Ensley Works

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Panoramic photograph of the Ensley Works, c. 1909 by the Haines Photo Co.

The Ensley Works was an open-hearth steel plant operating between 1888 and 1976 in Ensley. It was owned by the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company (TCI), which became a division of U. S. Steel in 1907. For much of its existence, Ensley Works was the largest producer of steel ingots and rail in the Southern United States.

The site of the works is alongside the Louisville & Nashville Railroad tracks northwest of downtown Ensley. Birmingport Road (also known as 20th Street Ensley or Alabama Highway 269 bisects the site on a raised viaduct (the Don Drennen overpass). The north end of the site is bound by Village Creek with Wylam to the southwest and a largely undeveloped area adjoining Birmingham's Sherman Heights neighborhood to the southeast.

Early output

1908 postcard view of the Ensley Works

The Ensley works was a joint venture of local investors such as Enoch Ensley with the L&N Railroad and the TCI, which operated it. The project of erecting four furnaces simultaneously had never before been attempted. Ensley hired Fred Gordon of the firm of Witherow and Gordon to oversee the lighting of the furnaces.

The first heat of steel was tapped on Thanksgiving Day in 1899 and the first load of Ensley steel was shipped to a Connecticut buyer on January 1, 1900. Reports of inexpensive steel being made in the South concerned established operators such as Andrew Carnegie. When former Minnesota Iron president Don Bacon came to Ensley in 1901 to oversee the plan, he characterized the operation, from the mines to finished product, as a "medley of make shifts". By 1906, even with the recent addition of the plant's sixth and largest furnace, he estimated that $25 million would be needed to overhaul the plant to meet modern standards of efficient manufacture.

The addition of the Bessemer converter to the plant in 1904 helped increase the quality and quantity of Ensley's steel output, the first to be produced by the "duplex process". 1904's total production was 155,000 tons. Two years later the plant produced 402,000 tons. By 1907 Bacon had been succeeded by John Topping who was tapped to oversee the necessary capital improvements. The blast furnaces were entirely rebuilt and new open hearths constructed. A second more efficient rail mill was added.

Furnaces

U. S. Steel

Artist Roderick MacKenzie documented operations at the Ensley Works in 1921

In November 1907, amid swirlings of a Wall Street financial panic, executives of U. S. Steel felt out the position of the White House on whether their acquisition of TCI would merit criticism as an attempt to monopolize steel production. With a crisis at stake without the larger company's investment, President Theodore Roosevelt assured them that he "felt it no public duty" to object to the suggestion. The deal was agreed upon within days. The primary value to the company was the mineral resources of the Birmingham District which were under TCI's control. One executive estimated that the company had purchased $90-100 million worth of coal reserves and infrastructure for their $30 million investment.

U. S. Steel sent George Crawford to oversee TCI's operations and over $30 million in improvements made over the next six years. Crawford reported drastic improvements in quality after only 18 months, reducing the scrap yield of newly-made rail from 40% to 10% while cutting costs from $29 to $20 per ton. In 1912 the Ensley works produced 840,000 tons of steel, by far leading all Southern competitors. It was in that year that the American Steel and Wire Company built the first industrial plant at TCI's newly-planned city of Fairfield (originally called "Corey").

Scene of the Ensley Works with worker's housing in the foreground. Arthur Rothstein for the Farm Security Administration, 1937

Most of the new Fairfield operations were involved in finishing steel ingots made at Ensley. During World War I wartime demand required the Ensley plant to continue increasing capacity. By 1920 Ensley's furnaces could output 1.25 million tons. By 1945, expanded again during World War II, Ensley was producing 1.57 million tons and, with the post-war demand for building material, had increased capacity to 1.77 million tons by 1959. Nevertheless, the more modern integrated steel making processes at Fairfield began to supplant the open-hearth method used in Ensley. U. S. Steel closed the open hearths in 1975 and closed the last major operating section of the Ensley Works, the melt shop, in 1976. The works were shuttered in 1979 and all activity on the site ceased in 1984.

Current situation

A hot melt mixer at the site of the Ensley Works in 1995

U. S. Steel's USS Real Estate division still owns the 600-acre site of the former works, which has been left all but abandoned. The site is dominated by the still-standing smokestacks. A few brick structures and a massive hot metal mixer remain as landmarks. Kudzu grows over the foundations of the former open hearth, blooming and rail mills and collection ponds and pits which remain a danger to trespassers.

Photographs of the site were taken by David Deising in 1992 and Jet Lowe in 1993 for the Historic American Engineering Record.

Redevelopment proposals

Various proposals have been made to take advantage of the site's size and abundant rail access for new industrial uses. In 1993, the city proposed the 600-acre site as an automotive supplier park to serve the Mercedes-Benz US International plant in Tuscaloosa County. Part of the plan would have encompassed an intermodal rail hub. New "greenfield" parks were developed instead in Pinson Valley and North Birmingham.

In 1998 Jefferson County considered the site for a new Jefferson County Jail.

In 2000 Fairfield mayor Larry Langford and Council for Cooperating Governments founder John Katopodis suggested using the site as the terminus for a canal connecting the city to the Black Warrior River, with a freight harbor and platform for riverboat launches. That same year Birmingham mayor Bernard Kincaid's office missed a deadline to apply for a $200,000 EPA grant for hazardous material abatement.

The Bethel Ensley Action Task group renewed efforts to lobby the city for a redevelopment plan in 2003.

The Alabama Department of Environmental Management has approved plans by U. S. Steel to remove contamination from the site. The clean up of the former Ensley works was again promised in early 2007 as part of a partnership with the city of Birmingham to de-annex nearly 2,000 acres of USX property near Leeds for the Grand River development.

In 2010 Mayor William Bell and Birmingham Business Alliance economic development head Patrick Murphy promised that the brownfield site was still under active consideration for redevelopment as an industrial park.

In 2011 Bell reported that USS Real Estate was in the process of conducting environmental assessments and looking to forge an agreement with the city to effect a clean-up. Projected uses include primarily light industrial and distribution sites. The idea of extending a canal from Birmingport is still under consideration, especially if a portion of the property can be used for residential development.

References

  • Dodd, James Harvey (1928) A History of the Production in the Iron and Steel Industry in the Southern Appalachian States, 1901-1926. Nashville, Tennessee: Cullom & Ghertner Co.
  • Longnecker, Charles (August 1939) "The Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company." Blast Furnace and Steel Plant No. 27, pp. 791-834
  • Tennessee Coal and Iron Division, U. S. Steel Corporation (1960) Biography of a Business. Birmingham: U. S. Steel Corporation
  • Warren, Kenneth (2001) Big Steel: The First Century of the United States Steel Corporation, 1901-2001. Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press. ISBN 0822941600
  • Bryant, Joseph D. (January 2, 2007) "U.S. Steel agrees to help rehab old Ensley Works site." Birmingham News
  • Tomberlin, Michael (March 21, 2010) "Interest in old Ensley Works renews as industrial site." Birmingham News
  • Tomberlin, Michael (March 1, 2011) "Birmingham steel mill site may be development magnet." Birmingham News

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