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.
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
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.
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 In the next article, we will look at some more historical documents and visual archives.
- Bergstresser, JR. Historic American Engineering Record. Birmingham Industrial District. Mason A, ed. 2013. PDF. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.
- Bergstresser, JR. Historic American Engineering Record. Thomas By Product Coke Works. 1992. PDF. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.
- Spencer T. An old cloud of polluted air lifts from Birmingham's shoulders. The Birmingham News. November 13, 2011.
- McKinney JM. Air Pollution, Politics, and Environmental Reform in Birmingham, Alabama 1940-1971. Thesis. Rice University. 2011.
- Lewis WD. Birmingham Iron and Steel Companies. Encyclopedia of Alabama. 2008.
- Trent C. A Look into Alabama’s Iron and Steel Industry. Alabama Business. 2007:10–11.