Jefferson County, near Birmingham
Excerpt from Alabama Blast Furnaces, Woordward Iron Company, Woodward, Alabama,1940
SHORTLY after outbreak of the Civil War, the Alabama Arms Manufacturing Co. was organized for the purpose of mining ore and manufacturing iron for Confederate ordnance. Incorporators of this company did not have sufficient capital to develop their mineral property and two of their number were delegated to petition the Confederate Government for financial aid. A large portion of the necessary money was advanced by the Confederacy with the stipulation that the advance be repaid in pig iron.
The Red Mountain Iron and Coal Company, with a capital of $1,250,000, was incorporated Nov. 5, 1862, "a corporation successor to the Alabama Arms Manufacturing Co." This new company began erection of two stone blast furnaces under the direction of Wm. McClane. Only one of these furnaces was completed and about one year later, in the late fall of 1863, the first blast furnace of Jefferson County was put into operation. Shortly afterward, T. M. Brannan became superintendent and Moses Stroup (of Round Mountain and Tannehill) was put in charge of the charcoal burning.
Due to the company's contract with the Nitre and Mining Bureau of the Confederate States, a very large portion of its product was shipped via the Selma, Rome & Dalton Railroad to the C. S. A. arsenal at Selma. A certain portion of the output was consigned to the arsenal at Rome, Ga. Ore for this furnace came from Red Mountain and was hauled by teams the short distance to the plant. As was common practice in other furnaces of that time, charcoal from surrounding forests was the fuel used.
The little Oxmoor furnace stood about 32' high and was 9' or 10' in the bosh. Considering the size of the stack and the highly siliceous content of the red hematite ore (soft) it is doubtful whether the daily capacity of the furnace ever exceeded five or six tons. In order to produce this amount of iron, not less than 60 men were required at the furnace and between 200 and 300 slaves for cutting and hauling wood for the charcoal burners.
Early in 1865 Gen. Wilson of the Federal Army concentrated a force of picked cavalry in North Alabama. The purpose was a series of raids through Central Alabama to culminate in the capture and destruction of the Confederate arsenal at Selma. Wilson divided his command and the two divisions marched by different routes toward the town of Elyton in Jones Valley. At that place the forces were reunited during the last of March. Once again Wilson divided his command, Croxton going south in the direction of Tuscaloosa and Wilson taking the Valley Road to the east. On March 30 the detachment under Wilson came upon the furnace of the Red Mountain Iron and Coal Co. and burned all the wooden buildings and destroyed the machinery.
The plant remained in a wrecked condition until sometime in 1872 when the Eureka Mining and Transportation Co. was organized to take over the old Red Mountain Company. Daniel Pratt, a wealthy cotton gin manufacturer from South Alabama, supplied a considerable portion of the capital. The new company rebuilt the stone furnaces and enlarged them to 60' x 12'. Additional height was achieved by superimposing upon the stone top an iron cylinder "with bell and hopper." It was hoped that this enlargement of the stacks would materially increase the output. The rebuilt furnaces were put into blast late in 1873 but the anticipated increase in production was not realized, due mainly to the inexperience of the operators. Though rated at 25 tons a day each the furnaces but seldom made more than 10 tons each. They were blown in on a mixture of half charcoal and half coke. Coal was obtained first from the Helena mines and coked in much the same way that wood was converted to charcoal, in shallow pits covered with dust.
A narrow gauge railroad of two and one‑half miles was constructed to the ore mines and ten charcoal ovens of 2500 bu. capacity each were built at the furnaces to supplement the outside supply. A total of $200,000 was spent at this time.
The furnaces were operated for only a few months when the panic of 1873 descended on the iron industry and the plant was shut down.
In 1875 the property was leased by James Thomas and Company which operated the plant for a few months and then gave it up. (Ed., James Thomas remained as General Manager until 1879.) During this period the future of the iron industry in the Birmingham District seemed very dark; the Irondale Furnace had failed and the Oxmoor plant was idle. At this point a group of citizens, who had invested heavily in Birmingham real estate on the strength of its mineral resources, called a meeting with the object of determining whether Birmingham pig iron could compete successfully in Northern markets. A collection was taken up and sufficient capital was thus raised to make an experimental run of iron using coke as fuel. Only three coal mines were operating in Alabama at this time (at Helena, Warrior and New Castle) and each of them contributed coal. The L & N Railroad contributed free transportation and some cash, and The Eureka Company supplied the No. 2 furnace and the red ore. After some alterations to the stack, the furnace was blown in and on Feb. 28, 1876 the first coke iron was produced at Oxmoor.
This experiment proved a success and the No. 1 furnace was rebuilt to use coke and completed in July 1877. Both the furnaces were now iron shell stacks (No. 1‑60' x 16', No. 2‑60' x 14') but still had sandstone hearths. With rebuilding of the furnaces, the mines at Helena were increased in capacity and 100 beehive ovens were constructed there. A small battery of Belgian coke ovens was also erected at the furnace to coke Cahaba Coal.
Shortly after the coke iron was made, two groups -- one from Louisville and the other from Cincinnati -- sought control of the operation. Neither party was successful and for the next few years the plant was operated to the dissatisfaction of everyone. David Sinton of Cincinnati finally gained control in 1886 and operated the property until it was sold on October 18, 1890 to the DeBardeleben Coal and Iron Co. Oxmoor No. 1 had been rebuilt in 1885 and in 1886 the No. 2 furnace was enlarged to the same size as the No. 1, 75' x 17'. The combined output of the furnaces was thus increased to about 250 tons a day.
On June 1, 1892 the DeBardeleben Coal and Iron Co. was taken over by the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Co. and once again the Oxmoor Furnaces changed hands. When the United States Steel Corp. acquired the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Co. in 1907 the Oxmoor stacks changed managements for the last time.
Under the old Tennessee Coal, Iron & Railroad Co. these furnaces had been rebuilt but not enlarged, the No. 1 in 1902 and the No. 2 in 1899. On October 26, 1907 (the year in which they were acquired by the United States Steel Corp.) the furnaces were blown out and remained idle until February 21, 1913 when they were relighted. Oxmoor continued to operate throughout the World War. After the War, however, it was decided that due to the cost of fuel transportation and the location of the plant, only one stack should operate, the other being used as an alternate.
The last iron to be made at Oxmoor was in May 1927. During 1928 both stacks were dismantled. Thus ended the history of Jefferson County's first blast furnaces‑a colorful history of 64 years.
Oxmoor furnaces in 1873 after being rebuilt. Note cylindrical iron furnace tops on stone bass at left center of this early woodcut.
Oxmoor Furnaces Nos. 1 and 2 in 1885 before N. 2 Furnace was enlarged to same size as No. 1.