Historic Furnaces at Tannehill The old Tannehill Furnaces site in Roupes Valley, 12 miles southwest of Bessemer off Interstate 59/20, constitutes one of the oldest industrial sites in the Birmingham Iron and Steel District. Founded in 1830 as a small plant for smelting iron, Tannehill expanded during the Civil War into a large battery of three blast furnaces capable of producing 22 tons of pig iron daily for Confederate military needs. The ironworks, along with a dozen other such facilities in Alabama, were badly damaged in the closing months of the Civil War. The remains of the furnaces, among the best preserved in the South, are the centerpiece of the 1,500-acre Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park, created by the Alabama Legislature in 1969 as a memorial to the state’s early iron industry. The furnaces are listed on the National Register of Historic Places and the Civil War Discovery Trail. The site also has been designated an international landmark by the American Society for Metals.
Abner McGehee The manufacture of iron began at Hillman Bloomery on the site, during Andrew Jackson’s presidency, primarily to serve area farmers who were settling in the lower Appalachian region in increasing numbers. Markets for the iron included Jonesborough, Elyton, and Tuscaloosa. Bloomeries were early forges that made small amounts of wrought iron directly from ore for tools, plows, and cooking utensils. The builder, Daniel Hillman, was enticed to the area by Abner McGehee, a railroad investor from Montgomery. Hillman moved from the Hanging Rock Iron Region of the Ohio Valley, where he managed the Pine Grove Steam Furnace in Lawrence County, Ohio, and later the Cataract Bloomery on the Little Sandy River in Greenup County, Kentucky.
After the death of his wife, Hillman began looking for new iron-making opportunities, settling near rich ore deposits in the vicinity of Bucksville, where at the time Jefferson, Tuscaloosa, Bibb, and Shelby Counties came together. With funding from a group of wealthy planters, including McGehee and Richard B. Walker of Jefferson County, Hillman erected the Roupes Valley Ironworks, a bloomery with two heating chambers, on the banks of Roupes Creek in what is now Tannehill Ironworks Historical State Park. Hillman and McGehee had plans for an even larger operation, but Hillman unexpectedly died in 1832. The forge remained idle until 1836, when it was bought by Ninian Tannehill, who established a large plantation in the area. He later put his son, Marion, in charge of the forge.
Moses Stroup In the late 1850s, noted southern ironmaster Moses Stroup, who had made the first railroad iron in Georgia, partnered with John Alexander to build the first of three blast furnaces at the site. Alexander was a wealthy cotton planter who lived near Montevallo and operated several gristmills. Stroup, who had been associated with the Etowah Furnace near Cartersville, Georgia, moved to Alabama in 1852 and constructed the Round Mountain Furnace near Centre, in Cherokee County. As the supply of iron became more critical at the start of the Civil War, the Confederacy invested in two additional furnaces at Tannehill, which were erected in 1862. Begun under Stroup’s supervision, they were completed by William L. Sanders of Selma, who took over the Tannehill works when Stroup was enticed by the Red Mountain Iron & Coal Company to build a new furnace at Oxmoor in Jefferson County. The new furnaces at Tannehill were equipped with a steam engine and hot-blast stoves. Steam engines, which blew heated air into the furnace bottoms, were much more reliable than earlier water wheels. Hot-blast stoves, also a new innovation, pre-heated the air blast and speeded up the ore reduction process. A foundry at Tannehill manufactured eating utensils, pots, and skillets for the Confederate Army, but most of the pig iron was sent by rail to the Selma Arsenal and Gun Works to be cast into munitions and Selma Naval Foundry iron plating for battle ships. A nearby tannery made harnesses, canteens, and other leather products for military needs. Hundreds of workers, many of them enslaved, were engaged in Tannehill operations cutting trees, making charcoal, mining ore, and operating the plant facilities.
