The Magic Iron


_ebv2804A city born to industry continues to forge its own path.

Written by Cody Owens//Photography by Edward Badham

Birmingham’s river is the railroad. Like any river it has a rhythm. It ebbs and flows with the lifeblood it carries, however inconvenient that may be to the motorists who groan while they’re momentarily stranded on its asphalt shores while the seemingly endless stream of railroad cars slowly creak by.

It was because of the railroad that Birmingham sprung up suddenly, as if the land had been touched by an alchemist’s spell, earning the fledgling industrial center its colloquial moniker, The Magic City. The population boomed in the 1890s and smoke began to bellow from the pig iron forges. In reality, it was the draw of the rich mineral veins running through Red Mountain that brought opportunistic prospectors to Jones Valley, as the area was known before the barons began mining the seams of red hematite iron ore. With a healthy supply of coal also buried nearby, an industry was forged; the expanded rail lines that cut through the valley carried the subsequent iron and steel throughout the South. The rich got richer and a city was built.

The expansion of the railroad, through central Alabama and down to the Gulf of Mexico, was due largely to efforts of Colonel James Withers Sloss, who had built an expansive mercantile empire throughout Alabama by the mid-nineteenth century. “Rumor has it Sloss closed the deal for expanding the L&N (Louisville and Nashville) railroad with the company’s president Albert Fink over a nice bottle of bourbon,” Karen Utz recounts while seated in a posh conference room overlooking the rusted ruins of Sloss Furnace. Utz, the historian and curator at Sloss, pointed to this decision as a watershed moment for central Alabama—no magic needed, just good bourbon.

“Sloss knew we needed a huge rail company to come through Jones Valley and lay track,” Utz says. “If you’re going to build all these blast furnaces, trains were the only way to move goods in and out. This is the only area in the United States where all the ingredients needed to make iron—and eventually steel—are found together in a 30-mile area.”

_ebv2909Today, nearly 140 years after the first furnaces were fired in Birmingham, Brady Jackson walks out of a modest industrial warehouse that shelters his own forge; a stumpy, grey pitbull named Pancho follows him outside as a train rolls by behind the building, which is located just a few hundred yards from where the old rail yards at Sloss Furnaces once bustled. Jackson is a burly, bearded man with kind features and hair askew. He takes off his glasses and wipes away some smudges as he welcomes a journalist into his workspace that he shares with two of his business partners, Javier Sanchez and Jose Fausto, who also use the furnace to forge ornate steel. While iron once reigned supreme in Birmingham, Jackson and company now forge elaborate, high-end steel pieces, just a stone’s throw from the now-shuttered industrial cradle of the South (though, Jackson contends, “steel is made from iron and carbon, so people use those terms interchangeably”).

Jackson does have a coal-fired forge, but he prefers the propane-powered furnace, he explains as he turns on the gas line and sparks the fire to life. “The coal can be a pain. You spend all day getting the temperature just right—or at least you think it’s right. It can still melt to the steel in a matter of minutes,” Jackson says, moving his hands past the mouth of the roaring forge, demonstrating how quickly the propane can bring the temperature to the necessary 1,600 degrees to soften the steel. He picks through a rack of tools, all of which he made himself, before pantomiming how he would begin to shape the hot steel on the striking anvil next to the forge. He studied archeology in college and has a reverence for “old stuff” and “practicing a craft that dates back as far back as history goes.”

Jackson was born in Clayton, Alabama. He spent time on the West Coast working in wineries and building custom guitars before moving to Birmingham where he “accidentally got into working with iron and blacksmithing” when he took at job at Heirloom Iron Works. There he began to hone his craft and made notable Birmingham landmarks such as the sign that hangs above Post Office Pies in Avondale.

Jackson’s work, he says, blends traditional with modern work, though he tends to favor more contemporary projects. He picks up a piece with “scroll work”— curved steel that is relatively common—that will eventually hold up a large awning. He uses rivets instead of welding the joints together.

The work Jackson does seems a world away from the grainy, black and white images of men laboring away in the sweltering belly of the pig iron forges in Birmingham.

Still, he feels a strong connection to the city’s industrial culture.

“I think that with Birmingham having a history of an industrial city, people here really have more of an appreciation for this kind of work,” Jackson says, raising his voice to compete with the sound of another passing train. “If you have an eye for it and you drive around Birmingham, you can spot really nicely done iron work from 100 years ago and even now.” He lamented the recent loss of a cast iron gate in Five Points South that has now been replaced with a chain-link fence.

As the iron industry began to decline in the 1970s, the Magic City would be inextricably tied to its industrial birth, Utz says, holding up a 1972 article from the Washington Post detailing the ways in which industrial pollutants had continued to exceed the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency’s safe air standards in areas of North Birmingham. The fallout is still an issue in 2017, as a state legislator, lawyers and coal executives have been indicted for their alleged bribery scheme to downplay the seriousness of the industrial toxins.

While Jackson and the small coterie of iron and steel workers represent the legacy of Birmingham’s origins, the city’s past will always be more complex than just a place where iron and steel were produced. Utz surveys the furnace from the large window in the conference room and considers the impact that Birmingham’s industrial district, which at its peak boasted 60 blast furnaces, had on the region.

“The city is a result of the land it’s sitting on,” Utz says, trying to condense Birmingham’s legacy into its simplest terms. “This city really is a miracle. But the most impressive thing is the way the city has transitioned away from industry and continued to grow and prosper in spite of everything that has happened here.” And that, Utz says, is the real magic.

_ebv3252

At Jackson Forge, just a few hundred yards from where the old rail yards at Sloss Furnaces once bustled, Brady Jackson (here with business partner Jose Fausto) forges elaborate, high-end steel pieces.

At Jackson Forge, just a few hundred yards from where the old rail yards at Sloss Furnaces once bustled, Brady Jackson (here with business partner Jose Fausto) forges elaborate, high-end steel pieces.

Leave a Reply