Steel Works

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 envisioned 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.

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. TCI purchased six hundred acres of land from the Ensley Land Company, then built four 200-ton blast furnaces and the adjoining steel mill. 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 move allowed TCI to keep transportation cost low and compete with the North’s largest 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 African-Americans 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. 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. The first load of steel was shipped to a buyer in Connecticut on January 1, 1900. Although the steel works were 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
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 WorksThe 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

Ensley WorksOver 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 Steel

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

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.

Ensley Steel
U.S. Steel’s real estate division still owns the abandoned 600 acre site of the former steel works.

 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. 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 the Mayor could get funding from the federal government to assist in cleanup.

Ensley Steel Unfortunately, no further plans for the industrial park ever materialized. The Ensley steel works site remains abandoned today.

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17 thoughts on “Steel Works

  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

  3. We, at Open Door Church on Hwy 269 have vision for this area. We believe there will be a resurgence of finances, families, businesses, commerce, and under the viaduct on one side a clean bio fuel clean source of energy. On the other side small walkways, refreshments, safe places for families to shop, beauty restored in a way that this western section will rise again to a glory we have never seen before. God will receive the glory, however we the people who live here are to be about our Father’s business and active to improve every area we encounter! Thank you for this informative article and the awesome pictures.

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  4. The 11 stacks down by the power plant came down in 2010. I and my crew took them down under contract for USS, they were old, unstable and too close to the live RR tracks. The remains of the power plant showed the pride people had in workmanship back in the day. The marble floor, I could envision standing in the “great hall” the huge Edison dynamo s humming , polished brass and not a drip of oil on that white and grey marble floor

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I grew up on Avenue F. in the 50’s. These photos break my heart, so remember all the jobs that were lost when the mills closed. But, I’d look up there when the blast furnaces lit up the night sky and think: “I’ve got to find something better that that!” So, education was my ticket out of Ensley, and now I have the last laugh.

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  6. I am dying to find where this dope spot is located! I’m sure it’s not on GPS, but if could you reveal where it is located or what it’s near, I would greatly appreciate it:) Dope pics and story bro

    Liked by 1 person

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