Forged in the Foundry: Birmingham's legacy in iron and steel continues as the city and the industries evolve
It was supposed to be the “Meeting That Made Birmimgham.” In May 1969, The Birmingham News ran a feature relating the events of a 1911 conference at New York’s Waldorf-Astoria Hotel, where then-Gov. Emmet O’Neal gave a speech to the giants of northeastern business and technology, including Thomas Edison, J.P. Morgan and Andrew Carnegie, urging them to invest in Birmingham and the rest of Alabama’s industrial growth. While skepticism remained as to whether northern money would profitably flow into the South, Morgan reportedly told O’Neal, “The money is on its way.”
Today, Birmingham’s iron and steel companies are global brands. Names like O’Neal, American Cast Iron Pipe Company, and McWane extend the city’s economic and industrial reach throughout the U.S., and into Europe, Asia, and South America. Although these industries no longer employ the same number of locals that they once did, the forces of industry that made the “Magic City” more than a century ago continue shaping Birmingham’s development.
“Our company basically grew up with Birmingham,” says Craft O’Neal, chairman of O’Neal Industries, which had its start as Southern Steel Works, when it was founded by Gov. O’Neal’s son and Craft’s grandfather Kirkman O’Neal in 1921.
The same could be said of Birmingham’s other iron and steel companies — both past and present — which have experienced the ups and downs of economic change and social struggle alongside the city since its founding in 1871.
Before Birmingham existed, there was a railway, or rather, a railway intersection. At the point where the South and North Alabama Railway met the Alabama and Chattanooga Railroad, a group of 10 investors established the Elyton Land Company in 1870. As one investor, Henry Caldwell related in his pamphlet-length history of the endeavor, the group decided that the land, “in the County of Jefferson, State of Alabama shall be called ‘Birmingham.’”
Karen Utz, the curator and historian at Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark, explains that the land surrounding Birmingham is rich in deposits of coal, iron ore and limestone — all the ingredients necessary for pig iron — making the city a valuable site for industrial development. “There’s a sea of red [iron] ore here that’s unlike anywhere else in the world,” she says.
Not long after Elyton Land Company began its Birmingham project, John Withers Sloss founded Sloss Furnaces in 1883. He already had a profitable career in railways, having helped push for the extension of the Louisville and Nashville Railroad south, through Alabama to the Gulf of Mexico. Opening the furnace and producing pig iron meant capitalizing on the resources in the Jones Valley and making Birmingham an industrial hub in its own right.
Sloss’s expansion into raw materials production added another facet to already profitable railway and mining industries in the growing city. One of the values of an industrial economy, says Holman Head, CEO of O’Neal Steel, is that one industrial manufacturer will attract other businesses that work to support and further profit from ongoing industrial expansion and diversification. This is especially the case, he explains, when it comes to large and heavy products like metals, which are difficult and expensive to transport, making it more profitable to remain located near the site of material production.
The establishment of Sloss Furnaces, then, made Birmingham a producer of pig iron, and later steel, setting the groundwork for the manufacture of pipes, valves, large machined parts, and other fabrications. Sloss was soon joined by a series of competitors, including Woodward Iron Company, based out of West Virginia, and the Pioneer Mining and Manufacturing Company, out of Pennsylvania. Birmingham proved so attractive that the country’s second-largest iron producer, Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company (TCI) moved its headquarters there at the end of the 19th century. As Utz explains in a publication for Sloss Furnaces, during the 1880s, pig iron production in Alabama grew by 10 times, from nearly 69,000 gross tons to more than 700,000.
Birmingham became a valuable site for industrial development not only because of accessible raw materials, but also because of the labor available in the postbellum South. While the industry might have been new, some of the economic systems were not. Utz says that many of the furnace owners were former plantation owners. “They knew raw materials and cheap labor,” she says. The companies often used convict labor in the coals mines. They additionally attracted sharecroppers into lower-skilled jobs, often housing them in quarters on the furnace grounds. Sloss and TCI had significant establishments of quarters for black workers until the 1950s.
Beyond the quarters, Birmingham’s early patchwork of neighborhoods additionally grew up around these companies. Ensley was largely developed by TCI, which became a subsidiary of Morgan’s U.S. Steel in 1907. Likewise, Hueytown had its roots in Woodward Iron. This became an ongoing trend as the industry expanded. Pleasant Grove and Fairfield grew significantly with the expansion of TCI under U.S. Steel. ACIPCO even has a neighborhood named after it — ACIPCO-Finley in northwest Birmingham. “Everyone who worked here used to live here,” says Ken Murphy, a manufacturing engineer who has worked at ACIPCO for the last 38 years.
Jobs in industry also attracted significant populations of immigrants, many of whom preferred the warmer climate of the South. In the early-1980s the Birmingham Alliance for the Humanities and the National Endowment of the Humanities sponsored Birmingfind, a research project that looked at the neighborhoods historically associated with the city’s black, Greek, Italian, Lebanese and Jewish communities. They located a large number of different European immigrants attracted to jobs at TCI in Wylam, which one English immigrant called “a wonderful place to come.” An especially concentrated influx of Italians arrived between 1900 and 1910, many of them settling in Ensley and North Birmingham and working for TCI or Sloss. Lebanese immigrants profited from industry by starting as peddlers in the mining communities, later developing groceries on Birmingham’s Southside.
