Friday, August 12, 2016

HGB Ep. 142 - Sloss Furnaces

Moment in Oddity - Clay Castle
by: Bob Sherfield

For many people, the Carpathian Mountains, located in the Transylvania region of Romania, are famous solely as being the home of Count Dracula. Now, however; they have a new tourist attraction. A Romanian couple has spent two years constructing an eco-friendly "fairytale castle" in the mountains of Transylvania, using only natural materials. Razvan and Gabriela Vasile, who had been living in Bucharest, sold their home to build the "castle" in a small village just over 20 miles from the city of Sibiu. The property, which they have called the "Clay Castle of the Valley of Fairies," is made of 100% organic clay, straw and sand, with all wooden pillars and not a lick of modern paint or varnish. The building appears to be straight out of Middle Earth and looks nothing like a castle with its white washed walls and steeply pitched shingle roofs, which reach almost to the ground. The owners' plan is to open Clay Castle as a hotel. It is already a tourist attraction in its own right, and one couple even hosted their wedding reception there. Their enthusiasm for ecology also extends to heating the property, as the ten rooms will be kept warm in the harsh winter months with traditional wood-burning fires. The owners haven't yet explained how they'll keep the rooms cool in the summer. Warm or cold, the fairy-like Clay Castle certainly is odd!

This Day in History - Echo 1 is Launched
by: Kristin Swintek

On this day, August 12th, in 1960, Echo 1, NASA’s first communications satellite is launched from Cape Canaveral, FL. The satellite measured 100 feet or 30.5 meters in diameter, was designed by the Space Vehicle Group of the NASA Langley Research Center and was constructed by General Mills of Minneapolis, Minnesota. A communications satellite’s function is simple: send data into space and beam it back down to earth. To accomplish this, Echo 1 essentially worked as a giant 10 story tall mirror that a signal could bounce off easily. It was the first satellite to facilitate two-way, live communication. President Eisenhower delivered the first live voice communication via the satellite. In the radio message he said “This is one more significant step in the United States’ program of space research and exploration being carried forward for peaceful purposes. The satellite balloon, which has reflected these words, may be used freely by any nation for similar experiments in its own interest.” The Echo 1 was involved in many firsts, including the first coast-to-coast telephone call using a satellite and the first image transmitted via satellite, which was a portrait of President Eisenhower. To communicate with the Echo 1, Bell labs created a 50ft (15 meter) antenna. While calibrating the antenna, radio astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson detected cosmic microwave background radiation, which was the first solid evidence of the Big Bang. Penzias and Wilson later won the Nobel Prize for this discovery. Even though the satellite was incredible durable, surviving a meteor shower, it was still susceptible to sunlight. The sunlight was strong enough to move the satellite around, pushing it back into the Earth’s atmosphere. On May 24, 1968, Echo 1 burned up on re-entry.

Sloss Furnaces (Suggested by listeners Lisa Atkinson and Megan Parks)

Birmingham, Alabama is one of the more well known southern cities. Sloss Furnaces is a popular spot for music and art in Birmingham today. Many may not realize that this imposing historic landmark has a key role in the founding and growth of this famous southern city. For 90 years, Sloss Furnaces produced iron. It is the only blast furnace in America to have been preserved and restored. Something else has been preserved from the past. There are rumors of spirits here and not just the ones that come out every Halloween when Sloss hosts Sloss Fright Furnace. Ghosts seem to lurk in the old buildings. Join us as we explore the history and hauntings of Sloss Furnaces.

The Industrial Revolution began in Britain in the 1700s. It was a time when hand made products moved to factory production by machines. This was the beginning of innovation. Coal and iron ore were a central piece of industrialization. As the Industrial Revolution took off, so did iron production. The Industrial Revolution took a foothold in America during the War of 1812, when an embargo was set that would prevent export from and import to America. In 1825, a new Iron Age began. The construction of bridges, railways, ships and even items such as window frames, fueled this new era. Iron was made by smelting iron ore, which was heating it up to its melting point, and then casting it into ingots, called pigs. The result was called pig iron. This pig iron could be melted and poured into moulds to make a variety of things. Coal was turned into coke to use for smelting, which prevented the iron from becoming brittle. There were two kinds of iron made: cast iron and wrought iron. *Fun Fact: Iron is the fourth most common metal in the earth's crust.*

