The Sloss Furnaces
Industrial ruin tourism has a certain post-apocalyptic allure, but it's usually tempered by fears of vicious dogs, imprisonment, lockjaw, and crippling injury.
How fortunate we are, then, to have The Sloss Furnaces. Visitors can wander around an immense, rusting, turn-of-the-20th-century blast furnace, and never worry about trespassing. It's a national historic landmark!
The Sloss Furnaces were built 100+ years ago when Birmingham was an iron industry boom town (with an honorary statue of Vulcan). In its heyday, Sloss -- only a few blocks east of the city's center -- smelted over a thousand tons of pig iron a day.
That ended in 1971, shut down by plastic pipe, foreign competition, and the Clean Air Act. Sloss lay abandoned for ten years, acquiring the entropic crust of decay and overgrowth that every good ruin needs. Birmingham then spent months sandblasting, painting, planting flowers and grass, and sprucing up the place into something that it did not resemble when it was making pig iron, and opened it to the public.
Had you toured Sloss when it was still in business, you probably wouldn't have seen much through the smoke and searing waves of heat. You also might have been suffocated by poisonous gases and fallen into the furnace, ruining a perfectly good batch of pig iron, as happened with workers on more than one occasion.
Nowadays the fumes and smoke are gone, and Sloss is a magical, rusty red mini-city of towering domed blast stoves and smoke stacks, an 18-acre urban oasis on a sunny day. Guardrails are a cheery safety yellow, trees and shrubs grow in the pig caster and stock trestle. Numbered interpretive signs, part of the self-guided tour, explain furnace equipment and processes.
Shutterbugs wander the grounds between the giant slag buckets, through the drippy skip hoist tunnel, around the maze of pipes in the blower building. There's a nice view of the entire complex from a platform atop Furnace Number One. A stroll along the boardwalk in the vast boiler shed is like walking down the nave of a medieval cathedral whose roof has half-blown away.
The organization running Sloss likes to emphasize its human side -- the people who worked there -- but that approach has taken an unexpected turn with the rise of ghost tourism, which is only interested in people who are dead.
Thanks to the cable show Ghost Adventures, Sloss is now forever known for its haunting by an evil foreman, "Slag," who reportedly worked his employees to death and was eventually pushed into the furnace.
Unfortunately, for those ghost fans who care about an apparition's credibility, Slag never existed. "We get a lot of questions about Slag," said Sloss marketing officer Rachael Verschoore. "Ghost Adventures came down and talked to our Halloween 'Fright Furnace' crew. They told them about Slag, a legend they had created, and I guess they assumed it was true."
21st century Sloss doesn't need Slag. It isn't about pig iron any more, it's about atmosphere: weathered brick, old electrical gizmos, rusty oversized smelting tools. Artists work in the power house, concerts are held in the cast shed, after-hours wine and cheese tasters stroll the grounds, and tourists like us run around and think we're snapping arty photos -- probably to the bafflement of the former iron workers.