“The ‘magic’ of Magic City is Sloss furnaces.” - John Nixon, associate director of Sloss Furnaces
In 1881, Colonel James Withers Sloss began construction on what would be known as Sloss Furnaces in Birmingham, Alabama. Birmingham has a large supply of iron and Sloss took this opportunity to use the railroad system to revolutionize the industrial world of the south. He found the best engineers to help him with construction and design of the facility. What truly put Sloss on the map as a factory was the installation of Whitwell stoves, which were the first of their kind built in the United States and were of higher quality of those found in the north. Because of this boom of industry, Birmingham grew almost over night which gave it the name of “Magic City”.
However, this place was not without its fair share of trouble. Not long after it opened employees began getting injured or even killed while on the job. Because of this, the Furnaces has become a Mecca for those fascinated by the paranormal and the stories surrounding it have interwoven themselves into the fabric of Birmingham.
Sloss Furnaces has been a popular destination for many ghost hunting reality TV shows. In Ghost Hunters the team experienced silhouettes of men in hats, being poked, and even getting an entity to respond to a question while in the tunnels below. Ghost Adventures had a more dramatic visit to Sloss with Zak Bagans confronting a spirit known as ‘Slag’ in the boiler room. Kevan Walden of Alabama’s Most Haunted claims he was slapped in the face during an investigation.
Legends also surround the previously mentioned character known as James “Slag” Wormwood. According to local stories Slag was a foreman on the night shift that was known for his ruthless behavior. His crew was often overworked and were put in very dangerous situations. One fateful night in 1906 (some sources cite ‘October 1899’) Slag lost his footing while on top of Big Alice (the highest blast furnace) and fell into a pool of molten iron. It is believed that he became dizzy due to the methane gas but many believe that he was pushed by disgruntled employees.
This is the source of many of the ghost stories surrounding the old factory. Residents of Birmingham often will tell tales of feeling like they were being pushed or grabbed while wandering through the furnaces. However, did Slag even exist?
A quick look into death and census records show no trace of a James Wormwood living in Birmingham, Alabama at this time let alone any cause of death. In an article written by Kyle Cobb Jr of Last Gasps Paranormal he believes that the Slag legend was born from the tragic death of Richard Jowers.
Richard Jowers tale differs from the folk lore. Richard (also known by his fictional name Theophilus Calvin) was a dearly loved assistant foundryman at Debardeleben Coal and Iron who fell into a furnace while assisting the repair of a melting bell. The workmen tried to retrieve what was left of him using pieces of sheet iron attached to a glass pipe but were only able to find a few parts of his body. According to stories, the heartbroken workers banned together to assist his widow and children. They built them a new house, routinely gave them money, and the millworkers would buy sandwiches from Mrs. Jowers for lunch to help provide for her family. Through the power of this community the Jowers family never went hungry or cold.
This accident took place on September 9, 1887 and shortly there after employees began reporting eerie encounters of a spectral presence believed to be Jowers. In spite of this his memory lived on in his coworkers and loved ones as “something of a folk hero” for thousands of men who dug ore, mined coal, and ended the furnaces.
If it is true that the heinous character of Slag was based off of Richard then that might be one of the biggest tragedies of Sloss Furnaces. Though the confirmed accidents and deaths are not much better.
The first confirmed deaths occured in November of 1882, only a year after Sloss Furnaces had begun operation. Two black laborers, Aleck King and Bob May, were removing ore and coke that had burned into the brick walls of furnace Number One. When they were lowered into the interior of the furnace and began their task the materials in the hearth were still smoldering. After inhaling the smoke and gas the two fell to their deaths. This story has worked its way into the folklore of Sloss but their names are usually omitted.
Unsurprisingly within the same week in 1882 a gentleman known as Samuel Cunningham committed suicide at Alice #1 by going to the top of the stack and diving into the furnace below as his co-workers looked on in horror. His reasoning for ending his life has been lost to time but it is speculated that like many mill employees during this time period the strain of performing dangerous tasks and living in deplorable conditions fed his depression.
The next notable event was written in The New York Times. On February 4, 1892 a hot blast stove was being erected when a scaffold inside the stove collapsed and dumped 8 men 58 feet down to the bottom. Two of the eight died, the rest were in injured, but many more were in critical care.
Perhaps the other story that feeds into the Slag legend is that of Joseph Webb. In 1897 Webb’s boiled body was found in a water vat. The night previous he was at a bar but had left to go home. The mysterious part is that the furnace was not on his way home which led many of his friends to suspect foul play. He was last seen caring a brand new pair of shoes for him and his wife which were also found with his body.
The list of accidents and deaths that occurred at Sloss from when it opened and until it closed in 1971 is so long that it could never be covered in one brief article on the subject. However this does make one wonder why anyone want to work in such a place.
Sloss Furnaces opened its doors in 1881 to a deeply troubled and struggling America. The Civil War had taken a hard tole on the south and it had left it’s economy in ruin. Millions of slaves were finally free but were not considered equal by the white Americans or the Federal Government. Jim Crow laws were enacted which caused Black Americans to often be paid less, had a harder time finding work, and had less access to learning skills due to not having the access to get the education. They were free and could vote, but they still were not as valued simply because of their skin color and status in society. In fact if an African American worker didn’t have a job or money on themselves if they were stopped by the police they were be arrested as a vagrant.
They wanted what anyone would want: to be treated fairly and to make the money to help their children have the opportunities they never had. They found this at Sloss Furnaces. Unlike many places of employment Sloss did not segregate their employees, paid all of them fairly, and every employee regardless of race was able to advance in the company.
A quote from a gentleman known as Alonzo Gaines said in his interview in 1984 captures this perfectly. “I used to look forward to going to work, because I could work beside a white man and he would talk to me like I was a man instead of an animal.”
Sloss furnaces was a place where many tragedies occurred so that is grounds for vibrant tales to grow. When we look at history and what life was like for an industrial employee during this time period it surprisingly does not seem all that peculiar. During its years of operations many tragedies around the country would take place. The Pemberton Mill Collapse of 1890, The 1905 Grover Shoe Factory disaster, The Triangle Factory Fire in 1911, and countless others. Sloss clearly had its fair share of tragic deaths but it’s reasonable to believe that these were products of the time and not from any of the boogie men the legends have created.
Today Sloss Furnaces remains a fixture of Birmingham but has reinvented itself. It now stands as a museum for a reminder of a complicated past not too far away but also a haven for artists in the community, education, festivals, and even weddings. It almost seems like magic that such a place could transform Birmingham once more.