The Sloss Furnaces owe their existence to the rich mineral resources of Jones Valley and the vision of James Withers Sloss. Born in limestone County in 1820, Sloss’ business acumen first surfaced in 1835, when he began working as an accountant for a butcher. In 1842, he opened what was to become the first of a chain of mercantile stores in Athens, Alabama. By 1862, Sloss had invested heavily in railroads. After the Civil war, he took the first step toward creating the transportation network required to tap the region’s mineral wealth. He combined a number of short railroad lines to form a leg of the Louisville and Nashville rail line. Once the tracks had been extended south to Birmingham, the large scale development of the region’s coal and iron deposits became more than just a pipe dream. In 1873, Sloss was instrumental in the formation of the Cooperative Experimental Coke and Iron Company, which used coke instead of charcoal to produce iron in the old Red Mountain Oxmoor Furnace. In 1880, Pratt helped form the Pratt Coal and Iron Company and began construction of the city’s first blast furnace on fifty acres on the northern edge of Birmingham (852). The state-of-the art furnace was designed and built by Harry Hargreaves, who had studied under Thomas Whitewell, the inventor of the stoves that supplied the hot air blast for the furnaces. The first blast furnace was blown in 1882, the second in 1884 (883). The furnaces were sixty feet high and eighteen feet in diameter. In its first year of operation, the newly-christened Sloss Furnace Company produced 24,000 tons of pig iron. The Louisville Exposition recognized the high quality of the foundry’s iron by awarding it a bronze medal.
Following his retirement in 1886, Sloss sold his company to John W. Johnston and Forney Johnson. With the backing of Wall Street financier J.C. Maben, the two investors reorganized the foundry as the Sloss-Sheffield Steel and Iron Company in 1899. The firm’s expansion plans included the construction of two more furnaces and three hundred ovens on the grounds of the newly-acquired Coalburg Coal and Coke Company (853). After Maben became president of the firm, he installed new blowers in 1902 and new boilers in 1906. Between 1927 and 1931, the old furnaces were completely rebuilt. By 1939, the Sloss-Sheffied Steel and Iron Company had become one of the chief southern suppliers of pig iron for pipe manufacture (850). A dehumidification plant was constructed during World War II to reduce the company’s dependence on coke. The United States Pipe and Foundry Company purchased the foundry in 1952, but business was hampered by the introduction of plastic pipe and ductile iron, as well as the firm’s increasing dependence on more expensive foreign ore. The Jim Walter Corporation acquired the company in 1969 but donated it to the Alabama State Fair Authority in 1971 with the intent of converting it into a museum. In 1977, Birmingham voters approved of a $3.3 million bond sale to stabilize two-third of the historic structures and to fund construction of a visitors’ center. Today, Sloss Furnaces is the only 20th century blast furnace preserved as a historic site. In recent years, the 19th century industrial complex has achieved as one of the most haunted historic places in the entire country.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the Sloss Furnaces is the archives, which preserve interviews with former employees, many of whom were black. Before James Sloss sold the furnaces, he employed as many as 565 African American males. In 1900, blacks comprised 65 percent of the Birmingham iron and steel work force in 1900 and 75 percent in 1910. Subsequent owners of the City Furnaces depended so heavily on the cheap labor provided by African Americans that they saw no need to install labor-saving equipment until the 1920s, when thousands of black Alabamians migrated north in search of a better life and higher-paying jobs (855). The blacks who continued to work at the Sloss Furnances until they closed for good in1971 punched separate time clocks, bathed in separate bath houses, and attended separate company picnics. Job categories were segregated as well. Most of the supervisors, technicians and skilled workers were white; blacks constituted the entire “common labor” workforce.
Not surprisingly, working in the Sloss Furnaces was perilous. For example, some work teams were required to load iron ore into the vertical hoists. Once the ore had been lifted to the top of the stacks, workers called “fillers” dumped the loads into the flaming furnaces. Because they had to maintain a fast pace, fillers who did not pay enough attention lost their footing and fell into the molten iron. Those fillers fortunate enough not to be incinerated ran the risk of dying from inhaling the noxious fumes emitted from the stacks (Lewis 86-87).
The casting sheds presented their own special hazards. The six-to-eight-man work teams who used hammers, hand drills, and crowbars to remove the clay plugs from the base of the furnaces were exposed to heat so intense that workers were rotated every few minutes. After the plug was finally chipped away, the men had to leap out of the way to prevent being burned by the stream of molten ore that gusted from the opening in the furnace. The men who guided the molten iron into the central trench and the smaller channels—or sows—also risked their lives on a daily basis. Laborers had to be vigilant for small amounts of moisture that would cause the molten iron to explode. To make maters worse, these workers were pressured to fill the sows and the pig iron molds very quickly, increasing the possibility of accidents. The workers who separated the simmering pigs from the sows almost always suffered from burns and blisters on their feet, despite the fact that they wore shoes with heavy wooden soles. Loading the cooled pigs into the mule-drawn tramcars was back-breaking work that eventually wore down even the strongest men after only a few years (Lewis 87).
