Tennessee Coal and Iron Ensley

Ensley Begins

The Tennessee, Coal, Iron and Railroad Company (TCI) came into the Birmingham District in 1886. It was called "perhaps the most significant event in Southern coal and iron records of this interesting year". (Armes 360) Colonel Enoch Ensley was the president of the land company. The land, 4000 acres in all was bordered by the Pratt Coal Field. Ensley boasted that he was going to build the town of Ensley and four big blast furnaces and a steel plant.

The Ensley Land Company was originally capitalized at $10 million dollars, with 51 percent belonging to TCI, and 49 percent to its share holders. On December 7th, 1886, Ensley petitioned to incorporate the Ensley Land Company into the town of Ensley. An engineer by the name of Edwin Waring Jr., from Rhode Island was hired to design and lay out the city streets. Separate plans also called for having a storm and sewer system for the town of Ensley. One of the first buildings that was built and opened in Ensley, was the town's hotel.

Construction started on the number four furnace in 1887 under the guidance of T.T. Hillman, and it was blown in on April 11th, 1888. In all, under Hillman, four furnaces were blown in. The number three furnace on June 5th, 1888, the number two on December 1st, 1888 and the last one, the number one furnace on April 29th, 1889. Each blast furnace was 200 tons, making TCI Ensley the biggest in the world. Colonel Ensley sold out shortly after that and never saw his fruition come to light. Ensley died in 1891, and the property was sold at a Sherriff's auction for $16,000 dollars.

Ensley Expands

Robert Jemison Jr. of Tuscaloosa wanted to provide a better home life, moral, and public life for the workers of TCI Ensley. He was one of the ones responsible for the housing boom in Ensley. In 1898, TCI constructed 200 houses to accommodate its industrial workers. The town of Ensley would be formally incorporated on February 12th, 1899. The city grew from just over 600 residents to nearly 10,000 in two years. In 1907, over 14,000 people were employed at the Ensley Mills. By 1910 the population of Ensley was near 25,000.

Not only did the population explode in Ensley, but so did development. In 1906, the town of Ensley received funds from Andrew Carnegie and built a classical style building which housed a Carnegie Library. By 1908. the town of Ensley had over 30 miles of streets and sidewalks. Ensley was known as the "Backbone of Steel". A lot of Italian immigrants worked in the nearby mills and had their own community inside of Ensley known as "Little Italy". Ensley would cease to be an independent community and was incorporated by the city of Birmingham on December 31st, 1909.

In the early 1900's, a battery of coke ovens were built on the western edge of the property. Two more open hearth furnaces were built. Furnace number five was lit on November 15th, 1900, and the final one, number six was brought online on April 28th, 1905. This gave TCI Ensley the capacity to produce 400,000 tons of steel yearly.

TCI Ensley was a plant of firsts. The first duplex steel was made in 1899. This required it to be first produced in a Bessemer convertor, then transferred to the open hearth furnaces. Ensley had the first blast furnaces in the Birmingham District to produce iron ore on such a large and qualitative scale that it was sold to Carnegie Steel.

US Steel Years

United States Steel, also known as US Steel bought the Tennessee Coal, Iron and Railroad Company for over $35 million dollars on November 5th, 1907. For over the next six years, US Steel made over $30 million dollars in improvements to the TCI Ensley plant.

Production peaked in 1926 with 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 during World War II and by the end of 1945 was producing over 1.57 million tons of steel. In 1953, 12 new open hearth furnaces were completed. Each furnace had a daily capacity of 210 tons. The nearby modern US Steel plant in Fairfield was quickly closing the gap on production though.

The End of Ensley

Eventually the hearths would be extinguished in 1975, with the TCI Ensley works being shut down in December of 1978. All activity on the property was ceased in 1984. Over its lifetime, the mills at TCI Ensley quarried stone, manufactured pig iron, steel, iron ore, coke, mined coal and even grew cotton.

Today the works sit abandoned on the northern side of the Ensley neighborhood in the western section of Birmingham. One driving by can still see some of the smokestacks, a few brick buildings and even a steel mixer. In 2011, US Steel's USS Real Estate was conducting environmental assessments and 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.

Photo Gallery


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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