Shelby Iron Works Park in Shelby, Shelby County, is a historical park that preserves the site of what was Alabama’s first permanent ironworks. At one time, it was the largest charcoal-fired (as opposed to wood-fired) iron furnace in the United States and remained the longest operating furnace of its kind in the country until it shut down in 1923. In its prime, the furnace was known as “the Queen of American Charcoal Iron,” supplying pig iron to locations across the Southeast and even Europe.
Shelby Iron Works Furnaces The furnace was established by Massachusetts-born industrialist Horace Ware (1812-1890), who came to the area from North Carolina about 1830. As a youth and young man, he worked with his father to construct and operate forges, including the Clifton Iron Company in Bibb County. In December 1842, Ware purchased land containing timber and iron ore in Shelby County from Green B. and Sarah Steale, with plans to build a blast furnace. It was not until sometime between 1846 and 1849 that construction of the furnace was completed, with financial support from local planter John M. McClanahan.
In size and design, the furnace resembled typical furnaces in Alabama. It was constructed of brick and rough stones and stood 30 feet tall. The hearth and crucible consisted of sandstone blocks quarried from a site 20 miles away, whereas the brick for the lining within the furnace was made from local clay deposits. Ware next completed a second furnace at a site six miles south of Columbiana to produce the charcoal fuel needed for the iron furnace. Once this was completed and operational, he began producing iron at Shelby, with a mill powered by an old steamboat engine. Enslaved laborers performed most of the heavy work. The furnace sat next to a hill, which lowered costs related to hoisting the ore into the furnace for the purposes of preheating it. Although Ware was familiar with the iron industry, it took him several years to build a client base. Initially, Ware’s cold-blast furnace (using ambient air pumped into the furnace as opposed to being preheated) only produced four to six tons of charcoal pig iron each day, not enough to offset the operating fees, which cost him $17 a ton.
Shelby Chemical Plant Ruins Ware operated in a small market, selling iron to local plantation blacksmiths. The company also fashioned the iron into items that could be used in households or on farms. To expand his market, Ware began transporting his iron throughout the state. Blacksmiths in Montgomery, Montgomery County; Mobile, Mobile County; and Prattville, Autauga County, soon started purchasing iron from him. Ware used wagons to transport his product, and when the Coosa River swelled, he used boats. Ware expanded and started advertising in statewide publications. His products eventually gained enough attention that DeBow’s Review, a magazine popular among industrialists, praised the company as one of Alabama’s most efficient iron producers.
By the 1850s, Ware began sending samples of pig iron to foundries in places such as Columbus, Georgia, where the iron industry had just started. Shelby iron was tested against iron from Tennessee and Georgia, and the superior strength of Shelby’s iron won Ware lucrative contracts that paid operating fees for one year’s worth of production. In 1854, Ware built a small puddling furnace, which allowed the iron to be heated without coming into contact with the fuel, near Camp Branch Creek, three miles west of Shelby. This furnace technique kept impurities from being mixed in with the molten metal and improved the iron that Shelby used to make wrought iron bars. They could then be more easily fashioned into finished products, including cutlery, tools, and farm implements. One shipment from the Camp Branch Creek plant to Sheffield, England, was praised by English steel manufacturers and blacksmiths.
In 1856, Ware bought out McClanahan’s interest in the business. Soon after, in 1858, Ware incorporated Shelby County Manufacturing Company, at the time commonly known as Shelby Iron Works, to bring in private investors. The new capital provided funds for Ware to construct Alabama’s first rolling mill, which rolled the iron into sheets. With the capacity to roll up to 12 tons of heavy and small-size iron, Shelby Iron Works turned out Alabama’s first supply of finished bar iron, which marked the beginning of this evolution era in Alabama’s iron manufacturing history. By 1860, Shelby Iron Company consisted of a blast furnace, a forge, a foundry, and a rolling mill as well as a community that included a church, school, and homes to accommodate up to 300 people. The company also operated several boarding houses for single men.
Shelby Iron Works Diagram During the Civil War, the company further expanded facilities and production and it also underwent managerial changes. Ware sold about 85 percent of his interest in equal shares of the company for $150,000 in Confederate currency. Subsequently, a board of directors was elected in April 1862 to run the company. Ware then did little in terms of corporate management and primarily focused on supervising mill operations.
On April 21, 1862, Shelby Iron Company signed a contract with the Confederate government to produce 12,000 tons of iron annually, equal to all of its yearly iron output. Most of it went to the Confederate Naval Works at Selma, Dallas County. The Confederacy advanced $75,000 in treasury notes and bonds as part of the potentially lucrative contract but failed to abide by its terms. The Confederate government withheld funds to force the company to meet production numbers sooner, but the move in fact delayed production and hampered the war effort. Still, Shelby’s new board of directors found it necessary to increase labor supply, construct new blast furnaces, and enlarge the rolling mill to meet the terms of the contract. Because the Confederate Navy‘s ship construction program relied on iron plating, the factory needed additional machinery that specialized in rolling such plating. To meet labor demands, the company impressed almost 450 enslaved African Americans from nearby plantations and asked Confederate officials to detail enlisted soldiers to the iron works. Clothing and lodging were provided under the terms of contracts between company agents and slaveholders.
By the end of the war, Shelby Iron had plated numerous Confederate ironclads including the CSS Tennessee, CSS Huntsville, and CSS Tuscaloosa. At war’s end though, the former Confederacy owed Shelby Iron Works $261,147.89. Even worse for the company, on March 31, 1865, a detachment of Union general Emory Upton’s cavalry unit, part of a raid by Gen. James H. Wilson, destroyed machinery and ended its iron-making capacity. Reconstruction of the plant started shortly after the conclusion of the Civil War. The U.S. government did not restrict the company from selling on the open market, as the Confederacy had done, and Ware hoped to recover from losses during the war. Initial sales went to Union troops stationed near Birmingham, Jefferson County, who used the iron for horseshoes. Repairs to the furnace were completed in February 1869. In the following years, iron for rail-car wheels became Shelby Iron’s most important product. Ware sold his interest in the company in 1881 for $132,525, earning him a substantial profit. A New Jersey company controlled most of Shelby’s interests until it closed in 1923. The majority of structures remained intact even after the ironworks shut down. Then, in 1929, many of the buildings were dismantled and sold for scrap.
The Historic Shelby Association, which began in 1989 as a non-profit organization to document, save, and promote the history of Shelby Iron Works, preserved the site and now owns and operates Shelby Iron Works Park in collaboration with the Shelby County Historical Society (SCHS) in Columbiana. The industrial complex highlights the remains of the original furnaces and chimney and also features a museum, sawmill, syrup mill, blacksmith’s shop, and grist mill. The park hosts car shows, seasonal festivals, and fundraising events. The Historic Shelby Association merged with the SCHS in 2018 to collectively work on preserving the site of the furnace.