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Shelby Iron Company Records

Identifier: MSS-1261

Scope and Contents Note

The collection contains records that document the daily operations that supported the production of iron, as well as the administrative history of the company. This virtually complete set of manufacturing records parallels the birth and growth of the Birmingham iron industry and gives a clear picture of the effect of freight rates and other factors on the industry in Alabama. Commissary and other records give a great deal of information relating to the labor force. These records provide detailed accounts of Confederate iron making in the South.

Researchers interested in African American history will find records that document the use of enslaved persons in iron production before and during the Civil War as well as the post-war employment of African Americans. The records often use the word "Negro" both before and after the war. These records may be found throughout the collection, but a researcher will most likely find them in the Labor Records and Reports subseries of the Manufacturing Operations series and the Payroll and Timebooks and Personnel/Labor subseries of the General Financial series. Although the container list in this finding aid notes some boxes, ledgers, and folders that include African American records, those notes should not be considered definitive in any search for information about African American workers as this material might be found in other parts of the collection.

The Shelby Iron Company Records contains expansive amounts of material documenting all aspects of the company's operations and services for employees. The collection is divided into eight series: Administrative Records; Correspondence; Manufacturing Operations; Sales and Purchasing/Shipping and Receiving; General Accounting; Services; Subsidiary; and Miscellaneous.


  • 1862-1930


Biographical/Historical Note

Early History (1841-1861) Shelby Iron Company of Shelby, Shelby County, Alabama, furnished almost all the plate iron used in making armor plate used at the Confederate Naval Armory at Selma, Alabama, provided pig iron used in casting cannon at that facility, and provided iron for a number of companies making small arms for the Confederacy.

In 1841, Horace Ware, a native of Lynn, Massachusetts, financed by John M. McClanahan, purchased land in what was then Bibb County, Alabama to build an iron works and blast furnace. The furnace was put in blast by mid-decade and toward the end of the decade, produced its first pig iron which was declared to be "equal in quality to the best Scotch pig iron." Initially, transportation of raw and finished materials was problematic because the Shelby Iron Works were located five miles south of the nearest railroad line in Columbiana and seven miles east of the Coosa River. Finding skilled workers was also challenging. Ware utilized slave labor to keep operational costs down. The company owed several slaves and the rest were rented ("hired") from others slave owners to work in the factory.

By 1860, Shelby County led the state in industry with one blast furnace, a coke furnace, several foundries and a rolling mill. In anticipation of the coming confrontation with the North, Southern leaders, apprehensive about war being forced on the South, contemplated new and expanded manufacturing enterprises. Horace Ware, Shelby County's leading industrialist, sought out all means available by which he could increase the production capacity of his plant so that Shelby Iron Company would become the leader in providing much needed iron to the Southern cause should war ensue. Or if war was averted and the South was allowed to secede peacefully, the company would be poised to fill the needs of the new nation. To this end, an Act to incorporate the Shelby Iron Manufacturing Company was approved on February 4, 1858 and in 1861, company stock was offered for sale.

The War Years (1861-1865) With the secession of Alabama in 1861, Ware realized that his plant needed to be enlarged and on March 18, 1862, he sold six-sevenths of his interests in the company to John W. Lapsley, John M. McClanahan, Henry H. Ware, John R. Kenan, Andrew T. Jones and James W. Lapsley. At the first stockholders' meeting on April 10, 1862, Andrew T. Jones was elected President, Thomas I. de Yambert, Secretary, and John R. Kenan, Superintendent. At this meeting Jones unofficially named the company Shelby Iron Company. The charter was amended by an act on November 20, 1862 and the name was changed officially. The new group drew up "Articles of Agreement" and in April 1862 a contract was signed with the Confederate government for the manufacture of iron.

The history of Shelby Iron Company and other contemporary industries during this period clearly illustrates the difficulties between the Confederate Government and private industry. Small industries often struggled to fill government contracts that called for manufactured goods in amounts far beyond their capacity to produce while their stockholders often engaged in intensive battles to be rid of government restrictions in order to sell their products on the open market at often inflated prices. Along those lines, John Lapsley, fearing the depreciation of Confederate bonds, asked that the words "current funds" be removed from the contract stipulations so that the company would have the authority to determine what type of bonds they would accept as payment. Another example of the conflict between Shelby Iron Company and the Confederate government was the company's desperate need for transportation from the furnaces to the main railroad line in Columbiana six miles away. Over violent official protest, the company completed the line in January 1865. However, toward the end of the war, relations between the company and the Confederacy had begun to improve.

With the assistance of James R. Anderson of the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia, John W. Lapsley, General Josiah Gorgas, CSA Chief of the Bureau of Ordnance, and George Minor, Chief of the Bureau of Hydrography of the Confederate States Navy, a contract was negotiated with Colin McRae, the Confederate Iron Agent at Selma, Alabama, to produce iron supplies for the Confederate Government.

With the signing of the contract came the agreement for the Shelby Iron Company to deliver 12,000 tons of iron a year or the total output of the works. In return, the Confederate Army promised to pay fair, and even liberal, prices for different types of iron and an advance of $75,000 to get production started. The CSA Ordnance Bureau was to assist in finding skilled workers and furnish necessary parts and equipment and Mr. J. M. Tillman was hired as a Roaming Commissary Agent to recruit slave and skilled labor.

