Wallace McElwain

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Wallace Scott McElwain, familiarly called Boss McElwain (born 1832 in Pittsfield, Massachusetts; died 1882-1883 in Chattanooga, Tennessee) was a pioneering iron-maker in the Birmingham District, operating the Cahaba Iron Works alongside Furnace Branch of Shades Creek in present-day Mountain Brook from 1864 to 1871.

McElwain was trained as a machinist and foundryman in New York and Ohio. He was married to Cornelia G. Towne of New York and had two daughters, Ida and Alice.

In 1859 McElwain moved to Holly Springs, Mississippi on the advice of an uncle, Walter L. Goodman, who was president of the Mississippi Central Rail Road. McElwain formed a business venture with two other men who were employed with the railroad, Wiley Jones and E. G. Barney, to start up a foundry. Along with orders from his uncle's railroad and routine blacksmithing for area farmers, Jones, McElwain and Company established a pattern shop and bid on a contract to supply ornamental iron railings for the Moresque Building in New Orleans.

With the success of that contract, the company started filling orders for ironwork throughout the lower Mississippi valley. In 1860 the company took on another partner, J. Howard Athey and the company's grew to employ about 200 men who worked the furnace around the clock. Later that year McElwain accepted a contract from the Confederate States of America to produce small arms and cannon. The advance of $60,000 allowed him to enlarge his operation to accommodate the arms manufacturing process. With Union forces rapidly taking control of Mississippi in 1862 the Confederacy bought out the Holly Springs facility, remembered locally as "The Rebel Armory" and McElwain started scouting Jefferson County, Alabama for a more secure site.

On February 22, 1863 McElwain purchased an 80 acre parcel from Willis B. Eastis and began erecting the Cahaba Iron Works. He added to his holdings with parcels bought from John S. Poole, Obadiah Wood, and Henry Shackleford until he controlled 2,156 acres extending from Spring Valley Road, Westbury Road, and Cherokee Road on the south to Red Mountain on the north and from Montrose Circle on the west to Brookwood Road on the east. It is surmised that he moved into the William Cummins residence, which later became his company's commissary until he could arrange for construction of his own home. McElwain's holdings included large strands of hardwood timber for charcoal, limestone, and iron ore from the eastern part of Red Mountain, near the present site of Baptist Medical Center Montclair. The ore cars would travel by gravity-powered tramway from the Helen Bess mine down tracks built on the southern slope of Red Mountain, following roughly the present route of Hagood Street and Leech Drive, to charge the 41-foot-tall furnace. Mules would then pull the empty cars back up to the mine.

Pig iron produced by the Cahaba Iron Works, at first no more than 7 tons a day, was carried by oxcart or mule team 20-plus miles westward down Montevallo Road and present day Hollywood Boulevard and Oxmoor Road, past Shannon to Brock's Gap through Shades Mountain, and loaded there onto the Selma, Dalton & Rome Railroad for transport to the Confederate arsenal in Selma. McElwain had just begun experimenting with coking coal for fuel when the furnace fell to the Union Army.

In April 1865 scouts for Wilson's Raiders located the furnace operation and it, along with all the other furnaces operating in the region, was demolished by the United States.

Immediately following the South's surrender at Appomattox, McElwain traveled to Cincinnati to secure the funds needed to rebuild, which he did. The furnace was rebuilt and began operating again in 1866, providing a rare opportunity for gainful work among those left without means by Reconstruction. The workers were called to their shifts by an unusually large whistle, dubbed "Big Jim" which sounded across the valley.

Over the next five years the price of iron declined as competitors began operating. McElwain's health was also beginning to fail, and on May 16, 1871 he and his partners sold the business to the investors in the new Jefferson Iron Company. McElwain sold his personal property and moved with his family to Oxford in Calhoun County in 1874, working as an agent for the Woodstock Iron Company there. He moved to Chattanooga in 1880 to clerk at Lowe's Foundy and Machine Company. He died in the winter of 1882-3 of tuberculosis, survived by his wife and daughters.

The McElwain community which grew up around his Cahaba Iron Works furnace is recalled in the names of McElwain Baptist Church and McElwain Elementary School.


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