hp capacity Casey-Hedges water-tube boilers, built in Chattanooga, Tennessee was installed to supplement the Rust boilers in place since 1911. A second-hand Allis-Chalmers blowing engine was moved from company property in Sheffield, Alabama and put in place in 1928. It operated alongside eight other blowing engines, four of which were bought second-hand in South Chicago and Rising Fawn, Georgia between 1926 and 1927. The other four: were originally installed at the site in 1900.

The new Number Two furnace was put in blast on August 1st, 1927, and the Number One in January 1929. For a brief period, the company continued to cast in sand. Its labor requirements were, however, much less. Not only was the company using pig iron breakers for the heavy work, but in January, 1929 a uni-pig machine was set up a machine designed to pre-mold the loose sand into which the iron was then cast. These devices were transitional expedients which reduced the company's reliance on manual labor and allowed them to continue casting in sand. Sloss-Sheffield was still selling to foundrymen who disliked machine cast iron. But the argument for smaller, cleaner, more uniform pigs was growing. Machine-cast iron gradually more acceptable as foundrymen learned to grade iron by chemical analysis instead of by fracture.

In January 1931, Sloss-Sheffield installed a Heyl & Patterson, single strand pig casting machine. Even after it was set up some sand casting still continued. The machine, based directly on the patents of the company's former furnace superintendent made its first appearance at the site approximately thirty-five years after its invention.