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Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Ensley Works

View of Blast Furnaces
View of Blast Furnaces

Ensley Begins

In 1886, the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company (TCI) came into the Birmingham Coal District, with Colonel Enoch Ensley remarking "perhaps the most significant event in southern coal and iron records of this interesting year". The land, 4000 acres in all was bordered by the Pratt Coal Field. Ensley would go on to boast that he would build the town of Ensley along with four large blast furnaces and a steel plant.

The Ensley Land Company was originally capitalized at a worth of $10 million, with 51 percent belonging to TCI and the remaining to its share-holders. On December 7th, 1886, Ensley petitioned to incorporate the Ensley Land Company into the town of Ensley. An engineer from Rhode Island, by the name of Edwin Waring Jr., was hired to design and lay out the city streets with separate plans calling for a storm and sewer system for the town. The town's hotel was one of the first buildings built and opened and remains standing today.

Construction begin on the number four furnace in 1887 under the guidance of T.T. Hillman was blown in on April 11th, 1888. All four furnaces were blown in under Hillman. The number three on June 5th, 1888, number two on December 1st, 1888, and the last, number one on April 29th, 1889. Each blast furnace weighed 200 tons, making TCI Ensley the largest steel mill in the world. Shortly after Colonel Ensley sold out, never seeing his fruition come to light. Ensley would late pass on in 1891 and the remaining property was sold at a Sherriff's auction for $16,000.

Row Houses in Ensley
Row Houses in Ensley

Ensley Works Expands

Robert Jemison Jr. of Tuscaloosa wanted to provide a home, moral, and public life to the workers of TCI Ensley. He was instrumental in the housing boom that would occur in Ensley. In 1898, TCI constructed over 200 houses to accommodate their industrial workers. From there the town of Ensley would be formally incorporated on February 12th, 1899. The city grew from just over 600 residents to an estimated 10,000 in two years. By 1907 over 14,000 people were employed at the Ensley Mills and in 1910 the population of Ensley has swelled to nearly 25,000 residents.

The town of Ensley received funds from Andrew Carnegie in 1906 and built a "Carnegie Library" housed in a classical style building. By 1908 the town had become effectively known as the "Backbone of Steel" and contained over 30 miles of streets and sidewalks. Many Italian immigrants worked at the nearby mill and formed their own community inside of Ensley known as "Little Italy". On December 31st, 1909 Ensley ceased to be an independent community was incorporated by the city of Birmingham.

During the early 1900's a battery of coke ovens were built on the western periphery in addition to two more furnaces. Number five was lit on November 15th, 1900 and number six on April 28th, 1905. This allowed TCI the capacity to produce over 400,000 tons of steel yearly.

TCI Ensley was a plant of firsts, with the first duplex steel being made there in 1899. This required the material to be first produced in a Bessemer convertor before being transferred to open-hearth furnaces. Due to the ability to produce iron ore on such a large and qualitative scale, it was the first blast furnace in the Birmingham District to sell to Carnegie Steel.

US Steel Purchases Ensley Works

United States Steel, also known as U.S. Steel purchased TCI for over $35 million on November 5th, 1907 and for the next six years made over $30 million in improvements to the TCI Ensley mills.

In 1926 production peaked with over 1 million tons of pig iron, 1.9 million tons of coke, 1.4 million tons of steel ingots, and 590,000 tons of steel rail being produced. The plant was expanded for World War II and by the end of the war, it was producing over 1.57 million tons of steel. 12 new open hearth furnaces were completed in 1953 and each had a daily capacity of 210 tons although the nearby U.S. Steel plant in Fairfield was quickly closing the gap on production.

Ensley Works
Panoramic of TCI Ensley's Blast Furnances

The Decline of the Ensley Works

The open hearths would be extinguished throughout the year in 1975, with the TCI Ensley works being shuttered in December 1978. All activity on the property ceased in 1984. Over its lifetime, the works at TCI Ensley mined stone and coal, manufactured pig iron, steel, iron ore, coke, and even grew cotton.

Today the works sit abandoned on the northern edge of the Ensley neighborhood in western Birmingham. While driving on I-20/59, one can still see some of its smokestacks, buildings, and a steel mixer. In 2011, U.S. Steel's USS Real Estate conducted environmental assessments while looking to forge an agreement with the city of Birmingham to clean up the property and turn it over for light industrial use.

Unless otherwise noted all historical pictures are courtesy of the Library of Congress Digital Collections and the Birmingham Public Library Tutwiler Collections.

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1. White, Marjorie L. The Birmingham District, An Industrial History and Guide.
         Birmingham: Birmingham Historical Society, 1981. Print.

2. Armes, Ethel. The Story of Coal and Iron in Alabama. Leeds: Beechwood, 1987. Print.

3. "Library of Congress Home." Library of Congress Home. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Aug. 2012.

4. Tomberlin, Michael. "Birmingham Steel Mill Site May Be Development Magnet."
         Birmingham News 1 Mar. 2011: n. pag. Print.

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