The exact number of people seriously injured or killed is unknown. However, history does record the horrible deaths of a few of these individuals. In late November 1882, two black laborers, Aleck King and Bob Mayfield, were lowered on a platform inside the No. 1 furnace, where they were supposed to remove the deposits of coke and ore clinging to the inner walls. Using picks, the men were chipping way when suddenly, a huge mass of congealed ore dislodged from the walls and plunged into the furnace, sending up clouds of gas and smoke. Choking uncontrollably from the toxic fumes, the men toppled from the platform and fell into the furnace.
A few days later, another laborer met his death in the fiery furnace. Samuel Cunningham was a transient worker who had just arrived from Kentucky. Like many mill employees, the strain of performing extremely dangerous tasks under deplorable conditions drove into a state of depression. One day, he walked over to Alice No. 1, climbed the hoist to the top of the stack, and jumped into the roaring furnace as his co-workers looked on in horror (83).
The best-known work related death also produced the iron industry’s most famous ghost story. Theophilus Calvin Jowers was a white supervisor who left his father’s plantation near Widowee after the Civil War to seek his fortune in the burgeoning iron industry in Jones Valley. In 1870, he married Sarah Latham in Irondale, where he found employment at W.S.McElwain’s Cahaba Iron Works. Eager to learn every face of iron making, Theophilus worked right alongside the black workers in the plant, converting hard wood into charcoal and preparing the sand molds that shaped the pigs. In 1873, Theophilus and Sarah left Irondale and moved to Oxmoor. Theophilus soon found work as assistant foundryman at the Eureka Mining and Transportation company of the Oxmoor Furnaces. He was undoubtedly present when coke—a derivative of coal—was successfully used to make pig iron at Oxmoor on February 18, 1876.
In the spring of 1887, Theophilus was offered the job of assistant foundryman at the Alice Furnace No. 1 in Birmingham. The offer was too good to refuse because it enabled Theophilus, Sarah, and their five children a chance to leave the stifling atmosphere of Oxmoor and move to Birmingham, which had become a bustling city. At the time, Alice No. One had set a record in the South for producing 150 pigs of iron in a single day. Theophilus realized when he took the job that he would be responsible for maintaining that same high level of productivity.
Theophilus had not worked at Alice No. One for very long before Sarah’s worst fears came true. On September 10, 1887, Theophilus was directing a work team that had assumed the task of replacing the old bell with a new one. Theophilus had planned to hoist up the old bell and slowly lower it into the furnace to be melted down. He was holding the rope which was to release the bell when all at once, he tripped, releasing his hold on the rope. The enormous bell plunged into the molten iron, and Theophilus fell on top of it. Within seconds, the molten ore covered his body, reducing it to ashes almost instantaneously. His co-workers used a piece of sheet iron attached to a piece of gas pipe to retrieve Jowers’ remains, which consisted of only his head, bowels, two hip bones, and a few ashes (Windham 18).
Sarah and her children were devastated by their father’s agonizing death, but they were saved from financial ruin because iron workers took care of their own. Her late husband’s co-workers pooled together their time and money to build a new house for Sarah and her children. The mill workers also bought the lunches that Sarah sold from her house. Theophilus’ reputation as a hard worker and loyal friend served his family in good stead for many years after his death. Sarah soon learned that Theophilus’ influence persisted in other ways as well. Not long after Theophilus died, workers began reporting feeling surprisingly cold when they were on the bridge at Little Alice. Seconds later, they sensed that someone was standing nearby, watching them. When they turned to look, no one was there. Not long thereafter, workers preparing to charge the furnace claimed to have seen a figure walking around, almost as if he was supervising. Over the years, stories continued to be told of a male apparition who strode through the flying sparks and searing heat with impunity.
Over the next few decades, workers took seriously Theophilus’ vow to his wife that “As long as there’s a furnace standing in this country, I’ll be there!” In 1905, after Alice No. One was dismantled, the ghost of Theophilus Jowers moved to Alice No. Two. For the next two decades, the spectral shape of the former assistant foundryman appeared in parts of the plant where no living human being could have survived the heat and flames. In 1927 when Alice No.Two was abandoned, the ghost took up residence in the Sloss furnaces on First Avenue. In her book The Ghost in the Sloss Furnaces, author Kathryn Tucker Windham tells of John Jowers’ first encounter with his father’s spirit.