Clean water and the “Golden Rule”
If mining, railroads and furnaces established Birmingham’s industrial base, then the subsequent addition of iron pipe manufacturing in the early-20th century provided one of the city’s most visible and continuous industrial legacies.
“You just take it for granted that you turn on your faucet and you’re going to have water,” says Mickie Coggin, corporate communications director at McWane, Inc. She explains, Birmingham pipe companies, including ACIPCO, U.S. Pipe and McWane, have been integral to producing the iron and steel pipes and fixtures at work in modern potable water systems for the last century.
Of Birmingham’s many industrialists, the most notable and distinctive was John Eagan, who first invested in ACIPCO in 1905 and led the company until his death in 1924. A devout Christian, Eagan looked to develop industry according to the biblical “golden rule” of Matthew 7:12 — to do unto others as you would have done to you. As such, ACIPCO was one of the first companies to give all its workers, regardless of race, widespread benefits, including access to healthcare, sick leave, life insurance and affordable housing. Eagan’s most radical act came after his death, when his will left the company to the employees in a charitable trust. The trust is still in effect today, giving ACIPCO a reputation for being employee owned.
The company’s emphasis on building clean water systems also added to the value of the often physically taxing work of manufacturing. Kendrick Clark, the employee assistance coordinator at ACIPCO and a second-generation employee, remembered hearing about Eagan’s legacy as a child. When he started at the company as part of the clean-up crew in the factory, he says, “I wasn’t just shoveling sand, I was making pipe so people could have clean water.”
McWane, Inc. got a different kind of start at ACIPCO. James Ransom “J.R.” McWane founded McWane Cast Iron Pipe Company in 1921, when he left ACIPCO to found a family-owned company. Both McWane and ACIPCO branched out from pipe manufacturing into other facets of potable water, including fire hydrants, valves and fixtures.
Where McWane looked to directly compete with ACIPCO, other companies grew into different avenues of the metals business. By 1935, Kirkman O’Neal added a new dimension to Southern Steel Works, opening one of the South’s first metals service centers. The company began warehousing metals for customers who did not need to make high-tonnage purchases, offering distribution and parts fabrication. The expansion into service was timely, allowing the company to rebound as the U.S. economy recovered from the Great Depression.
For the people employed in Birmingham’s industrial jobs, the work offered the chance at a middle-class life.
Clark’s father worked for ACIPCO with only had a third-grade education. The job at ACIPCO, he says, “meant being able to afford to raise a family.” His mother and father raised seven children on the income from ACIPCO.
Jim Stovall, a retired clerk who started as Sloss in 1959, shares as similar sentiment. “It was a good job you could raise a family on,” he says. “You didn’t get rich, but you made a living.”
The expansion of Birmingham’s middle class also came with the growth of the U.S. economy during and following World War II. By 1942, Birmingham’s manufacturers and service centers were directly contributing the Allied war effort. That year, ACIPCO began manufacturing tank parts and radial engine cylinders for the military. At the same time, Southern Steel began producing general-purpose bombs and superstructures for ships. The company became one of the largest producers of general-purpose bombs in the country.
The wartime growth also meant more women joined the industrial workforce. In 1944, ACIPCO had to add new bathrooms for women working in the plant. By war’s end, ACIPCO and Southern Steel received the Army/Navy “E for Excellence” award because of their wartime contributions.
While the demand for munitions decreased after 1945, the market for U.S. industrial products continued to grow. After the war, Birmingham’s industrialists looked for new opportunities in innovation, and began expanding their geographical footprint beyond the Magic City. By 1949, Southern Steel became O’Neal Steel. Three years later the company established its first satellite district in Jackson, Miss.
ACIPCO began modernizing its facilities in the early 1950s, replacing the cupola melting equipment, adding the production of new fittings, adapting to a new casting process. They also began their first experimental production of ductile iron pipe — a new allow that offered manufacturers greater tensile strength and could be made from recycled scrap metal. They also added the production of newly patented joints and gaskets.
The growth of the postwar economy also brought sea change in industrial regulation, global competition and technological innovation, forcing companies to either adapt or fall to the wayside. Sloss Furnaces was among the less fortunate manufacturers. The company merged with U.S. Pipe and Foundry in 1952, which allowed them to expand into North Birmingham. Their attempted growth faltered, however, as Japan and West Germany produced cheaper pig iron. What was more, with big customers like ACIPCO and McWane turning to ductile iron, demand for pig iron decreased so that Sloss gradually lost its place in the market.
Stovall saw the changes at Sloss firsthand. He moved from the downtown furnace to the North Birmingham facility in 1966. The original Sloss Furnace permanently closed five years later. In 1982, the North Birmingham facility — among the last producers of pig iron in the eastern U.S. — closed, and was torn down in 1985. While Stovall continued in industry until his retirement in 2003, working as a clerk for the Jefferson-Warrior Railroad, the changes he saw went well beyond the end of the industrial blast furnace in Birmingham.