Coal, limestone and iron ore were beneath Birmingham, Alabama, so it was natural for it to become an industrial center. Birmingham is the only place in the world where these three elements are found together in these amounts. The city is located at the crossing of two major railway lines, the Alabama & Chattanooga Railway and North & South Alabama Railway, in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. The city grew so quickly at its beginnings that it was dubbed the "Magic City." But the city is known for more than just its industrial production. It really was the cradle of the Civil Rights Movement. Martin Luther King, Jr's brother was a pastor in the city and events like the Freedom Riders being attacked on a bus there by the KKK in 1961, demonstrations in 1963 led by King and the bombing of a church that killed four school girls solidified Birmingham's place in Civil Rights history. Bull Connor added to this with his actions to enforce racial segregation as Birmingham's Commissioner of Public Safety. Those actions became known internationally. And they helped push forward the Civil Rights Act of 1964. What were some of those actions? The use of attack dogs and fire hoses on peaceful protestors.

Birmingham was founded in 1871 by the Elyton Land Company. The shareholders of this company were the founders of Birmingham and included southern entrepreneurs. Colonel James Withers Sloss was one of those men. Sloss was born in 1844 to Joseph and Clarissa Sloss in Mooresville, Alabama. He was not well educated and decided to apprentice as a bookkeeper at a butcher's shop. In 1842, he opened a general store. He married Mary Bigger at that time as well. The couple bought land and started their own plantation, which they continued to expand through the years and eventually Sloss became a rich man. The Colonel part of his name comes from his service in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. He became president of the Nashville & Decatur Railroad after the war in 1867. He later joined as a shareholder with the Elyton Land Company. He convinced the L & N Railroad to bring the North & South Alabama Railway through the city. He then helped found the Pratt Coke and Coal Company.

Sloss founded the Sloss Furnace Company in 1881 and began building the City Furnace that would eventually take his name and become the Sloss Furnaces. The Elyton Land Company donated 50 acres to Sloss' company to build the City Furnace. A European engineer named Harry Hargreaves had studied under British inventor Thomas Whitwell and he was put in charge of the design and construction of the furnaces. The furnaces were equipped with Whitwell stoves that were 60 feet high and 18 feet in diameter. There were also ten boilers and two blowing engines. All of which were manufactured in the south. In April 1882, the furnaces went into blast. In that first year of production the furnace sold 24,000 tons of iron. Louisville hosted an exposition in 1883 and the Sloss Furnace Company won a bronze medal for "best pig iron."

Sloss would remain with the company for only four years and then retire. Before he retired, the Birmingham press declared the following about Sloss, “His excellent business qualifications, brilliant intellect, splendid character, and fine executive ability, all combined, make him the grandest man in Alabama today for our chief executive. He is the very personification of Christian manhood and integrity, possessing the qualifications of head and heart which we should emulate.” The press wanted Sloss to be governor. The Sloss Furnace Company was sold to John Johnston and Joseph Johnston who expanded it and renamed it Sloss-Sheffield Steel and Iron Company. Even though it had that name, no steel was produced here. After the expansion, Sloss became the second largest merchant pig-iron company in Birmingham and by World War I, they were one of the largest producers in all the world. The company owned 120,000 acres of coal and ore land, 1500 beehive coke ovens, five Jefferson County coal mines and two red ore mines, brown ore mines, and quarries in North Birmingham. *Fun Fact: By 1941 when America entered the war, nearly half the labor force was employed by the iron and steel and mining industries; more than two-thirds of the industries’ workers were African-American.*

Despite the large amount of black workers, Sloss was a segregated work place. The company was also set up in tiers with only whites in the positions of management, accountants, chemists and engineers at the top and the all black labor gangs were at the bottom. Working at Sloss Furnaces was tough. Men could barely see in front of them because of the dark conditions created by the smelting process. The heat from those processes would reach well over a hundred degrees. The work was labor intensive as men shoveled coal as quickly as they could to fuel the furnaces. Most workers were immigrants with few other options to feed their families. Makeshift barracks were all they had to sleep in and there were no labor laws in place or unions to protect them. And then there was James “Slag” Wormwood who was a foreman at Sloss Furnaces. He was in charge of nearly 150 men and he was not a benevolent boss. Slag would let them have very little sleep before he was banging on the walls and ordering them back to work in conditions that were not only unbearable, but unsafe.

