Hot and Cold: The Sloss Furnaces

Birmingham, Alabama The fires burn both day and night with temperatures climbing to heights unimagined before by man. Those unfortunate enough to be here are worked until near death and many beyond. The stench of burning steel and brimstone mixes with blood and sweat, and everywhere tired, haunted faces covered in soot stare deep into the glowering structures, their only mission to feed the fire or die trying. Rest is not to be had for at the slightest sign of slack, a man appears, whip in hand, screaming to get back to work. And try as one might, there is no escape from the burning pit. There is no pity. There are no breaks, no holidays. There is only the heat — and the furnace, which demands to be fed.

It is a description that could easily be a firsthand account of Hell, conjured by Dante or by some damned soul who must stay for eternity. However, this hell is of man’s making and is very much on Earth, in Alabama to be precise. It is the living inferno that was The Sloss Furnaces.


For almost one hundred years the Sloss Furnaces in Birmingham produced steel for building. From the time it opened its doors in 1882 until it closed in 1971, industries from construction to car builders bought their steel from Sloss, blessing Birmingham with a thriving economy and great prestige. But, like so many great things, that prosperity was built on the backs and lives of men.

The Sloss Furnaces had to be kept burning throughout the night, seven days a week, and so a manager of the so-called graveyard shift had to be found; but who would want such a job where his workers were the most desperate, often immigrants, and where he would watch over burning magma until the daylight? Such a man was found in the person of James "Slag" Wormwood.

By all accounts Wormwood seemed to be tailor-made for his post, lording over his workers like Satan himself. He drove them hard, denying them rest or breaks, pushing them to impress his employers and to feed his own sadistic need. He forced them into dangerous tasks, all designed to increase productivity. All told, forty-seven men lost their lives to his disregard. Many others were critically injured and robbed of their livelihood.

It wasn’t long before the workers had enough of Slag. One night in 1906 Slag stood in a spot uncharacteristic of him, on top of "Big Alice," the largest blast furnace in the plant. He reportedly lost his balance after becoming dizzy from the methane emissions and fell into the mouth of Hell, his body incinerating on contact with the molten metal. It was interesting to note that, during his employment at the Sloss Furnaces, Slag had never once set foot on the high walkway. It led some to believe that the workers had murdered their employer, but it was more an act of self-defense. Despite this commonly held belief, none of the workers were ever brought to trial.

Soon afterward, Sloss discontinued the graveyard shift. It seems there were too many “strange” phenomena and accidents that hampered the production of steel. Each year, Slag’s legend grew, and many workers began complaining of an unnatural force that roamed the halls of the furnace. Then one evening in 1926 a night watchman met Slag. He was pushed from behind and heard a gruff voice shout, "Get back to work!" When he searched the grounds, however, he found that he was completely alone.

In 1947, amid reports of strange noises and voices and steam-jets that emptied themselves, three supervisors were touring the facility. When their guide turned toward them to point out something that might be upgraded or changed, he was startled to find them gone. After a panicked search, all three were found, unconscious, inside a locked boiler room on the southeastern side of the plant. Although none of them could explain how they’d gotten there, they were all in agreement on who had put them there. His skin was badly burned, and he shouted at them to "push some steel." They’d come face-to-face with Slag.

In perhaps the most investigated ? and most chilling ? encounter, a night watchman, Samuel Blumenthal, lost his life. It was the night before the old plant closed in 1971, and the watchman was taking a last look around when he came upon something he later described as simply "evil." The thing tried to push Samuel up the stairs, and when he resisted, it beat him savagely with his fists. When examined by a doctor at the hospital, Samuel was found to be covered in burns. He died of the injuries he sustained.


With the deaths of so many people occurring there, one would expect there to be ghosts aplenty at the old Sloss Furnaces. One would be absolutely right. There have been well over one hundred documented reports of curious incidents ranging from whispers and phantom footsteps to steam valves that release themselves. There are occasionally still reports of assault by someone or something. Many of the spirits that abide here are those of the workers whose lives were cut short by a madman, but one is of the madman himself. James "Slag" Wormwood does not take kindly to those who won’t push steel, and he lets anyone in his furnace know it.

Over the years many investigations have been done at The Sloss Furnaces, among them by television crews and professional paranormal investigators. Whether skeptics or believers, anyone who goes into The Sloss Furnaces can agree on one thing: There is something there, and it isn’t friendly.

Present Day:

The only blast furnace of its kind left standing, The Sloss Furnaces holds a unique place in history. They are generally open year-round from Tuesday through Saturday, and admission is free! During the month of October tours are given with a few added spookies to give tourists a thrill. Also occasionally the owners will host parties featuring metal bands. Although there are still phenomena reported, The Sloss Furnaces hold a fascination.

Best Times:

Sightings have been recorded year round, as have phantom voices and footsteps. The violent attacks, however, seem to happen during the months of September and October, usually during the old graveyard shift hours. However, it might be best, if one goes, to look busy. Slag doesn’t like slackers.

See you in two weeks!

Scott A. Johnson

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Original concept artwork by Bill “Splat” Johnson.

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