By Gary Lloyd
To find relics of history, we must often turn pages of thick textbooks or sit in front of the History Channel for hours on end.
Many of us will never get the chance to walk barefoot on Omaha Beach and scoop some of that sand, or head north to Boston and stand in Paul Revere’s bedroom in the North Square.
It is rare, I think, to find living history, to stumble upon something tangible that tells a story from a bygone era. I have such a story, and I found it beside a dumpster.
I knew that Trussville, specifically the area on which Cahaba Elementary School now sits, was once the site of a blast iron furnace, which operated under seven companies from 1889 to 1919. It produced pig iron, and a by-product of that process is slag, which occurs as a molten liquid melt and is a complex solution of silicates and oxides that solidifies upon cooling.
That furnace was blown in for the final time in 1918 and was dismantled in 1933. This is when the historical significance of that furnace, of that slag, truly tells a story. The stock market had crashed four years earlier. The New Deal, a series of economic programs enacted between 1933 and 1936 under President Franklin D. Roosevelt, aimed to help Americans out of the Great Depression.
The property on which the furnace was located, which included a Jefferson County prison camp, was sold in 1935 to Birmingham Homestead Incorporated, a Federal Housing Administration project. The prison camp was demolished in preparation for the Federal Housing Administration’s project, which became Slagheap Village, or the Cahaba Project.
Back then, most of the federal housing projects focused on farming and were designed with that in mind. Not here. Why? The terrain wasn’t suitable due to the leftover slag. So, an urban housing project, constructed with no economy of labor and meant to show off, was born.
Which brings me back to that dumpster. The Cahaba Homestead Heritage Foundation, Inc., which I’m proud to be a part of, earlier this year held its first public meeting on the Mall. One of the topics of conversation was about this slag, and how you can find it to this day around the Trussville Public Library. So, after the meeting, I went on a slag hunt. I parked and walked between the library and city pool, and before I could get behind the library, I found slag jabbed in the dirt around a dumpster. Behind the library, I found even more. It’s everywhere. I took some home, and I think it would be an incredible local field trip for Trussville students, similar to when I waded in the Cahaba River with my Hewitt-Trussville Junior High School biology classmates.
That slag, that smooth, rocklike formation, is a huge reason — maybe the reason — that the Cahaba Project was constructed the way it was by the federal government in the 1930s. And you can still find it today, more than 100 years since that blast furnace last rumbled, more than 85 years since mortar first met brick in that historic neighborhood.
It’s living history in our backyard, and it tells quite a story. That rocks.
Gary Lloyd is the author of six books and is a contributing writer to the Cahaba Sun.