In the 1870s, Alabama began a lengthy period of industrial development led by railroad expansion, lumber production, textile manufacturing, coal mining, and ironmaking. The growth made Alabama the most industrialized state in the South. Investment came from northern capitalists and some Alabama planters who advocated a diversified economy.
New jobs attracted rural residents to quickly expanding cities and company towns. In 1900, more than 33,000 Alabamians found steady work in 5,500 factories, producing a wide array of goods including cloth, fertilizer, furniture, pottery, and food. Town life brought new opportunities for education and recreation.
Many workers joined national labor unions, which clashed with management over pay and working conditions. In some industries, young children joined their parents on the payroll.
Until 1928, industry also made use of low-cost labor available through the convict-lease system. The convicted, mostly black men and often arrested for misdemeanors, generated revenue for state and county governments by working in bondage as miners and in other dangerous jobs.
In 1871, a railroad junction in central Alabama’s Jones Valley saw the rise of a new industrial center named Birmingham. The town grew so quickly that it became known as the “Magic City.” The proximity of coal, iron ore, and limestone—the essential ingredients for iron production—spurred a boom in the output of pig iron statewide from eleven thousand tons in 1872 to more than one million tons in 1900.
Other industrial boomtowns included Gadsden, Anniston, and Sheffield. Cast iron pipe became a leading product, but Alabamians also made stoves, lamp posts, skillets, and other items shipped all over the country.
The abundance of jobs drew immigrants from Europe and blacks and poor whites from Alabama farms. Birmingham became home to an array of ethnicities and cultures.
On April 12, 1882, workers at Sloss Furnace in Birmingham tapped the furnace for the first time and channeled molten iron across a massive sand floor, where it hardened into ingots called “pigs.”
Related Content at Encyclopedia of Alabama
Sloss Furnaces National Historic Landmark in Birmingham
Vulcan Park & Museum in Birmingham