Reconstruction of the Alabama

Iron Industry, 1865- 1880






This complete article is from The Alabama Review, A Quarterly Journal of Alabama History, July 1972 Vol. XXV, N0. 3, pp 178 – 191.


The article is an overview with opinions on why the southern interests looked to the North during the reconstruction.






Although the development of the iron industry in Alabama after the Civil War is usually associated with Birmingham and the surrounding Jefferson County area, the true pioneers of the state iron industry were not the coke furnaces of the Birmingham red hematite district but the charcoal furnaces of the brown hematite areas to the south and east of Birmingham. By the end of the Civil War, seventeen Alabama blast furnaces had supplied iron to the Confederacy, and only two of these were located in Jefferson County1


Most of these seventeen furnaces were built as a result of the war. In 1861, Alabama boasted only seven blast2 furnaces. None were in Jefferson County. One was in Lamar County, and the others were in the belt of counties south and east of Jefferson: Tuscaloosa, Bibb, Shelby, Calhoun, and Cherokee. Statistics for the period prior to and including the Civil War are unreliable, but the census of 1860 gives the capital invested in Alabama furnaces  in 1860 as $225,000, only 12 per cent of the total for the South and less than 1 per cent of the total for the nation. Alabama's production of iron in 1860 amounted to only 1,742 tons, or 5 per cent of the South's total and 0.1 per cent of the nation's  total3.


After the war began, however, ambitious industrial entrepreneurs in Alabama hastened to meet the Confederacy's desperate need for iron. By the end of the war, thirteen new furnaces had been constructed in the state, all wholly or in part financed by the Confederacy. One of these furnaces never went in blast. Three replaced existing stacks. Alabama in early 1865 therefore had sixteen furnaces in blast. As mentioned, only two were located in Jefferson County. Three were in Tuscaloosa County, three in Bibb, one in Shelby, two in Talladega, two in Calhoun, two in Cherokee, and one in Lamar.


The Alabama furnaces were crucial to the Confederate war effort, although few of them could produce more than ten tons per day and four to five tons was a more likely daily output. As indicated previously, statistics for the war period are questionable, but it can be argued that Alabama produced more iron for the Confederacy than all other Confederate states combined4. The census of 1860 indicates that Tennessee led the southern states in iron production in 1860 with 22,302 tons, followed by Virginia with 11,646 tons, Alabama with 1,742 tons, and Georgia with 1,100 tons.5  Tennessee and the iron districts of what became West Virginia were lost to the Confederacy early in the war. In addition, the status of southern transportation kept iron from the remaining Virginia furnaces out of the lower South. After June, 1863, all Alabama furnaces functioned under the control of the Confederate Nitre and Mining Bureau, and Alabama iron supplied the Confederacy with much of its weaponry and ironclad armor.6


Realizing the importance of the Alabama furnaces and the ordnance operations at Selma, the Union command directed crippling strikes at the Alabama mineral district as the war neared its end. In mid‑summer of 1864, small Union cavalry units raided iron works in Calhoun and Cherokee counties. On March 22, 1865, General James H. Wilson's Union cavalry corps departed North Alabama and moved toward Selma. By the end of the first week in April, elements of Wilson's force had taken Selma and had razed every furnace in Alabama not touched by previous expeditions save one, that in Lamar County.7 The future of the Alabama iron industry looked bleak.


Although Southerners for many years after the war attributed their economic sufferings to the havoc wrought by Federal troops, one should appraise the damage done to the Alabama iron industry with caution. The Union forces' mission was to end immediate productive capability. The raiders had neither the time nor the energy to dismantle stone and brick furnaces. None of the Alabama furnaces were torn down. The Federals did, however, destroy such essential equipment as blast engines and boilers. They burned charcoal supplies on hand as furnace fuel and wooden structures auxiliary to the furnaces. There is little evidence that dwellings or other structures not directly related to iron production were destroyed, nor were timber stands near the furnaces, essential for charcoal production, put to the torch. Iron ore and pig iron, of course, could not be burned, and these items were too bulky to be carried away from the works. Furnace equipment that was rendered inoperative was already badly worn in many cases. The experience of the Alabama iron industry suggests. that losing the war was more central to the South's postwar problems than the destruction caused by the war.