Iron produced by Shelby for the Confederacy was delivered to arsenals in Atlanta, Macon, the Selma Foundry, the Army and Navy. Orders to deliver the iron had to be issued by Colin McRae at Selma. Those orders were written to deliver iron to Mobile for floating batteries; to Rome, Georgia for gun making; and to Yazoo City, Mississippi, for building iron clad gun boats, including the CSS Tennessee. The company continued to manufacture first-quality iron until March 31, 1865 when Federal troops entered Shelby. While Shelby Iron Company was seriously incapacitated by Wilson's Raiders, it was by no means totally destroyed. In fact, most of the buildings were left intact. The cylinders and engines, however, were removed which effectively brought production to a halt.

The "destruction" of the plant by Union troops near the close of the war signaled the end of the company's part in the war and the beginning of its reconstruction. The advance of enemy troops in January 1865 virtually eliminated all Confederate war construction and Shelby Iron Company was given permission to sell iron on the open market.

Late in 1864, Samuel Tate was elected president and Andrew T. Jones continued on as vice-president. The day-to-day operation of the plant still rested on Jones since Tate's wide investments in Southern railroads kept him absent most of the time. However, after July, 1866, the affairs of the company came under Tate's direct control and because he held or controlled a majority of company stock, Tate began negotiations with Northern interests to supply much needed capital to keep the business going. In 1868, Shelby Iron Company was purchased by the firm of Newton Case and Daniel Phillips of Hartford, Connecticut, to produce car wheels for private manufacturers in Philadelphia and New York.

The Final Chapter (1866-1923) Even though Shelby Iron Company never again enjoyed the heady existence it had known during the Civil War, there was steady growth in the years immediately following the conflict. The furnaces were rebuilt and by 1872, the two furnaces were turning out charcoal iron and an unusually high grade of brown ore was coming from the company's own open-pit mine. Despite some ups and downs, generally speaking, the company enjoyed modest prosperity during this period with the earnings generally being ploughed back into the company.

While many of the Southern states were in dire need of iron and things made of iron, the war had virtually destroyed the Southern economy. Consequently Shelby Iron Company sent a large portion of its heavy production north to find a paying market. Even though the company had some competition with northern producers, Shelby enjoyed a significant advantage over them due to the especially high quality of its "car-wheel iron."

There is no doubt that the rise of the Birmingham steel industry during the early 20th century led to the ultimate decline of the Shelby Iron Company. In 1890 the company was bought and absorbed into the Alabama Coal and Iron Company, a New Jersey corporation organized by Shelby's New York and Hartford interests for that purpose. After a brief period, the new company took the name of Shelby Iron Company of New Jersey. It was at this time that the production of charcoal became more expensive due to the receding forests and buyers who were unwilling to pay premium prices for warm-blast charcoal iron. Shelby, with its constant transportation issues, was tremendously disadvantaged by the new furnaces in the Birmingham area who had easy access to good coking coal, iron ore and limestone and was very well-served by the railroads,

During World War I both of the Shelby furnaces were in blast, but after the Armistice production was radically reduced. By 1923, the furnaces' fires were permanently shut down. In 1929 the furnaces themselves were sold for scrap and by 1930 the dismantling of the infrastructure was complete. The corporation continued only for a few more years until the disposition of all the remaining ore as well as the timber lands and other properties.


488 Linear Feet (488 linear feet )

Language of Materials



Contains records of the Shelby Iron Company from 1862 to 1930, including correspondence, directors' minutes, stockholder records, manufacturing records (charcoal reports, stable reports, mining, time books, payrolls by department), commissary records, grist mill toll books, furnace record books, and many other records. It also includes records of a subsidiary, Shelby Manufacturing and Improvement Company, 1890-1923. The virtually complete set of manufacturing records also parallels the birth and growth of the Birmingham iron industry. These records provide the most detailed accounts of Confederate iron making in the west, as well as a good deal of information about the rise (and fall) of industry in the South before and after the Civil War.


Through the years Shelby Iron Company created and kept records in different ways by different supervisors and managers with varying degrees of specificity and detail. Sometimes Shelby Iron Company used printed stationery for recording information; at other times they simply made notes in ledgers or diaries with or without headings to identify the area, department, etc. At some points during their history Shelby employees kept records of different functions such as daily charcoal reports in a ledger that also recorded other information, such as labor distribution, while at other times there were dedicated books for each separate function. Such variation in record-keeping practices made arrangement of this large collection even more challenging for the archivist. Therefore the user may notice some overlapping of items within a series and from one series to the next.


Gift of Shelby Iron Company, early 1950s


Arrangement and description of the Shelby Iron Company Records was made possible through a National Historical Publications and Records Commission (NHPRC) Grant.

Processing Information

Processed by Merrily A. Harris, with assistance from Martha A. Bace and Donnelly Lancaster Walton, 2009


Guide to the Shelby Iron Company Records
Merrily A. Harris, Martha A. Bace, and Donnelly Lancaster Walton
May 2009
Description rules
Describing Archives: A Content Standard
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Arrangement and description of this collection was made possible through a NHPRC-funded collaborative grant with Tuskegee University, "Bringing Alabama's African American History to Light."

Repository Details

Part of the The University of Alabama Libraries Special Collections Repository

Box 870266
Tuscaloosa AL 35487-0266