This document was received in an e-mail message from Bob Yuill - see Mail / Genealogy / Alabama / Bob Yuill / Irondale Furnace 10/31/12009



            Wallace S. McElwain, Eliza G. Barney, and W. A. Jones constructed the Cahaba Iron Works, also referred to as the Irondale Furnace, in 1863. The furnace site, located along the southeast side of a branch feeding Shades Creek, was secured on February 27, 1863 with lands purchased from Willis Eastis.70  


            Previously, McElwain operated a furnace in Holly Springs, MS. At the time of his departure from Holly Springs, which was acquired by the Confederate Government, McElwain was producing arms for the war effort.


The Irondale Furnace operated up until the time it was destroyed on March 30th, 1865, when Major General James H. Wilson’s troops, lead by Colonel Emory Upton, moved through Shades Valley enroute to Montevallo. After the war McElwain found the required capital to rebuild the furnace through Abel D. Breed, (A. D. Breed), of Cincinnati, Ohio, and in March of 1866 the deal was finalized. The capital secured from A.D. Breed allowed the Irondale Furnace to be back in operation in early 1866, well before the Oxmoor Furnace, which too was destroyed in 1865. Along with investment money came plans for expansion. A rolling mill was to be constructed, the building was erected by the rolling mill was never installed.262 Major improvements to the furnace plant included the replacement of the water powered blower with 2 boilers, a horizontal steam driven blower for the blast, and ‘hot blast pipes’. The hot blast was provided by the blast wind passing under the 2 horizontal boilers, thereby gaining heat radiated from the furnaces, before entering the furnace. Other improvements made to the furnace plant were the blacksmith shop, foundry, and carpentry shop.


The capacity of the open top stone furnace was generally 5 - 7 tons a day. After the war the products pig iron and castings, for the domestic and agricultural markets as well as equipment for the railroads.  These were taken by wagon to the Alabama and Chattanooga Railroad in Irondale, about 2 miles distant. Markets for pig iron, other than that used locally were Cincinnati, Louisville, and Charleston. During the war the product went by wagon to the Selma, Rome and Dalton Railroad, then to the Arsenal in Selma for the war effort.


The Montevallo Star, December 18, 1866 reported that ‘Breeds’ Ironworks will be manufacturing iron rails’, to facilitate the completion of the Selma, Rome and Dalton RR. E.G. Barney and A. D. Breed, both partners with McElwain, were contracted to complete of the railroad from Dalton, GA. to Rome, GA.


To enhance the transportation of product from the furnace to Selma and points south, a rail spur from the South and North Railroad to the furnace was considered in the 1860’s. The South, April 15, 1873 reported this route as having been graded, but the line was never built. The South and North did not reach the location of Birmingham until 1871. The projected railroad spur line would have been about 9 miles long; one land deed to McElwain stipulating a right-of-way may place the railroad in the vicinity of Our Lady of Sorrows on Oxmoor Road, in Homewood.


            A. D. Breed (also known as A. D. Breed & Co., Crane Breed & Co.) and the newly reorganized Cahaba Iron Works operated the furnace until the late 1860`s or early 1870`s; the property afterwards was leased to McKee, Fuller and Co. in May of 1871.71 The Selma County Guide reported the furnace would be in blast the first week of December 1871.


            James H. McKee and James W. Fuller Jr. were the principles of McKee, Fuller & Co., also referred to as McKee, Thomas & Co. McKee, Fuller and Co., was organized during 1866, and operated the "Lehigh Car, Wheel and Axle Works" at the Fullerton Station of the Lehigh Valley Railroad in Catasauqua, Pennsylvania. Catasauqua was the site of the Crane Iron Works where the first commercially successful anthracite-fired blast furnaces were put in operation in the early 1840’s. Two separate (unrelated) Thomas families were active in the Catasauqua iron industry – David Thomas, who erected the Crane Iron Works and his child-hood friend, Hopkin Thomas, who served as Master Mechanic (Chief Engineer) at the Crane from 1852 to 1871.  It was James Thomas, son of Hopkin, that came to the Irondale furnaces in 1872. It was Samuel Thomas, son of David, that later came to Jefferson County in 1886 to construct furnaces at a place which became named Thomas, Alabama -- after the David Thomas family.


            James Thomas, trained at the Crane Iron Works by his father Hopkin,  was the superintendent at the anthracite furnaces of the Carbon Iron Works, Parryville, Pennsylvania when he was contacted by his brother-in-law about heading up a new operation in the Alabama iron and coal district. The company thus formed was to be known as McKee, Thomas & Co. although name of the parent company, McKee, Fuller & Co appears in many of the records.


Thus James Thomas moved his family from the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania to Jefferson County, Alabama to assume the position of General Manager of the Irondale Furnace, and later the Oxmoor Furnace.


