Massive Steel Cities: Birmingham,  Alabama

For the final post of our four-part series looking at massive steel cities around the world, we’re going to the US city of Birmingham Alabama. Here we can trace how the rise, decline and rebirth of the American steel industry is closely tied with the fortunes of the city that was once known as the Magic City, due to its rapid growth and prosperity.

A unique mix of natural resources

Birmingham Alabama is the only place in the world where the natural resources of iron-ore, coal and limestone are located in such close proximity. These three minerals are the key ingredients for making iron and steel and the city was founded in 1871 with the express purpose of becoming a centre of industry, most notably, the steelmaking industry.

The first coke-fired steel furnace was built in 1876 and by the 1880s, there were some 20 furnaces operating in or around the town, including the historic Sloss Furnaces, which was Birmingham’s first ever blast furnace, producing 24,000 tons of high quality iron during its first operating year.

By the end of the 1920s, Sloss had re-organised, merging to become Sloss-Sheffield and together with the local iron-producing company, Woodward, had become the largest producers of foundry pig iron in America and Alabama had more foundries than any another other state.

The Great Depression leaves its mark

When the Great Depression struck in 1929, Birmingham’s economy was devastated. Steel and pig iron production dipped to levels not seen since 1896. The New Deal programs tried to lessen the blow for  Birmingham’s steel workers, and it was during this dark period of high unemployment and low steel production that saw the creation of one of the city’s enduring landmarks, Vulcan’s tower– the final and permanent home for the largest cast iron statue in the world.

Vulcan is the Roman god of fire and metalworking. While the statue had been Birmingham’s entry in the 1904 World’s Fair, winning the grand prize it did not find a permanent home until 1936, when a 38.4m sandstone pedestal was constructed and the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration helped fund new purpose-built parkland on the city’s Red Mountain.

Left behind in the post-war technology race

The outbreak of World War II saw a dramatic increase in the demand of steel and Birmingham was rapidly back in the steelmaking business. The steel industry recognised the need to diversify and set about exploring new avenues of steel manufacturing as well as new technology to increase blast furnace steel production. However the Second World War proved to be key to both Birmingham’s prosperity and pain. By the late 1950s, new, improved and highly efficient German and Japanese blast furnaces were producing steel more cheaply than the US producers and Birmingham’s big producers such as Sloss-Sheiffield, Woodward and TCI began to see their market share shrink.  Superior grades of steel and iron, such as ductile iron also decreased demand for the foundry pig iron being produced in Alabama. The American companies had left their adoption of the latest methods and technologies too late.

Today, the only steel manufacturing plant that remains in production in Birmingham, Alabama is U.S Steel’s Fairfield plant, incorporating both steelmaking and steel finishing facilities. The impressive Fairfield steel manufacturing plant is capable of producing 2.4 million tons of hot-rolled, cold-rolled and coated sheet steel products each year for use in the automotive and appliance industry. The steel manufacturing and finishing facility also produces 750,000 net tons of seamless tubular products, primarily for pipelines used in the energy industry.

Moving on

While Birmingham remains justifiably proud of its place in the steelmaking history of the USA, the city has moved on and for the last thirty years has been focussing its regeneration efforts on developing the University of Alabama into a major medical research facility. Birmingham’s industrial past can also be glimpsed looking at the range of construction, engineering and related services companies that have their headquarters in Birmingham, Alabama.

The 50 acre site that was once home to the original Sloss Furnaces was officially designated a National Historic Landmark in 1981 and is now the location of a Visitors and Education Centre, featuring exhibits relevant to Birmingham’s industrial steel-producing past. Ongoing improvements to the Sloss Furnaces site include its integration with new greenway spaces that will eventually link many of the popular city venues and historical attractions.

The Sloss Furnaces are also home to Birmingham’s biggest Halloween event, the reputedly haunted, “Sloss Fright Furnace”.

At ShapeCUT, we understand how fast technology moves and how quickly businesses can be left behind when competitors produce superior products at lower prices. Our Same Day Service utilises state-of-the-art machines, together with Queensland’s largest range of stocked steel plate, to deliver steel profile cutting that meets your precise requirements, when you need it.

Keep up with all the latest ShapeCUT news and industry developments. Subscribe to our newsletter and join us on Facebook.