Giles Edwards, Alabama’s Leading Proponent of Coke as Furnace Fuel


by Jim Bennett

Newsletter of the Birmingham-Jefferson Historical Society, April 8, 2010



Giles Edwards, builder of the first Alabama blast furnace blown in on coke, was a Welsh immigrant who figured prominently in Birmingham’s rise to the top among the nation’s great iron and steel centers.


Well educated on advancements in iron making in Europe, he brought many innovations to his American experience beginning work in 1842 as a draftsman at the first iron plant built at Carbondale, Pennsylvania. Edwards later worked in the mills at Scranton, and superintended the Thomas works at Tamaqua and Catasauqua, also in Pennsylvania.


Early on Edwards’ expertise drew the attention of iron mogul David Thomas, considered to be “the father of the American anthracite iron industry.” Thomas had built the first successful coal-fired furnace at Catasauqua in 1840. Like Edwards, he was born in Wales in the County of Glamorgan, almost in the shadow of the giant ironworks at Dowlais. At one point in the 19th century this place had been the largest iron producer in the world.


In Thomas’ employment, Edwards’ health began to fail from overwork and after a short stay at the Novelty Ironworks in New York, the company convinced him for health reasons he should move south to Chattanooga, Tennessee where the iron industry was beginning to show promise.


Here the East Tennessee Iron Manufacturing Company had built the Bluff Furnace on the Tennessee River near the Walnut Street Bridge in downtown Chattanooga in 1854-56 as a charcoal furnace. It shut down three years later to be converted to coke, the first southern iron furnace to use the new fuel source. There is speculation the furnace was actually leased to a group of northern iron investors including John Fritz, builder of the furnace and rolling mill at Catasauqua where Edwards was employed. Investors, possibly some hidden ones, were interested to see if quality pig iron could be made from coke using Southern coal.


 Under Edwards’ direction, along with James Henderson of New York, the Bluff Furnace was converted into the first coke-fired furnace in the Southern Appalachian region in 1859 - 1860. It featured a number of innovations including a cupola-type iron jacket stack 11 feet in diameter and a modified hot blast stove.


This iron jacket extender, designed to increase production, would later be used at both the Oxmoor and Brierfield Furnaces in Alabama after the Civil War.


Operations at the Bluff Furnace came to a stall following political unrest and a worker’s revolt during the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. With the experiment deemed a success, the plant closed and Henderson moved back to New York. Edwards moved further south to become assistant superintendent of the Shelby Furnace which was being modernized. As federal troops advanced toward Chattanooga in 1863, the Bluff Furnace plant was dismantled and the machinery shipped to the new Oxford Iron Furnace under construction near present day Anniston. A portion of the blast equipment is also thought to have also made its way to the Shelby Furnace with Edwards.


It was at the Shelby Rolling Mill in 1864 that armor plate for the ironclad CSS Tennessee was rolled.


After the war, Edwards also helped rebuild the Brierfield Rolling Mill and put the nearby Bibb Furnaces back into operation for Gen. Josiah Gorgas who had purchased the site as war contraband in June of 1866.


Shortly after, Edwards moved to the Tannehill Furnace site as land agent for the Thomas family whose Pioneer Mining and Manufacturing Co. had bought 2,615 acres in 1868 for its huge iron ore reserves.


En route to Tannehill in 1871, his wife, Salinah, remarked from the train, “On our way to Tannehill we passed through Elyton and saw the site of Birmingham. There were only two section houses for the men starting the railroad—nothing else. But my husband pointed up the long valley. There lies Birmingham, he said…all that’s going to be Birmingham some day and he spread his arms out to take in the entire country.”


Near the Tannehill Furnaces, Edwards moved into the old “Mansion House”, probably where the Tannehill furnace master had lived during the war, and explored new ore fields to open for the Thomas company.


“No man before Giles Edwards,” wrote historian Ethel Armes, “learned or demonstrated the significant value of the mineral deposits in just this particular section.”


He soon acquired in the Tannehill area certain valuable properties of his own where he began building the Edwards Furnace in Woodstock seven miles distant in 1873, it becoming the first Alabama furnace blown in with coke. The Alice Furnace in Birmingham was also blown in on coke later the same year.


Coke had been used experimentally in charcoal furnaces during the war years and Shelby had used raw coal. In 1864, the first successful coke iron was actually made at the Irondale Furnace during an experiment sanctioned by the C.S. Nitre Bureau. Although successful, the test did not persuade Alabama iron makers to abandon charcoal until after the war was over.


Edwards, perhaps more than most, understood the value of coke as a replacement for charcoal as fuel in the southern iron industry. Beginning in Wales and later in Pennsylvania and Tennessee, he knew it made little sense to decimate hundreds of acres of forest when tons of coal were under their feet.


At his new Woodstock furnace, Edwards built a water elevator to bring raw materials to the top for charging. The blowing engine was the same one used at the old Irondale plant, the flywheel of which weighed 36 tons and was rated at 150 hp. No doubt, many spare parts were also picked up at the burnt-out Tannehill site, just a few hundred yards from his residence.


Brown ore mined near the site also was shipped to the rebuilt Oxmoor plant where it was mixed with Red Mountain iron ore. Edwards built an ore washer and a tramway to the Alabama & Chattanooga Railroad (later the Alabama Great Southern), a distance of one-fourth mile to expedite delivery.


The Edwards Furnace, hit with economic downturns and expansions, was remodeled several times. Shareholders included Henry F. DeBardeleben, builder of several furnaces in Bessemer. Before closing in 1890, Edwards Furnace could produce 30,000 tons of pig iron per day.


Edwards and his family lived a short distance from the furnace and jonquils still bloom each year at the home site behind what may be the largest oak tree in Bibb County. His two daughters were married at the family home in a double ceremony in 1899. Lydia married James W. McQueen, who would later become vice president of Sloss-Sheffield Steel and Iron Co. and Gertrude married D. W. Pickens.


Interestingly, during one of the down times, Edwards is engaged at the Oxmoor Furnace in 1883 where a recent fire had closed the plant. Here he rebuilds the facility for the Eureka Company. It was at this site that the famed “Eureka Experiment” in 1876 proved once and for all that coke made from Alabama coal could successfully be used in the manufacture of pig iron.


Said DeBardeleben, founder of Bessemer and a former manager of the Oxmoor Furnace, “Giles Edwards was a conceiver of big projects. He was one of the first men in the state to see the big possibilities ahead and to cast his lines and work accordingly. He was well informed on coke, coal and iron. He was a practical geologist and a scholar, had one of the best libraries in the state. He was a good draftsman besides, a first rate one and an excellent citizen, none better.”


Edwards died in 1892 while still living at his Woodstock residence at age 68. He is buried in Oak Hill Cemetery in Birmingham in the McQueen plot next to his wife who helped him build the Edwards Furnace. The transition from charcoal to coke in Alabama was complete.


In March of 1862, noted Welsh iron-master Giles Edwards came to Shelby Iron. Born in Glamorganshire, South Wales, September 26, 1824, Edwards had, by about 1842, made his way to Carbondale, Pennsylvania, near the head of the Lackawanna River. There, he superintended pattern making at the first iron mill in that town. Edwards later worked with mills at Scranton, and superintended the Thomas works at Tamaqua, Pa. From Pennsylvania, Edwards moved south to Tennessee, where he supervi sed the rebui lding of the Blufff urnace at Chattanoog a.


Following this reconstruction, Judge John Lapsley of Selma, a new shareholder at Shelby, requested Edwards to superintend the reconstruction and expansion of the Shelby works.