A look inside the main level of the power station in 2015.

Ensley Steel

The Tennessee Coal, Iron, and Railroad Company (TCI) was founded in Tennessee in 1852. After moving to Birmingham through an 1886 merger, TCI President Enoch Ensley imagined building a steel empire. TCI was on the verge of becoming one of the most significant iron and steel companies in the United States.

Ensley Works
The Ensley steel works is now covered in overgrowth with the buildings barely visible through the trees.

TCI purchased 600 acres of land from the Ensley Land Company to build the four 200-ton blast furnaces and adjoining steel mills. Construction of the Ensley steel works began in 1888. At that time, building four blast furnaces at the same time was unheard of. Sadly, Enoch Ensley passed away in 1891 and would never see his plans come to fruition. In 1895, TCI moved its headquarters to Birmingham, Alabama with new management in place. The central Alabama area is one of the few places in the world where large deposits of the three raw materials – coal, iron ore, and limestone – exist in close proximity. This allowed TCI to keep transportation cost low and rival northern steel producer Carnegie Steel.

Ensley Works
A stenciled Blast Furnace Materials sign on the inside of one the buildings.
Ensley Works
Panoramic photo of the Ensley Works circa 1909 (courtesy of the Birmingham Public Library)

In the late 1800s, a majority of TCI workers were prison laborers. Most of the men were Blacks convicted of petty crimes. The hard labor was a method used to pay off fines. The practice was common for obtaining coal mining labor and increased after TCI was purchased by U.S. Steel in 1907. During the first full year of ownership by U.S. Steel, 60 prisoners died from workplace-related incidents. The convict lease program ended in 1911.

Ensley Works
Prison laborers tend to the beehive coke ovens. The ovens burned coal to coke, the fuel for making iron and steel. The locomotive loads the coal into the ovens.

Ensley Works

The blast furnaces began operating on Thanksgiving Day 1899 and the first load of steel was shipped to a buyer in Connecticut on January 1, 1900. Although the steel works was successful, TCI had fallen into massive debt due to declining pig iron prices and constant changes in upper management.

Ensley Works

Ensley Works

Ensley Works
The original marble floor of the power station in 2015. Concrete pits in the floor drop over 10 feet to a flooded basement.

U.S. Steel purchased the Tennessee Coal, Iron, & Railroad Company for over $35 million in 1907. The next six years brought about a much needed change to the Ensley steel works. U.S. Steel invested $30 million upgrading their equipment. Then, in 1912, U.S. Steel opened the Fairfield steel plant just a short distance away. The new refinery mainly produced the steel ingots and rail made in Ensley.

Ensley Works
The ruins of the control room above the main floor.

In 1926, production peaked with 1.4 million tons of steel ingots, a million tons of pig iron, 500,000 tons of rail, and 1.9 million tons of coke. The Ensley steel works was expanded during World War II.

Ensley Works
A weathered door leads from the second floor control room overlooking the power station.

In the early 1950s, two more open hearth furnaces were added. This increased the daily capacity to over 200 tons each. However, the nearby Fairfield plant was closing the gap on production.

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Ensley Works
This wooden staircase on the second floor leads to the roof area of the power station.
Ensley Works
From the third floor roof access you can see the remaining stacks and as well a wall of coke ovens in the distance.
Ensley Works
The basement of the power station remains partially flooded.
Ensley Works
U.S. Steel’s real estate division still owns the abandoned 600 acre site of the former steel works.
Ensley Works
This freight elevator, once thought to be a mine entrance, was actually used to haul supplies for the blast furnaces.

Ensley Works

Ensley Works
Trees and moss grow like carpet across the inside of the building.

Ensley Works

Ensley Works

Ensley Works

The Ensley steel works closed the open hearths in 1975. The melt shop closed a year later. In 1980, the remaining workers at Ensley were moved to the Fairfield plant. All activity ceased on the property by 1984. The modern integrated steel making process in Fairfield made it more efficient than the open hearth method used at the Ensley works.

Ensley Works
The abandoned steel mixer and smokestacks are a reminder of the glory days.

Over the span of almost 100 years, the TCI Ensley steel works mined coal, manufactured coke, steel, iron ore, pig iron and even grew cotton. Thousands of employees kept the furnaces burning for decades as steel ingots and molten metal moved by railroad. In 1993, the site was considered as an automotive park after Mercedes-Benz built a plant near Tuscaloosa.

Ensley Works

Jefferson County considered it a site for a county jail in 1998. Larry Langford, while Mayor of Fairfield in 2000, envisioned a harbor and waterway linking Birmingham to the Gulf of Mexico through a series of channels and locks in the Black Warrior River. The Ensley steel works was eligible for a $200,000 clean up grant from the EPA  in 2000 but then-Mayor Bernard Kincaid’s office failed to apply for the grant in time.

Ensley Works
Settling ponds and mill foundations are covered over in kudzu vines creating deep pits under the overgrowth.

In 2010, Birmingham Mayor William Bell proposed to clean up the site and make it a green space or industrial park. With a short distance to interstates and access to rail yards the plan seemed feasible if he could get funding from the federal government to assist in cleanup. Unfortunately, no further plans for the industrial park ever materialized. The Ensley steel works sits surrounded by a field of thorns with the remains of the abandoned buildings, enormous smokestacks, and memories of the souls who once worked there.

11 thoughts on “Ensley Steel

  1. These are incredible photos. Thanks for the bits of history as well. When you look at it now, it’s hard to believe how many lives were connected to this site for nearly a century. Fascinating stuff!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I enjoyed this entry. I love exploring abandoned places. Do you get permission to access these sites or does that detract from the mystique of exploring them? In Birmingham, there is a neighborhood off of Norwood Avenue that has lots of old abandoned houses falling to ruin. It might be worth a look for a future trip!

    Liked by 1 person

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