In fact, the greatest difficulty facing the Alabama iron men at the conclusion of the war, lack of capital to pay debts and to finance rebuilding, was a direct result of having lost the struggle. Since all the Alabama furnace men had produced iron for the Confederacy, their largest bills receivable were those owed by the Condederate government. The Confederacy's downfall shut off this source of badly needed revenue, and the Fourteenth Amendment to the Federal Constitution, which went into effect in the summer of 1868, eliminated any possibility that the debts could ever be recovered. On the other hand, the furnace operators had gone into debt to private individuals during the war for services and supplies in order to stay in operation. In many cases, the furnace men had incurred these debts because the Confederacy had not promptly made its payments for iron. Private debts in the South were not voided by the Fourteenth Amendment, and the furnace operators were faced with paying war debts without having reaped war profits.


A second major difficulty hampering reconstruction of the Alabama furnaces was a lack of experienced managers. The Alabama furnaces prior to the war were small operations serving local markets. The wartime expansion of existing furnace companies and the formation of new ones had enlarged the scale of the Alabama iron trade, but throughout the war the state iron men had possessed a guaranteed market, the Confederate States of America. With war's end, the Alabama furnace operatives faced competitive factors on a scale theretofore unknown to them. Most of the wartime furnace men were lawyers or merchants interested in railroad and industrial development but without extensive experience in the operation of furnaces and the marketing of iron products.


A third major difficulty confronting the Alabama iron men was a lack of adequate and reliable transportation. In order to survive, the furnace men needed markets larger than those of the prewar years. Southern industry was limited and war‑torn. The state iron men needed markets outside the South, and in order to reach non‑southern markets competitively, they needed transportation facilities.


The obstacles facing the Alabama iron men were indeed formidable. Six of the wartime furnaces were never again put in blast. These were the three furnaces at Tannehill in Tuscaloosa County, one at Little Cahaba in Bibb County, the Knight furnace in Talladega County, and the Cane Creek furnace in Calhoun County. All these furnaces were small (approximately thirty feet high), technologically inferior, and poorly situated in regard to transportation facilities. It is doubtful that they could have survived in circumstances other than the Confederacy's desperate need for iron, even if they had not been raided by the Federals.


The probable inability of these small furnaces to have long survived is illustrated by the postwar history of the only Alabama furnace not raided by Federal troops. The Hale and Murdock furnace (probably no more than thirty feet tall) in Lamar County in West Alabama was off the beaten track of military campaigns. It operated through the closing days of the war, but because of a limited local market and a distance of twenty‑five miles from transportation facilities, it went out of blast sometime between 1868 and 1870 and never resumed operations.


Four of the wartime furnace sites did not again become iron producers until 1873. These were Salt Creek in Talladega County, Round Mountain in Cherokee County, oxford in Calhoun County, and Oxmoor in Jefferson County. Of these, more will be said later.


The five remaining wartime furnaces‑Irondale in Jefferson County, the two Brierfield furnaces in Bibb County, Cornwall in Calhoun County, and Shelby in Shelby County‑were back in blast by 1869.


The first of the war‑damaged furnaces to resume operations was Irondale in Jefferson County. The furnace (forty‑one feet tall) had been built in 1863 and had been in blast only slightly more than a year when Wilson's raiders ended its wartime involvement. The furnace's manager immediately went north seeking capital, which he found in Cincinnati. The investors from Ohio formed a new company with the wartime operators, increased the height of the furnace to forty‑six feet, made other technological improvements, and in late 1865 or early 1866 put the improved stack in blast for the production of foundry iron. In spite of high transportation costs, the company survived until the panic of 1873.


The second war‑damaged furnace site to resume operations was Brierfield in Bibb County. The two furnaces at Brierfield were actually owned by the Confederacy during the war and were confiscated by the Federal government as contraband after being raided by Wilson's troops.


A group of Southerners, including Josiah Gorgas, former chief of Confederate ordnance, purchased the plant at public sale in 1866. In early 1867, operations were resumed, but the owners suffered from lack of capital, inexperienced management, and poor transportation service by the Selma, Rome and Dalton Railroad, which ran to the works. In 1869, Gorgas left the company, and the works were leased by new operators. A furnace was kept in blast until 1873. The plant was idle until 1877, when it was purchased by Louisville investors. In 1881, the firm again changed hands, and iron was produced at Brierfiel with frequent interruptions until 1894.8


The third Alabama furnace to resume production after being raided was Cornwall in Cherokee County. This furnace was built during the war by the Noble brothers of Rome, Georgia. The Nobles were prominent in the manufacture of iron products in Georgia, and later (in 1871) they founded Anniston as an Alabama iron center. Immediately following the war, the Nobles sought northern capital to revive Cornwall. The furnace was put back in blast in 1867 with the capital of the four Noble brothers and three men from Illinois. Apparently, friction soon developed between the Illinois capitalists and the Noble brothers. A succession of investors joined with and then left the Nobles, management was changed frequently, and the furnace was in and out of blast with high operating costs until 1875 when it was blown out forever.