He had just purchased a new 1927 Model T Ford, and he decided to take his son, Leonard, on a drive down First Avenue so that he could see the iron mill where his grandfather worked. After the Model T crested the top of the viaduct when John stopped the engine, John took Leonard’s hand and told him that they were going to take a close look at the furnaces. They were leaning over the metal railing of the viaduct, looking at the furnaces, when John saw a man walking through the scorching flames. He immediately directed his son’s attention to the spot where his father’s ghost appeared, but the ghost was gone. John saw his father’s ghost several other nights while leaning against the railing of the viaduct. For Theophilus Calvin Jowers, it seems, working at the iron mill was much more than a life-time calling.
A much lesser-known spirit also lives on the folklore of the Sloss Furnaces. In the early 1900s, a young woman who had become pregnant out of wedlock walked unnoticed through the gates of the Sloss Furnaces. While the men were pouring the iron into the sows, she climbed up Alice No. 1 and jumped into the furnace. Ron Bates, a tour guide, said that the girl’s spirit returned to Sloss Furnaces in a very unconventional form: “One day, city officials and plant managers were having some kind of official ceremony at Sloss Furnaces when all at one, a white deer ran through the crowd and disappeared. Some people believed that it was the reincarnation of the pregnant girl who killed herself in the furnace.” Ron went on to say that the deer still appears whenever dignitaries visit the furnaces on special occasions.
A much more apocryphal story concerns a sadistic foreman named James “Slag” Wormwood, who supervised the graveyard shift in the early 1900s. Because he forced the 150 workers on his shift to take dangerous risks, forty-seven men died while he worked there. An untold number of workers suffered debilitating injuries that forced them to quit their jobs. In 1906, Wormwood was walking on top of the Big Alice furnace when he lost his footing and fell into the molten ore. Rumors quickly spread that it was not the fumes from the rising methane gases that caused him to become disoriented and plummet into the furnace but the hands of one of his tormented workers who pushed him to his death. Over the next several decades, a number of sightings of Wormwood’s ghost were reported. In 1926, a watchman was pushed from behind and told to “get back to work.” In 1947, three workmen who were found unconscious in a small boiler room also claimed that a badly burned man ordered them to return to work. In 1971, another watchman said that he was walking up the stairs when a demon-like figure pushed him from behind. The entity then began beating the man as he was lying on the stairs. To this day, tourists occasionally report feeling a pair on unseen hands on their backs, especially on the catwalk.
Despite Sloss Furnaces’ reputation as being one of the most haunted places in the United States, no formal investigations were conducted until 2005, when Ghost Chasers, International, from Bardstown, Kentucky, became the first group to visit the mill.. The truth behind the ghost stories became immediately apparent. “When we first walked into the factory,” Chuck said, Patti looked up at the water tower and saw a man walking on the catwalk. Back in the museum, Patti described the apparition to one of the tour guides, who told her that the ghost of a man on the water tower is frequently sighted at the mill.
More paranormal activity was detected down in a man-made waterway that served as a cooling system. The waterway is between two and three feet wide and approximately eight inches deep. Chuck said, “When we were down there, we could hear whispering behind us. It was very clear.” Unfortunately, the group was unable to record the sounds because of the noise made by the rushing water.
Ghost Chasers, International, also picked up some startling EVP’s that night. One of these was the voice of a little girl, who said, “Hi, Daddy. Here’s your lunch.” “Patti was really confused,” Chuck said, “because she wondered why she was picking up a child in an old factory. The group’s tour guide from the museum cleared up the mystery: “The workers had homes right on the property, and that’s where they were living. There were 500 workers on a shift, and the children and their mothers would bring their lunches to them during their lunch and dinner break.”
Chuck Starr, the husband of the director of Ghost Chasers International, Patti Starr, said that nationally-known psychic Chip Coffey accompanied the group. Chip had just completed Patti Starr’s ghost hunting course, and he was eager to apply what he had learned to a genuine investigation. Ironically, the newest investigator had the closest personal experience that night when the group entered the factory portion of the mill. Chip had just sat down when he began feeling the presence of a man who had been injured on the job many years before. “I don’t get the impression that he lost his life,” Chip said, “just a limb.” Chip had no sooner lost contact with the entity than one of the investigators noticed blood on his hands. “We checked him over pretty carefully,” Chuck said, “and there was no blood or abrasions anywhere on his skin.” Chip does not know when the blood first appeared on his hands because he was not paying attention. Fortunately, the group was able to capture the blood on Chip’s hands on video.
On September 14, 2007, the Oxford Paranormal Society conducted an investigation at Sloss Furnaces. The OPS was accompanied by a reporter and two photographers from the Birmingham News. The members placed four stationary infrared cameras to cover the catwalks and the entrances and exits. The team also carried around four hand-held infrared cameras as they walked through the structure. The team split off into three groups: one group remained at the monitoring station; one group sat still and recorded EVPs; and one group walked the grounds. The investigation ended at 3:00. The teams captured no visual images, but they did collect some interesting EVPs. One group recorded a voice near the plaque of Theophilus Jowers. Three of the questions asked by another group were answered by a loud banging sound.
