James Bowron

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James Bowron, c. 1920. courtesy BPL Archives

James Bowron Jr (born November 16, 1844 in Stockton-on-Tees, England; died August 25, 1928) was an executive with the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company, and later president of Gulf States Steel. He was also a civic leader in Birmingham and an accomplished traveler.

Bowron's father was a successful Quaker businessman in northeast England and young James was raised and educated according to the regiments of that faith, finishing at the Ackworth School in West Yorkshire. Because the universities were closed to non-Anglicans, Bowron set aside his ambition to study law and entered his father's bottle company as an office boy and pursued his athletic interests in swimming and rowing.

In 1870, having been successful in his father's employ at several enterprises, Bowron married Ada Barrett. In 1874 the family's manufacturing business organized the Southern States Coal, Iron and Land Company in South Pittsburgh, Tennessee, with the idea of applying British technical advances to the production of steel in the American South and to be able to sell it to the American market without incurring the stiff tariffs applied to imported steel. Father and son made the voyage to serve as managers in 1877. In November of the same year, James Sr died and James assumed his duties as general manager.

With the company struggling to overcome deficient coal and ore, Bowron visited the new city of Birmingham for the first time in May 1878. After convincing the partners in England that profitability was still a far-off prospect, Southern States was sold to the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Land Company in 1882 for $1,400,000 in stock and bonds. He moved to Nashville to serve as an officer of TCI and it was there that, a year later, Ada died, leaving him with three children.

Bowron became an American citizen in 1883, convinced that his "educated and intelligent" vote was needed to offset newly-won African American votes. He was elected director and general manager of the company in 1886, but was demoted again to treasurer in 1886 when the company reorganized and acquired the Pratt Coal and Iron Company in Alabama. The next year he married again, this time to Ada Cunningham, with whom he eventually had 9 more children. In 1888 he contributed toward the completion of the Ensley Works, which boosted the prospects for TCI's ability to produce merchantable steel.

Bowron survived a more hostile reorganization of the company in the early 1890s, and the threat of receivership during the hardships following the Panic of 1893 (which Bowron blamed on the Democrats elected in 1892). The company's plans to move its main offices to Birmingham were delayed until 1895, where, as manager of the largest single steel making enterprise, he was celebrated as a titan and given instant entry into the most prestigious society. He was active in the YMCA and the Commercial Club of Birmingham and addressed numerous literary, religious and school groups. He campaigned for prohibition and against gambling, and was an early supporter of the Greater Birmingham merger campaign. Though inclined to public service, he was unable to pursue political office due to his attachment to the Republican Party. As politics related to his business he staunchly opposed labor unions and anti-trust laws, which he deemed efforts to hold back enterprise.

Bowron directed the completion of the first steel mill at Ensley; a profitable venture, but one that demanded as much capital as the struggling company could invest. He persevered until 1901 when differences with the board of directors over a proposal to borrow funds to pay dividends forced his resignation. For the next decade of his "retirement" Bowron served in a variety of positions. He was a vice president of the Dimmick Pipe Company and of the Bessemer Coal & Iron Company, and director and chairman of the Birmingham Trust and Savings Bank.

As a leader of the Commercial Club, it was at Bowron's insistence that an offer from L. W. Johns to purchase Vulcan after the close of the 1904 World's Fair was rejected and a public campaign was made by the Club and the Birmingham News' Rufus Rhodes to pay off the remaining debts incurred in casting the statue. Johns reciprocated by opposing Bowron's intent to erect the statue on Red Mountain, with the result that it was removed to the Alabama State Fairgrounds instead.

In 1910 Bowron was offered a position as vice president for finance for the Southern Iron & Steel Company, another English-owned venture. He became sole receiver when the company failed in 1912 and he engineered a sale to a holding company which became the Gulf States Steel Company in December 1913. Bowron was president of the new company for its first six years, which were quite successful. He resigned due to infirmity and served as Chairman of the Board until his death.

After giving up active business he and his wife spent a great deal of time traveling the world. In 1915 Bowron was among the most vociferous laymen opposing the sermons of South Highland Presbyterian Church pastor Henry Edmonds.

Bowron died in 1928 and is buried at Elmwood Cemetery.


  • Owen, Thomas McAdory and Marie Bankhead Owen (1921) History of Alabama and Dictionary of Alabama Biography. 4 volumes. Chicago, Illinois: S. J. Clarke Publishing Co.
  • Bowron, Richard A. (November 1963) "James Bowron". Journal of the Birmingham Historical Society. Vol. 4, pp. 16-31
  • Norrell, Robert J. (1991) James Bowron: The Autobiography of a New South Industrialist. Raleigh, North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press ISBN 0807819875

External links

  • Photograph of Mr & Mrs Bowron in a rickshaw outside the Grand Hotel in Yokahama, Japan
  • James Bowron at Findagrave.com