            The lease of the Iron Works was for 5 years, the entire property was leased, which consisted of about 500 acres of iron ore land and mines, limestone, coal, and timberlands, together with the furnace, machine shops, foundry, pattern and carpentry shop, machinery, blacksmith shop, stables, stores, and office. The lessors paid $2.00 per gross ton of pig iron or scrap pig iron produced within the first two years of the lease, and $2.50 per gross ton of pig iron or scrap pig iron within the last three years of the lease.72


            McKee, Fuller and Co. purchased in excess of 200 acres of additional timber, coal, and red ore properties in 1871.


Apparently, McKee, Fuller & Co. tried out the furnace as they received it and after the first run of the furnace found the hot blast to be ineffective. James Thomas made a number of changes to the furnace; perhaps the most important was the installation of his automatic bell and hopper for closing the tops of blast furnaces, for which he received a patent for in 1870263. This allowed the use of the hot furnace gases that with an open top furnace are wasted, to be used to provide a hot blast. With this arrangement, the hot furnace gases were sent to a heat exchanger called a Stove in the furnace industry. The stove was heated by the furnace gases and indirectly heated the blast wind. Eventually, three brick stoves were built. These modifications enlarged the furnace from a 40’ height to 46’ the bosh was 10’ 6” in diameter. The method of charging the furnace was also changed; previously to get the raw materials to the furnace wagons were used to haul the iron ore, charcoal and limestone to the top of the furnace. To eliminate this expense a water elevator, or water hoist, was used to raise the required material to the top of the furnace. The new hot blast stove system raised the output significantly, to 15 tons per day.

The brick rolling mill building constructed by McElwain was used by McKee, Fuller as a blacksmith shop and foundry.264


            On May 16 1873 the lease between the Cahaba Iron Works (still controlled by A. D. Breed) and the McKee, Fuller and Co. was cancelled. The Jefferson Iron Co. was incorporated in September 1872 by more or less the same individuals in McKee, Fuller and Co.; with this reorganization the Jefferson Iron Co. appears to have acquired all of A. D. Breed's interest in the Cahaba Iron Works. 73


            After the five-year lease of the iron works expired the operators did not renew the lease, and the production of iron at the Irondale Furnace ceased forever. In July of 1874 the Birmingham Iron Age states the furnace is shipping iron, but by December of the same year mules from the furnace were listed for sale in the Birmingham Iron Age. Alabama Blast Furnaces mentions the boilers from the Irondale Furnace went to Oxmoor in 1876 and the blowing engine went to the Edwards Furnace at Woodstock, Al. in 1877.


A company called the Irondale Co., whose principals were James Thomas, James McKee, and V. W. Weaver, were granted the most of the property and rights of the Jefferson Iron Co. through a consolidation of the two firms in April of 1890.74   The business of the Jefferson Iron Co. and Irondale Co. is not known.

Note from Bob Yuhill on 11/9/09: The statement that V W Weaver was co-signer on deed is incorrect! I went back to that deed, he is listed as a stockholder but not a co-signer on the deed.


After McElwain left the Irondale Furnace, he was the Superintendent of the Alabama Iron Company, who planned to build a furnace on Turkey Creek, near Pinson. The furnace was never built; the company may have furnished iron ore from their property to local furnaces. Later, in 1874 McElwain was involved in the rebuilding and renewed operation of the Cornwall Furnace, Cherokee County near Centre. This furnace ceased operation in 1875.


            After the operations at Irondale were abandoned, James Thomas and James W. Sloss leased the Oxmoor Furnace beginning in 1875/1876. While James Thomas was General Manager, and Levin Goodrich was Superintendent at the Oxmoor Furnace, the first coke iron at Oxmoor was produced in late 1876.


            The Irondale Furnace in 1863 attempted to replace charcoal with coke, with unsuccessful results, however by the early part of 1864 coke pig iron had been produced at Irondale. This early coke experiment was at the request of Major Wm. R. Hunt, Officer in Command at Selma. As the Confederate Government desperately needed iron, the use of coke was seen as a means to increase production, coke as fuel at Irondale increased the output from 7 to 10 tons per day. Woodward, in Alabama Iron Manufacturing, 1860-1865, cites a Nitre and Mining Bureau report of the coke pig iron produced at Irondale: "…this iron was rated as excellent."


McKee, Fuller and Co. also tried their hand at producing coke iron at Irondale. Although the furnace was modified by Thomas and capacity of the furnace was increased, the old stone furnace was not the optimum design or shape for coke, also the quality of the coke suspect. When Goodrich modified the Oxmoor Furnace to burn coke in the mid 1870`s, changes were incorporated "…to avoid the Irondale fiasco in trying to burn coke in a furnace designed to burn charcoal only."76





This 24” diameter cast iron wheel is believed to be from an Irondale Furnace tram car.  The large diameter of the wheel provided less rolling resistance for the heavy tram cars. This wheel is on display at the Birmingham-Jefferson History Museum.









