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The Technical Story
Because north Alabama had large quantities of iron ore, coal, and limestone, it was well suited to become a leading center for the manufacture of iron and steel. One specific location, Jones Valley, in which Birmingham is located, was particularly ideal for iron and steel manufacture because it had access to greater quantities of iron ore, coal, and limestone within a thirty-mile radius than any place on earth.
The development of iron and steel manufacturing in north Alabama required heavy capital investment, complex technology, a transportation infrastructure, managerial expertise, and large numbers of workers. Because of the largely agricultural southern past and the devastation produced by the Civil War, money was scarce in the late nineteenth century when Alabama's iron and steel industries began to flourish. Nevertheless, much of the capital required came from southern investors, assisted by northern bankers and merchants. Henry F. DeBardeleben, John T. Milner, and James W. Sloss, all from Alabama, and Joseph Bryan, a Virginian, were particularly notable in founding, building, and promoting the development of Birmingham. Many of the early managers were also southern, but northern engineers including Erskine Ramsay, a Pennsylvanian, and Edward Uehling, from Wisconsin, supplied much technological know-how.
Beginning in the 1870's, blast furnace complexes spread throughout north Alabama, supplied with raw materials from nearby iron ore and coal mines. The Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company (TCI) and Sloss-Sheffield Steel and Iron Company emerged as the two largest industrial firms in the Birmingham area. Ultimately, TCI was absorbed by U.S. Steel in a merger in 1908, and Birmingham came under increasing control by absentee owners.
Iron and steel are heavy, bulky commodities, made from heavy, bulky raw materials. Consequently, iron and steel could not be made on a large scale in Alabama until the coming of the railroad. The mountainous terrain around Jones Valley posed great difficulties for railroad-building, but these problems were overcome in the 1870's and 1880's with the development of the rail lines like the Louisville and Nashville and Georgia-Pacific, which intersected at Birmingham. A "railroad reservation," cutting straight through the heart of the city, promoted its growth by bringing vast quantities of iron and steel products to outside markets.
Mining coal and iron ore, quarrying limestone, and operating blast furnaces are heavy, dangerous, and frequently hot occupations. Birmingham's labor force was largely composed of black workers who came from a slave background. Convict labor was also used on a large scale. Many of the capitalists who built the city came from the southern plantation class and had a strong preference for servile workers. Racial lines were tightly drawn and segregation was increasingly enforced by the end of the nineteenth century. Manual labor was used whenever possible and mechanization used only when necessary. Wages were low, hours were long, and labor unions were fiercely resisted. The result was a distinctively southern style of industrialization that persisted until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960's and 1970's brought far-reaching changes to Alabama and the rest of the nation.