The Extraordinary Relic of Republic Steel

Towering above the site, the recognizable coal hopper of the 1925 Thomas Works.

Located due to an abundance of coal in the central region of Alabama, the Birmingham Industrial District was at one point one of the prime industrial hubs in the southern United States. Although coal mining in the area started in the 1830s, major industrial operations began around 1876, only a few years after the founding of the city of Birmingham.1 Originally the Pioneer company, the blast furnace and accompanying town of Thomas were built in 1888. After the furnaces were purchased by Republic Steel, the by-product coke works were built in 1925, and further modernized in 1952 with a battery of Koppers by-product ovens. While the 1952 ovens replaced their predecessor, the towering coal hopper and coal handling system at the complex might be the original 1925 structures.2

The works was used to extract by-products from raw coal during the coking process, separating industrial chemicals from the coke which was used to fuel the blast furnaces.

Control shed atop the collecting main.

The coal handling system transferred coal from incoming railroad cars into large storage bins directly atop one end of the coke ovens where the coal could be loaded into the ovens as needed. The coke handling system took coke from the ovens and either moved it by conveyors to the blast furnace stock bins or loaded it onto railroad cars for shipment to other Republic Steel Corporation blast furnaces and to outside customers. The gas collecting main pulled gas from the individual coke ovens, via goose-neck pipes, and sent it to the by-product plant.2

Coal conveyer belt which feeds into the coal hopper from the coal handling area.

The purpose of the by-product plant was two-fold. Primarily it was intended to clean the coke-oven gas, the most valuable by-product produced. Secondarily, it was intended to remove as many other marketable by-products from the coke-oven gas as economically feasible, routing the gas via a gas pipe line, past a series of sub-systems, each of which each processed the gas in a specific way.2

A view of the collecting main in the pathway of the larry car.

Another view of the coal hopper and the coke chambers.

These by-products were primarily processed into tar, ammonium sulphate, benzol, toluol, zylene and naphthalene.2 This industry was of course a dirty one with smoke pouring into the air from innumerable stacks across the city. Birmingham was known for its abhorrently polluted air, creating an almost otherworldly landscape.3,4

The 1952 Koppers coke chambers.

By the 1960s the steel and iron industry in the Birmingham Industrial District was on the decline, as it was across the United States. Foreign imports reduced the demand for American made products,5 and tighter environmental constraints further caused difficulty for the industries. Over the decades the few steel and iron productions that remained cut back their operations, became more efficient and reduced employment drastically.6 Closing industrial plants and reductions in jobs contributed significantly to the long decline of the City of Birmingham starting in the 1960s.

Detail from the building midway up the coal conveyor.

The Thomas Works was finally deactivated in the 1970s. Rare for its present state of preservation,
this very typical early twentieth works is a today an abnormal relic of an era of which many large scale tangible remains have been lost. In the next article, we will look at some more historical documents and visual archives.