Slag was the type of guy who was not only a jerk, but he liked to impress his colleagues. One of the ways he accomplished that was by forcing his workers to perform dangerous tasks. Just because he could. The result was the death of forty-seven men under his watch. That number was ten times more than any other shift in the history of Sloss. Slag left his workers hungry and tired. One would not blame those workers for wanting to end their hell on earth. And some think they did. One day, ole Slag lost his footing at the top of the highest furnace and fell to his death. Was Slag just clumsy that day? Perhaps overcome by methane gas? Probably not. Slag never climbed to the highest furnace. In all his time at Sloss, he had never climbed up there. The likely scenario is that the workers revolted, grabbed Slag and dragged him to the uppermost heights and then threw him over to his death.

The Sloss Furnaces that we see today has no original part of the first furnace complex still standing. During the early 1930s, the complex was mechanized and the furnaces were rebuilt, doubling the production of the facility. The oldest building dates to 1902 and there are forty buildings here. The blower engines date to 1902 and the steam boilers are from 1906 and 1914. Two slag granulators were installed in the 1940s and by the 1950s the blower engines were replaced with turbo blowers. The site closed for production in 1970. In 1977, Birmingham voters approved a bond to help stabilize the historic structures. In 1981, Sloss Furnaces was named a National Historic Landmark. Today, it serves as a concert venue, a festival location, has an innovative metal arts program and is a museum. Tours are available.

Sloss Fright Furnace opens for Halloween and offers some cool chills in a very creepy location. But its not just the old buildings and smokestacks that give this location its creepy vibe. There really seems to be something haunting Sloss Furnaces and it is no wonder with all the deaths that occurred here, the unbearable conditions and that horrible work boss Slag and his mysterious and horrible death. It wasn't long after Slag's little mishap, that strange things started happening. Accidents became rampant and there were so many on the graveyard shift that the company decided to no longer have that shift. One worker had a shirt get caught in a large flywheel and he was pulled into the gear and killed.

Many blame Slag for most of the paranormal activity. People claim to feel an evil presence and have even seen a shadowy figure that has been described as demonic in appearance. As Slag's legend has grown, so have the reports of supernatural happenings. A night watchman was quite shaken one evening while he was walking the grounds. He was violently shoved from behind and when he spun around to see who had attacked him, he saw no one. Then he heard a disembodied voice scream, “Get back to work!”

The watchman was lucky that he was only pushed. Another man claimed that he saw this shadowy presence that was the most evil thing he had ever seen and before he could react or run, he felt fists hitting his body. The attack was quick, but the effects were a bit more lasting. The man lifted his shirt and found burn marks where the punches had connected with his body. The watchman never worked at Sloss again. Other people claim to hear audible voices yelling at them to push some steel or pick up their pace. Are these the residual orders of Slag or some other boss? Apparently they occur most times during the shift that Slag would have managed.

One of the other ghosts here is the spirit of Theophilus Calvin Jowers. He had worked at another furnace, Oxmoor Furnace, starting in 1873. By 1889, he was assistant foundryman there. One of his jobs was to change the bells on the furnace and on this particular day, he was trying to change the bell on the Alice Furnace. He was walking around the edge of the furnace, using a block and tackle, when he lost his footing. He and the bell fell into the molten iron. Workers ran to his aid, but not much was left of him. The Birmingham Age reported, "A piece of sheet iron was attached to a length of gas pipe, and with that instrument his head, bowels, two hip bones and a few ashes were fished out." Jowers apparition was seen soon after near the furnace. It was not unusual to see his spirit in places too hot for humans. The Alice Furnace was torn down in 1905, so Jowers spirit moved on to another furnace at Oxmoor. When that one was taken apart, he decided to relocate to Sloss Furnaces for some reason. Jowers' son John claimed he saw his father's spirit walking through the hot furnace there one day.

It would be easy to explain this all away as overactive imaginations if not for the fact that the Birmingham Police Department has reports of over 100 times they have been called out to the property. And it hasn't been for criminal activity. These reports detail unexplained activity. Sloss Furnaces has been featured on “Ghost Hunters” and “Ghost Adventures.”

Working at the furnaces was dangerous and evoked many emotions from fear to dread to anger. Have these emotions marked this location permanently? Do evil entities feed off this energy? Is one of those evil spirits that of the foreman Slag? Is Sloss Furnaces haunted? That is for you to decide!


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