The fourth, and most successful, of the war‑damaged furnaces to resume production was that of the Shelby Iron Company of Shelby County.9 The postwar history of this



184                                      THE ALABAMA REVIEW


company illustrates the prerequisites necessary in Alabama for successful reconstruction of a wartime furnace. Those wartime furnaces not having these prerequisites did not resume operations. Those which did resume operations but eventually failed possessed only a portion of the necessary components.


in the first place, the Shelby furnace was technologically more advanced than most of its wartime contemporaries. The stack was built during the war by Giles Edwards, a native of Wales with long experience in the construction of furnaces in Pennsylvania and Tennessee. The furnace was thirty‑eight feet tall and was capable of producing twenty tons of iron per day. Consequently, its cost of operation was probably the lowest of any of the wartime furnaces.


Secondly, the wartime owners of Shelby were able to acquire capital sufficient to enable them to rebuild properly and to weather downswings in the iron trade. The southern managers at first attempted to raise funds for rebuilding by selling iron in the South, but they quickly saw that northern capital would be required. At one point in the summer of 1866 the company had six representatives in the North eagerly seeking investors, a reversal of the legendary "carpetbagger" invasion one so often hears recounted. By 1868, the wartime owners had entered an investment agreement with a group of Connecticut and New York capitalists for funds to rebuild the works. The northerners thereby acquired fifty‑two per cent of the firm's capital stock. Production was renewed in early 1869, and the northerners and Southerners worked together effectively in the subsequent history of the company.


Thirdly, Shelby obtained superior managerial talent to guide its reconstruction. As a condition of the investment agreement, the northerners furnished managers experienced in the northern iron trade. These men were professionals, and their leadership saved the company many an amateurish stumble.


Finally, Shelby's successful reconstruction was due to its favored position in regard to transportation facilities. During the war, the Shelby managers had, in the face of stiff resistance by the Confederate government, built their own six‑mile rail line from the works to Columbiana, where connection was made with the Tennessee and Alabama Rivers Railroad, which ran from Selma to Blue Mountain (Anniston). After the war, the Tennessee and Alabama Rivers Railroad was reorganized as a portion of the Selma, Rome and Dalton. Shelby's wartime president, Samuel Tate, an influential railroad man, secured a special freight contract with the railroad shortly after the war. The special contract, a prime factor attracting the northern investors*to Shelby, saved the company from the high freight costs so detrimental to the recovery of other furnaces. The Selma, Rome and Dalton was extended to Rome in 1868 and to Dalton in 1870, thus giving Shelby access to markets in Atlanta and Chattanooga and the mid‑West. In late 1872, the South and North Alabama Railroad was completed from Montgomery to Decatur, where connection with the Nashville and Decatur gave access to the Louisville and Nashville and markets along the Ohio River. The Louisville and Nashville leased both the South and North Alabama and the Nashville and Decatur. Shelby's access to the Louisville and Nashville system at Calera, eight miles west of the works, provided the company with two competing railroad lines.


By late 1870, a general contraction of the nation's economy, particularly severe in the South, was causing Shelby's southern customers to fail to meet their notes. Shelby's managers then sought other markets, and their access to transportation routes enabled the company to develop a profitable market for railroad car wheel iron in the mid‑West.


By late 1871, a burst of railroad expansion had revived the iron business to such an extent that Shelby's managers, as well as other iron men in Alabama and in the nation, laid plans for new furnaces. The business optimism and the profitability of the iron trade quickly led to an increase in furnace construction in the state not seen since the outbreak of the war.


