Except I was in a National Historic Landmark. And about 100 yards away from a party.
The Sloss Furnaces in Birmingham, Alabama, is one of those asymmetrical industrial-looking monstrosities you see at the edges of cities, the kind that was used in 75% of 1980s action movies, the kind of edifice the robots will erect when they conquer and enslave us.
The place shut down in the early 1970s, but because of its age and importance in the establishment of Birmingham, the complex became a National Historic Landmark in the 1980s—the first ever industrial site to be awarded such a status—and opened to the public.
We pulled up not knowing what to expect of a 135-year-old furnace complex (more or less, the oldest building currently dates back to 1902) that allowed anybody to traipse through it. We certainly didn’t expect…a party. Tables were being set up, colorful banners placed, music was shouldering its way through the humid Alabama air.
I asked the first person I saw, a middle-aged balding man in shorts carrying a precarious tower of paper cups, what was going on. “Pride festival,” he informed me. “Crap,” was my internal response. I’m not homophobic, not since the operation, but I am party-phobic, especially when I wanted a spooky atmosphere for my creepy jaunt into the bowels of an industrial nightmare.
Eventually, we entered that building, drawn by a massive contraption at the far end that looked like the engine of a star ship, a beat up one, maybe the Red Dwarf. Passing through the people working hard for their money, we ended up at its base and stared up, our necks at angles three degrees from breaking. It was a blast furnace, but the word does nothing to describe what we were being [red] dwarfed by. So here’s a photo:
There are a few ways you can do Sloss. You can take a guided tour or do a phone tour, but you know me, self-guided all the way. And, since a man who tours himself has a fool for a client, I didn’t learn much about its history or the foundry process while on the grounds. Although we had a blast [furnace].
But sharecroppers, slaves, and prisoners did work there. And, even though the skeleton I found was left over from their seasonal Sloss Fright Furnace Halloween attraction, people did die there. But it was because they were working with what was basically lava. It’s the kind of job where death happens. Like ice cream truck driver.
There are oddities I visit, that the mere act of seeing them with my own eyeballs wraps them up pretty quickly for me. But this was a place we wanted to stay. To rove around, explore, treat it like a vast playground. And the fact that the place can be spooky on a sunny Sunday afternoon in the middle of a festival says way more about it than the thousand words you just read. In fact, I should have edited this entire article down to that one clean sentence, “It’s a place that’ll give you the creeps on a sunny Sunday afternoon in the middle of a party.”