Industrial Metal: The Sloss Furnaces

January 18, 2014 — It felt like we were trespassing. We were clambering over giant pipes and between industrial silos, feeling our way through underground tunnels and into dark rooms with dusty, dangerous-looking machines. Everything seemed to be painted or rusted into a hellish red. At one point I ducked through a heavy metal door barely open enough to squeeze through and found myself in a pitch black room. I flashed my camera a few times, and then looked down at my glowing screen to discover…the skull-less skeleton of a burn victim hanging from a wall. Now it felt like the kind of trespassing that launches a horror story.

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.

It was built in 1882 to produce pig iron, a byproduct of liquidating iron in planet Mercury-levels of heat and then adding various compounds. It’s used in making steel and wrought iron. I don’t understand any of that. I do know that Pig Iron works well as the name of the deranged killer that should have been chasing us around the innards of the Sloss Furnaces.

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.

At first, we just skirted the edges of the complex. We weren’t sure if that was all there was to it, some grounds with a cool industrial backup. A group of people were in the main warehouse-type building, which was open on one side and gradually turning into a concert venue. I remember Donna Summer blasting from speakers as tall as me. I assume rust has never flaked off the place to the beat of Hot Stuff before.

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:

From there, we penetrated deeper into the complex. As we did, the music strangled, the partiers disappeared, and suddenly we were somehow alone in the midst of all that machinery. The place does a good job of making it feel like you have unrestricted access to the place, but of course some doors are locked and gates here and there make sure you don’t stray into danger. Still, we found ourselves everywhere you want to go in an empty industrial facility.

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].

Looking around online later that night in our hotel room, the place seems to at first have a past corroded with suffering, death, murder, and torture. It’s hard to tell where the historical events start and the ghost tales begin and I honestly couldn’t find a legitimate source that placed the more harrowing stories at the furnace itself. Most of the more insidious ones seemed to have happened at other furnaces or in the Sloss mines where the raw materials were culled for smelting. Love that word. Smelting.

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.

Still, with its cinematic look and a history long enough to have large vague patches, it’s been a steady filming site for paranormal shows over the decades. I’m going to call out Ghost Hunters specifically because they brought Meat Loaf with them. The dude really will do anything for…ah, whatever.

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.”