Eight furnaces were built. Five of these were constructed on the sites of Civil War period furnaces. Two of the five, in fact, were enlarged and improved versions of furnaces which had stood at the end of the war. These two were Round Mountain in Cherokee County and Oxmoor in Jefferson County. The latter was the only one of the eight new furnaces not along the trackage of the Selma, ,Rome and Dalton Railroad. The other three wartime furnace sites upon which new furnaces were built were Salt Creek, renamed Alabama Furnace, in Talladega County; Oxford, renamed Woodstock, in the newly founded town of Anniston in Calhoun County; and a second furnace at Shelby.10


The three entirely new furnace properties were all in Cherokee County near Rock Run. The smallest was called Rock Run, another was named Stonewall, but the most successful was the Tecumseh furnace operated by Willard Warner of Ohio, formerly one of Alabama's carpetbag senators. 11


Only one (Rock Run) of the eight new furnaces was less than forty feet tall. Four were only slightly larger, but three (Shelby, Woodstock, and Oxmoor) were sixty feet tall, or almost twice as large as most of their wartime predecessors.


Seven of the eight new furnaces went in blast in late 1873 and early 1874. The eight new furnace (Shelby's second stack) went in blast in 1875. The bright prospects for the new furnaces were soon dimmed, as a depression set in following the financial panic of September, 1873. The depression of the 1870s ranks second in severity in United States history only to the depression of the 1930s, and times for Alabama iron men in the mid‑1870s were exceedingly difficult. Only Shelby, Woodstock, Tecumseh, and Alabama Furnace stayed in continuous operation during the lean years from 1874 through 1877. Most of the other furnaces in the state were in blast infrequently. Several changed owners. Cornwall in Cherokee County and Irondale in Jefferson County both went out of blast forever.


The failure of Irondale and the extreme difficulties encountered by the inexperienced managers at Oxmoor made it seem doubtful in the mid‑1870s that the iron business would survive in the new town of Birmingham, only recently founded in December, 1871. Almost in desperation, Birmingham men interested in the development of the iron industry, aided by Louisville and Nashville officials interested in the freight a prosperous iron trade would bring, banded together to form the Eureka Mining and Transportation Company to produce iron with coke. Coke had been used as a fuel briefly at Irondale during the war, and the Shelby company had experimented unsuccessfully with coke in the early 1870s, but the success of the Eureka experiment in February, 1876, marks the real beginning of the coke iron industry in Alabama. In spite of the success of the experiment and the initiation of full-scale coke iron production, the Eureka company suffered reverses during the remainder of the 1870s, and the dawn of the Birmingham iron boom was delayed yet awhile.


By 1877, the worse of the depression was over, although iron prices remained very low until late 1879. Shelby, Woodstock, Tecumseh, and Alabama Furnace were gradually joined in blast by other state furnaces. By late 1879, another iron boom was underway, and thirteen furnaces were in blast in Alabama. Only one of these, a second furnace at Woodstock, was new, but the prosperity of the iron trade was prompting plans for another burst of furnace construction in the nation and in Alabama. In early 1880, Giles Edwards heralded the Alabama furnace boom by putting a new furnace in blast in Bibb County.


The decade of the 1880s, however, was to belong to the Birmingham district. On November 23, 1880, "Little Alice" roared into blast under the guidance of T. T. Hillman and H. F. DeBardeleben, giant names in the annals of Birmingham iron development. Giant stacks soon followed. "Little Alice" and Pratt coal proved the practicality of making iron in Alabama with coke, something the trouble‑plagued Oxmoor furnace had not been able to do in spite of its valuable role as the first large‑scale coke iron producer in the state. By 1884, six new furnaces, several towering seventy‑five feet into the air, had inaugurated the Birmingham iron boom. By the end of the decade, DeBardeleben‑the self‑proclaimed eagle‑had soared mightily over Jefferson County; James W. Sloss, Enoch Ensley, and others had with DeBardeleben organized furnace ventures capitalized in the millions of dollars; the Tennessee Coal and Iron Company had sprawled into Birmingham from the mountains of East Tennessee; and eighteen furnaces were in blast in and near Birmingham. Alabama iron production increased almost twelve‑fold between 1880 and 1890, and Alabama red iron ore and coal resources became topics of national prominence.


The trail had been blazed for the Birmingham district, however, by the men who had persevered to resurrect the wartime furnaces. Of the sixteen furnaces standing in 1865, eight operated after the war. Two other wartime iron properties‑Salt Creek and Oxford‑were sites for new furnaces by 1880. Of the sixteen wartime furnaces only Shelby, Oxmoor, and Brierfield still operated in 1880. Only Shelby had been in continuous operation since resuming production after the war.


