Coke Ovens

In the late 19th century, as the steel industry exploded into prominence, the secluded forests of Alabama were transformed into bustling scenes of development and progress. In 1890, after a large coal seam was discovered nearby, coal mining and coke ovens became driving forces in the local economy.

Coke Ovens
Coke was the fuel that fired blast furnaces of the Birmingham Industrial District, driving the city to prominence as the largest industrial center in the South.
Coke Ovens
These beehive ovens, named for the old-fashioned beehives their internal chambers resembled, would billow smoke 24 hours a day, superheating tons of coal to make coke.

Coke is one of the three ingredients needed to make iron ore in a blast furnace. The other two ingredients are limestone and iron ore. The coke ovens were used to convert the coal mined in the local area into industrial coke, a relatively clean-burning fuel used in the smelting of iron ore. In a process known as “coking,” coal was shoveled into an insolated beehive-shaped and ignited. After laborers sealed the doors with bricks and mud, the coal was left burning under low oxygen conditions for several days and could reach scorching temperatures. The volatile parts of the coal ignite and escape as gases through an exhaust hole in the roof. What remained was the desired coke, which was almost pure carbon, and the by-product slag.

Coke Ovens
The coke ovens were constructed over 100 years ago on a hillside and likely remained in use until the 1920s.
Coke Ovens
Laborers would stack each rock by hand, which can still be seen today.
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A look at the brickwork inside of a coke oven. During the Great Depression, it is believed that the homeless would use the ovens for shelter.

After World War II, the introduction of improved mechanization made underground mining less profitable. By the 1950s, the coal markets were in decline and most of Alabama’s mines closed. Many of the operations were constrained by newly enacted environmental protection laws, land reclaiming, safety regulations, and rising labor costs. Once the mine shut down, the coke ovens were left for nature to reclaim.

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Neglected for decades and often covered in undergrowth, these ovens once represented the bustling coal and iron industry in Birmingham.
Coke Ovens
Today, this bank of coke ovens are just a few of the many that still remain throughout Alabama.

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