“It hurts everybody,” he says. Emphasizing that the loss of one manufacturer hurt the companies built to support and supply it, Stovall says, “It’s a spectrum that’s affected by it.”
Companies less involved in raw materials production were better able to adapt to the changing global market. ACIPCO and McWane, for instance, benefitted from the addition of ductile iron and recycled scrap. TCI, however, shut its doors in 1952, and U.S. Steel diminished its operations in the Birmingham area to a single facility in Fairfield.
O’Neal Steel charted a different course by continuing to expand its service center operations. In the latter half of the 20th century, O’Neal added 40 facilities throughout the U.S.
Shirley Fagan, director of communications at O’Neal Industries, explains that as a service center, O’Neal began offering a variety of metal products under a single roof. “It’s like a grocery store for metals,” she says.
Continuity and legacy
While the size of Birmingham’s metals industry has decreased, the city’s manufacturers remain a fixture in the city’s economy and culture. Several times a year, Murphy takes engineering lessons from the plant at ACIPCO to elementary, middle and high school classrooms around Birmingham, miniaturizing the basic elements of the metals production process so that students can make their own tin castings and get a sense of the metals production processes. He says that this “Foundry-in-a-Box” program is intended to help a younger generation find value and interest in manufacturing jobs.
For Cassandra Brown, the first woman to operate the hydrotesting machinery on steel pipe at ACIPCO, work in manufacturing continues representing a better way of life for her and her family. She first took the job with ACIPCO 21 years ago as a single mother looking to better provide for her daughter. Now she is the only woman currently serving on the company’s Board of Operatives, one of the ways that manufacturing employees contribute to the company’s overall leadership. With 2,000 people, ACIPCO is now largest industrial manufacturing employer in Birmingham.
Not all of Birmingham’s manufacturers have grown along these lines. McWane, though still in control of 25 facilities around the U.S. and operations in Europe and China, idled its pipe plant in Birmingham in 2010. The company encountered several challenges with worker safety and compliance with environmental regulations, which were redressed before they shuttered the plant.
Head says that manufacturing is not on an altogether decline, however, explaining that as wages increase around the world, more manufacturing jobs are returning to the U.S. Alabama’s auto manufacturers, for instance, continue creating jobs within their plants and through the supply companies created to support their operations.
“It is encouraging to know that we are competitive these days,” says Head.
Perhaps the preservation of Sloss Furnaces serves as the most visible evidence of the metal industry’s ongoing legacy in Birmingham. The site became a National Historic Landmark in 1981, and is one of only three industrial, mass production, blast furnaces being maintained and interpreted as a museum in the entire U.S.
Annie Spindle, who grew up in the Sloss workers quarters in the 1950s says she is particularly glad for the preservation of the furnace, otherwise, “it would be impossible to explain where you came from.”
Sidebar: Reared in the Workers Quarters
Life in an industrial economy remained encumbered by racial segregation in Birmingham. Johnnie Mae Clark, her sister Annie Spindle, and the other 10 children of John and Ethel Wesley grew up in a three-room “shotgun” cottage reserved for black workers in the Sloss quarters. Clark and Spindle’s memories at Sloss blended often happy childhood experiences with the challenges of significant poverty.
“It was a hard living,” says Clark.
To get by, residents cultivated vegetable gardens, and often kept chickens and sometimes pigs. The grounds included a commissary where they also purchased food, some clothing and other basic amenities. Next to the commissary was an infirmary, where a doctor was available onsite. The children additionally attended elementary school within the quarters. While the system provided for residents’ basic needs, it also often cut them off from the rest of the city, and ensured that much of their income went back into Sloss. Clark recalls times when her father wouldn’t receive a paycheck because his mother had already spent his pay at the commissary. They were grateful for extra work that their father’s boss offered him, which allowed him to earn additional income.
These struggles were blended with more pleasant memories. Their parents bought them a little red wagon, and they would give each other rides through the quarters and play with the other children. On the rare occasion that it snowed, Spindle remembers their mother taking the snow and mixing it with milk and sugar to make a kind of ice cream.
“I cherish Sloss,” says Clark. “It was peaceful. It was loving, and we had caring people.”
Clark and Spindle emphasize the legacy of hard work that their father and mother imparted to them in the quarters. “I can’t be thankful enough for a man who taught us to survive,” says Clark.
Despite the many challenges, Karen Utz, the curator and historian at Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark,s says that residence in the Sloss quarters offered families more opportunities for advancement than would have been available to them as sharecroppers. In a publication on the black women of Sloss, she explains that Sloss provided workers’ children an education and easier access to the opportunities opening up to Birmingham’s growing black middle class in the 1940s and 1950s.
“Industry and civil rights are all interconnected,” Utz says. “You cannot compartmentalize.” Sloss quarters closed in the late-1950s, as upkeep became too expensive for the company and workers moved into better housing in Birmingham’s neighborhoods on their own. Their departure from the quarters was part of an increased sense of empowerment and confidence within the black community that grew out of industrial work, explains Utz.