Group of men posing in front of three ore cars lead by three mules. This photograph is labeled, “Men employed at ore mines and team drivers, Irondale 1872”265,  Gordon Crawford Collection, Stamford University, Special Collections.






The operation of the Irondale Furnace by McKee, Fuller & Co. was an opportunistic experiment to determine if a coke fueled furnace using the red hematite ores of Birmingham could produce pig iron. With information and lessons learned at Irondale, the Oxmoor Furnaces were then used to further develop the concepts of a coke-fired furnace. The location of the Oxmoor Furnaces placed them very close to the South and North RR, providing good transportation of raw materials (coal and limestone) and finished goods. Iron ore for the Oxmoor Furnaces came via tramway from the mines on Red Mountain about 2 miles north of the furnaces.



            Histories of the Cahaba Iron Works often cite the Helen Bess mine as the source of red hematite ore used in the furnace. During the course of the research for this paper, evidence was found that suggests a different location for the ore mines of the Ironworks.


            When studying the topography of the area lying to the northwest of the furnace, there is a natural, easy route to the SE 1/4 of the SE 1/4 of section 28 Twp 17 R2w. It is here that initial Cahaba Iron Works iron ore mine was located, on property McElwain acquired from the United States government in November, 1862.  The location of the tramway to the mine was more or less along the current route of Leach Drive and Kingsbury Drive; three land deeds place the Iron Works tram road as passing through this area. This route also corresponds to a stream feeding Shades Creek from the north. The McElwain commissary is located within 100 feet of this stream. 77


            McCalley, in Report of the Valley Regions of Alabama describes the McElwain mine as being located in the SE 1/4 of the SE 1/4 of section 28.  The Irondale seam was mined with drifts; the seam thickness was 2 feet 6 inches.  Wm. B. Phillip's Iron Making in Alabama locates "McElwain's" mine in the same location.78


            "An outcrop of the Pelham limestone appears on the top of Red Mountain about opposite the old McElwain or Irondale Furnace, or in the SE 1/4 of sec 28 Twp R2w.  These limestones have been burnt some into lime and were used some as a flux in the old McElwain or Irondale furnace."  The outcrop of lime is about 70 feet thick.79





            A tramway entered the ravine on the west side, and is visible in the backyards of the homes on Art Haines Circle.  After the tramway reached the two lowermost drifts on the west side of the ravine, the location of the tram grade crossed to the center of the ravine.  At this point the inclined grade began. The lower portion of the incline grade has been eroded by a wet weather wash that now occupies the same place as the inclined grade once did. The upper portion of the incline grade is still intact, as are the stacked stone piers located at the end of the tramway outside of numerous drifts adjacent to the incline.  At the top of the incline is a flat cut that was the location of some form of hoisting device that is either a hoist of a balance-plane sheave.         


            There are 16 drifts in this ravine; the upper four are traceable across the ridge and into the ravine located to the east.





McElwain drift mine on west side of ravine, the stacked stone in the foreground is at the end of the trench leading to the drift. The incline was located in the near foreground and adjacent to the stacked stone retaining wall.                                                


70   Jefferson County Probate Records, Deed Book vol. 14 p.52 and 54, February      1863, Willis Eastis to W. S. McElwain.

71   Jefferson County Probate Records, Deed Book vol. 17 p. 217, Agreement Between Abel D. Breed `et al', dated May   16 1871.

72   Ibid.                               

73   Jefferson County Probate Records, Deed Book vol. 18 p.    198, The               Incorporation of the Jefferson Iron Co.,   September 1872. Deed Book vol. 17      p.712, Cancellation of Lease from A. D. Breed to Thomas McKee and              Co. dated May 16 1873.

74   Jefferson County probate Records, Deed Book vol. 144 p. 199, Irondale Co. and Jefferson Iron Co. Merger, 1890.

76   Joseph H. Woodward, II, Alabama Iron Manufacturing,    1860-1865, The Alabama Review vol. 7 #3, July 1954, p.204

262  The Mineral Region of Alabama, The South, April 5, 1873. Samford Univ, Special Collections Dept., Gordan Crawford Collection, box 3495-94.

263  U.S. Patent 103,391 dated May 24, 1870 "Improvement in Apparatus for Opening and Closing the Tops of Blast Furnaces, James Thomas of Perryville, PA

264  Letter "Furnace at Irondale, Alabama" written by Samuel Davis, 1918. Samford Univ. Special Collections Dept., Gordan Crawford Collection.