The furnaces were massive, 30-foot-high truncated pyramids constructed of 400-pound sandstone blocks topped by brick draft stacks. Workers fed iron ore, limestone, and charcoal fuel into the top of the pyramids, and molten iron was tapped from the bottom every six hours. Air forced into the chambers encouraged the reduction of the ore by creating temperatures exceeding 2,700°F.
Tannehill Ironworks Ruins The Tannehill facility was targeted for destruction as part of Union general James H. Wilson’s raid into Alabama; it was attacked by three companies of the U. S. Eighth Iowa Cavalry on March 31, 1865, under the command of Capt. William A. Sutherland. Wilson’s cavalry operation, which involved more than 14,000 troops, burned every Alabama furnace but one, the Hale & Murdock mill near Vernon, in Lamar County. After the war, B. J. Jordan and later James T. Loveless operated a small cupola furnace at Tannehill until 1867, using scrap and leftover pig iron for small castings. Cupola furnaces were small auxiliary furnaces used to re-melt iron to make products or machine parts.
Several attempts to build a new furnace at Tannehill fell through after the war but mining of brown iron ore was resumed in 1868 by the Pioneer Mining and Manufacturing Company, which later became Republic Steel Corporation. Brown ore is a variety of iron ore found near Tannehill that is mined from the surface. One of the very first instances of strip mining in Alabama has been identified at this site. Red ore, like that found on Red Mountain, is more frequently mined by sinking deep sloping shafts. Unlike at least a half dozen furnaces around the state, including Brierfield, Oxmoor, Irondale and Shelby, which were rebuilt after suffering damage in the war, Tannehill was abandoned.
The Tannehill works greatly influenced the later growth of the iron and steel industry in Birmingham through early experimentation with coke, a distilled residue of coal used as a furnace fuel, and the first successful reduction of red iron ore from Red Mountain in a blast furnace. Before financing new furnaces in Jefferson County, the Confederate War Department, working with the South & North Railroad in 1862, had a wagonload of Red Mountain iron ore sent to Stroup’s plant at Tannehill to determine if quality iron could be made from it.
The remains of the old Tannehill Furnaces were donated to the University of Alabama by Republic Steel in 1952 and in 1970 were turned over to the Tannehill Furnace & Foundry Commission, now known as the Alabama Historic Ironworks Commission, for preservation as a state historic site. The successful preservation efforts were led by the Woodstock and Tuscaloosa Civitan clubs.
Iron & Steel Museum of Alabama The Iron & Steel Museum of Alabama, which was opened at the park in 1981, is a southeastern regional interpretive center that describes how iron was manufactured in the nineteenth century. It contains more than 10,000 relics, including rare machinery from the Tredegar Ironworks in Richmond, Virginia, and collections from the Henry Ford Museum and the Washington Navy Yard. In addition, the museum houses many artifacts uncovered on site through eight major archaeological investigations from 1956 to 2008 and the South’s largest collection of artillery shells manufactured at the Naval Gun Works at Selma from 1862 to 1865. More recent excavations have unearthed 16 slave cabins on the site. Tannehill, like the majority of iron furnaces in the South, was worked primarily by slaves, some leased from area plantations.
Today, the Tannehill Furnace memorial park is one of the most visited historical sites in the state. It attracts more than 425,000 visitors a year, many of them attending the more than 30 major outdoor events, including monthly “Trade Days” from March through November and a major Civil War battle re-enactment. Each June, the park hosts the Annual Down Home Psaltery Festival, which celebrates the traditional stringed instrument with workshops, lessons, and performances. In addition to the Iron & Steel Museum, the site consists of more than 45 historical buildings—including a large collection of log cabins from the nineteenth century, the John Wesley Hall Gristmill, and the May Plantation Cotton Gin House.
In 2017, Tannehill Ironworks was one of six Birmingham historical sites that organized to create the Birmingham Industrial Heritage Trail to celebrate the area’s significance in Alabama’s industrial and economic history.
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Bennett, James R. and Karen R. Utz. Iron & Steel: A Guide to Birmingham Area Industrial Heritage Sites. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2010.
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