Sloss Furnaces, Birmingham, AL
by Ron Bates
A lot of the company owners lived up in the mountains where they could look out on the city, and the majority of the workers lived here. What they would notice was that you couldn't see anything, just smoke. And you could just barely see thousands and thousands of fires from the blast furnaces and steel. And the men would say, "Boy, from all the smoke and pollution, and all the fires that you see and the sulfur smell, [we] felt like [we] were in hell." So I guess you can see the mind set of these people.
Well, quite a few people have died at the Sloss Furnaces over the years. Iron work was very dangerous job back in the 19th century, and people were always getting hurt. But for some reason, only two of the dead people have come back as ghosts. The best-known of these is Theophilus Calvin Jowers. Jowers came to Oxmoor in 1873 around the time that they began making pig iron with coke instead of charcoal beaus all of the trees around Birmingham had been cut down. Jowers was proud of being an iron man, but his wife didn't like it. She was afraid that he would get killed or hurt some day. Whenever she expressed her concerns to him, he would reply, "Don't worry. The furnace is my friend. As long as there's a furnace standing in this county, I'll be there."
Well, in 1887, he became assistant foundryman at the Alice Furnace No. One; I think it was, in Birmingham. One day, he was trying to change the bell on the Alice furnace. He was using a block and tackle and was walking around the edge of the furnace when he lost his balance. Both he and the bell fell into the molten iron, and he was burned up. That iron is so hot, in fact, that I doubt that he even felt any pain at all. He must have been burned up almost instantly. The workmen tried to retrieve what was left of him by using a piece of sheet iron attached to a length of gas pipe,, but all that they found were a shoe and a foot inside it.
Well, it wasn't long after that happened that people reported seeing his ghost walking around, doing his job and checking to make sure that things were being done correctly. Jowers' ghost haunted the Alice No. One furnace for more than twenty years. It wasn't long after the Alice furnace was abandoned that his ghost began to be seen at the Sloss furnaces. In 1927, his son John Jowers was driving over the viaduct by the Sloss furnaces in a Model-T Ford with his son Leonard. John stopped the engine of the car so that he and Leonard could watch them tap the Sloss. All at once, John grabbed his son's arm and pointed to what appeared to be a man walking through the sparks. The iron was too hot for a real human being to be standing that close to it, so it must have been a ghost.
I don't know really why Jowers became a ghost and the others who died there didn't. It probably had something to do with the promise he made to his wife that he would always be around a furnace somewhere. I also think [his spirit has returned] because so little of him was found, just a foot and a shoe. Christian people believe that when a person dies, he's got to have a proper burial. Jowers didn't [have a Christian burial], and his gruesome remains remind people of that. It could be, too, that this is why his spirit is restless.
Now, another ghost has been seen around the Sloss Furnaces as well. In the early 1900's, there was a young girl who was pregnant out of wedlock who came here. You see, at that time, getting pregnant without being married was taboo. Anyone who did this was considered to be an outcast. Well, one day, while they were pouring the iron into the sows, she jumped into the furnace and committed suicide. It wasn't long after this happened that they were having some kind of official ceremony at the Sloss Furnaces and a deer ran through the crowd and disappeared. Some people believed that it was the re-incarnation of the pregnant girl who killed herself in the furnaces. I've seen this story in print one time in conjunction with a time when they had repaired the furnace and were getting ready to get it back into action. It seems that the deer is seen when they are having visiting dignitaries and a big "whoop-de-doo" here on the site. It seems that whenever they are having a big event with politicians, that [the appearance of the deer] happens.
There's a building here at the Sloss Furnaces where all sorts of ghost activity has been reported. It's called the Blowing Engine Building. It was built in 1902, and it is the oldest building still standing at the Sloss Furnace. People who work here have reported all sorts of strange things. Workers here have said that they will set something down and a little late it will be moved to a different spot. They have also seen doors opening and closing by themselves.
I've been here 11 years, and I can't say that I believe all of the stories that I've heard about this place, but I do think that something is here. I can't explain it. It's like a force or something. I'll be walking around here by myself and see something out of the corner of my eye, something like the shape of a person. It will be there for a minute, then it will be gone. I can't explain it.
I made it a point to research and read all of the oral histories that we have here at Sloss. From those, you get bits and pieces of what was life was like and the stories about Jowers and the pregnant woman. Because of the age of the workers--they're in their late 80's and early 90's--who could give you stories. There are probably 30 workers who are still alive. We don't have a large base to pull from. It's dwindling every day. The Sloss Furnaces closed in 1971.
Visitors see the shadowy figure of a man all the time, but it could be one of our maintenance men.