Another paranormal research group—GH.O.U.L. from Alabama—investigated the Sloss Furnaces during the daytime in May 2008. Bob Giordano, the director of the group, said that the members were exploring the main tunnel when Bob asked the question, “Can you give us a sign of your presence?” About two minutes after Bob asked the question, someone—or something—threw a handful of pebbles as him. “They hit me in the back of the leg,” Bob said. “We were recording EVPs at the time, and when we listed to the tape we heard the pebbles being picked up and thrown at me, but we also heard two big rocks hit the wall. We hadn’t heard the sound of the big rocks until we listened to the recording.” Another team that was walking through the same tunnel was taking photographs at the end of the tunnel. “One of the members caught what seems to be the shadowy image of a little girl,” Bob said. “She’s holding her arm out like she’s carrying something, but you don’t see anything in her hand. It was definitely a full-bodied apparition.”
The members of G.H.O.U.L. heard some very unnerving sounds during the May investigation as well. “There were three investigators walking through the boiler room, and they heard a woman say something, but they couldn’t quite make out what it was. They were doing EVP work at the time, but they didn’t record anything. All three investigators insisted that they heard the same disembodied female voice at the same time.” One of Bob’s lead investigators was recording EVPs outside of the boiler room in the vicinity of the smokestacks when he and the other members of his team began hearing footsteps coming toward. After the footsteps stopped, the members asked the entity, “What is your name?” Suddenly, they heard the footsteps again. This time, they came even closer to the team before stopping altogether. However, the sound did not appear on the recorder. Several of the investigators from another team working inside the boiler room had just detected the scent of burned oil when they began hearing the machinery start up. Once again, though, the group did not record the sound. “That’s one thing we have noticed at Sloss Furnaces,” Bob said. “Sounds that we hear with our ears do not show up on the recorder.”
Bob’s wife had the most startling personal experience in the May investigation. He and another investigator were up on the catwalk in the boiler room while his wife was sitting down. Suddenly, she shouted up to the men that she was beginning to feel cold. At that moment, Bob took her photograph. When they examined the photograph, they were amazed to see the image of a dog. “It was standing on its hind legs, looking at my wife. You can clearly see its tail, too. She didn’t feel the dog, though, just the cold,” Bob said.
G.H.O.U.L. returned to the Sloss Furnaces in July 2008. Bob Giordano said that he and his members stayed in the old plant from 6:00 p.m. until 3:00 a.m. “One of our teams was in the boiler room taking pictures,” Bob said. “When we reviewed the pictures later on, we caught the image of a man on fire on two photographs. One picture shows a profile view of the man, and in the other, he is staring directly at the camera.” A team that was working around one of the towers took a another photograph of a black figure working at a panel. While the group was doing EVP work down in the waterway, one of the members of the group aimed his camera over Bob’s shoulder and took a photograph of the head and shoulders of a man hovering over the water. The group also captured a large number of orbs on film, but because of the high concentration of dust in many of the rooms, the photographs could not be submitted as evidence of the paranormal.
G.H.O.U.L.’s third investigation of Sloss Furnaces was conducted on January 8, 2009, from noon until 4:00 p.m. “We had two groups from Georgia investigating with us,” Bob said. “We got video of some shadows moving around the basement of the boiler room. It was strange because there was nobody else around. We were looking down the room in the back of the basement, and in the background, you can see the pipes and a shadow walking by. There was nobody down there.” One member who was walking through the boiler room began feeling dizzy. She also sensed the presence of another person. At this point, the investigator realized that she had to leave the boiler room as quickly as possible.
Four other members who were in the tunnel had an experience very similar to that of the investigator in the boiler room. “They got the feeling that they were being surrounded and watched,” Bob said. “And then all of a sudden, all four of them started getting a headache and dizzy, so all four of them got out of the tunnel. When they got out, they started feeling better. They said that definitely, something was down there with them.”
Investigators are not the only ones who encounter the ghosts of Sloss Furnaces these days. Workers and visitors often feel as if they are being watched by an invisible presence. People walking along the catwalk in the boiler during tours have reported a glowing, humanoid shape lurking around. Ron Bates says that the most haunted building is the Blowing Engine Building. Built in 1902, it is the oldest building still standing at Sloss Furnaces. Workers who had set objects down in one part of the building have found them moved to another room later on. Doors open and close by themselves in the Blowing Engine Building as well. Ron occasionally sees the shape of a person in the Blowing Engine Building out of the corner of his eye, but it always vanishes when he turns around for a better look. “Visitors see the shadowy figure of a man all the time,” Ron says, “but it could be one of our maintenance men.” When one considers all of the pain and suffering that was endured by workers at Sloss Furnaces for almost a century, the possibility that the old mill might be haunted is not really that far-fetched.