These surviving wartime furnaces kept the Alabama iron industry viable in the postwar years. By staying in blast and by developing markets in the South and in the midWest, these furnaces provided examples for the new furnaces which went in blast in 1873 and 1874. In 1880, Alabama pig iron production amounted to 77,190 tons, which ranked eighth in the United States compared to, fourteenth in 1860 and sixteenth in 1870. 12  By 1880, Shelby car wheel iron was one of the three leading brands of car wheel iron in the nation with customers as far away as Kansas City, Missouri, and Toronto, Canada. Woodstock and Alabama Furnace also sold car wheel iron regularly in the mid‑West, and Woodstock was widely known as one of the few producers in the nation of speigeleisen, used in the Bessemer steel process. When the opportunity came in the 1880s to develop the Birmingham ore fields, many of which had been purchased by northern investors in the late 1860s and early 1870s, the fifteen years of proven capability provided by such wartime furnaces as Shelby and its contemporaries were important items in giving confidence to the Birmingham iron boom.



1. Joseph H. Woodward, II, "Alabama Iron Manufacturing, 1860‑1865,"Alabama Review, VII July, 1954), 203. Woodward's article is based primarily on Woodward's Alabama Blast Furnaces (Woodward, Ala.: Woodward Iron Co., 1940). Furnace statistics herein are taken from Woodward's works and from Ethel Armes, The Story of Coal and Iron in Alabama (Birmingham: Published under the Auspices of the Chamber of Commerce, 1910).


2. U. S. Bureau of the Census, Manufactures of the United States in 1860; Compiledfrom the Original Returns of the Eighth Census, clxxx, gives the number of Alabama furnaces 'as four. Actually, seven furnaces are known to have been built in the state prior to 1860. One (Alabama's first furnace, Cedar Creek, blown in near Russellville in 1815) was definitely not in blast in 1860, but how many of the others were actually in operation in 1860 cannot be determined.


3. U. S. Bureau of the Census, Manufactures of the United States in 1860; Compiled from the Original Returns of the Eighth Census, clxxx.


4. See Woodward, "Alabama Iron Manufacturing, 1860‑1865," 207. Woodward gives no statistical evidence for his assertion.


5. U. S. Bureau of the Census, Manufactures of the United States in 1860; Compiled from the Original Returns of the Eighth Census, clxxx.


6. See Charles B. Dew, Ironmaker to the Confederacy: Joseph R. Anderson and the Tredegar Iron Works (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1966); William N. Still, Jr., Confederate Shipbuilding (Athens: University of Georgia Press); William N. Still, Jr., Iron Afloat: The Story of the Confederate Armor-clads (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1970); and Frank E. Vandiver, Ploughshares into Swords, Josiah Gorgas and Confederate Ordnance (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1952).


7. See Frank Moore, ed., The Rebellion Record (I I vols.; New York: D. Van Nostrand, 1868), XI, 649‑717, and Charles R. Watkins, "General Wilson's Raid Through Alabama and Georgia in 1865" (Unpublished M.A. thesis, Auburn University, 1959).


8. See Frank E. Vandiver, "Josiah Gorgas and the Brierfield Iron Works," Alabama Review, III (January, 1950), 6‑21; Brierfield Iron Works Collection, University of Alabama Library, Tuscaloosa; and Josiah Gorgas Papers, Alabama State Department of Archives and History, Montgomery.


9.  See Robert H. McKenzie, "A History of the Shelby Iron Company, 1865‑1881" (Unpublished Ph.D. dissertation, University of Alabama, 1971).


10. On Woodstock, see Samuel N, McCaa, "Samuel Noble: Founder of Anniston" (Unpublished M.A. thesis, Auburn University, 1966) and Samuel Noble Family Records, Anniston Public Library.


11. See Willard Warner Collection (microfilm copies of originals in the Tennessee State Archives, Nashville), University of Alabama Library, Tuscaloosa.


12. U. S. Bureau of the Census, Manufactures of the United States in 1860; Compiled from the Original Returns of the Eighth Census, clxxx; Ninth Census of the United States: 1870, The Statistics of the Wealth and Industry of the United States, 602‑603; and Report of the Manufactures of the United States at the Tenth Census, 10‑ 11.