Machine Age Masterpiece: Bethlehem Steel’s Singular Second Act

The gargantuan Bethlehem Steel plant towers over the Lehigh River in its namesake city in eastern Pennsylvania. It closed in 1995 amid sweeping changes in the global economy and laid dormant after the three-year site cleanup that followed. Since 2011, the facility has been renamed Steel Stacks and forms a dramatic backdrop to a complex that includes an arts center, a cinema, a PBS station, a museum of industry, and an outdoor concert venue among other things. Some sort of adaptive re-use was almost a given: the facility is so mammoth that it defies demolition. The city has constructed a three story-high walkway, stretching out probably close to 2000 feet, where visitors can get up close and personal to this facility. Walking this trestle, dotted with wildflower plantings and well-considered historical markers, tells a useful tale of a changing America.

The term “adaptive re-use” is a little different in this case. Unlike textile manufacturing from the early Industrial Revolution, which took place in orderly brick buildings which are perfect for gutting and rehabbing, Bethlehem Steel is a monumental jumble of blast furnaces, pipelines, vents, catwalks, conveyor lifts, and smokestacks. It wasn’t constructed so much as it was necessitated. The plant’s profile changed continually from its beginnings in the 1860s, as technology evolved. Eventually, the four mammoth blast furnaces completed the plant’s final silhouette and are now illuminated with colored spotlights at night. That’s a far cry from when the noisy and smoky furnaces were going 24/7 for decades at a time. Now relegated to its status as perhaps America’s largest art object, “The Steel” (as the complex was locally called) must be remembered reverently.

Starting in the last quarter of the 19th century, steel production was the master industry of the nation and was powered by untold thousands of mostly immigrant workers. From the rails needed for America’s train-led westward expansion, to the beams that provided the frame for numerous great bridges and skyscrapers to the armaments that saw the Allies victorious in two world wars, the industry’s contribution to national greatness was huge.

But as often is the case in heavy industry, worker conditions were abysmal, esp. in the earlier years. Brutally long shifts for six or seven days a week (with only two unpaid holidays mixed in) and numerous safety hazards (500 workers died from various mishaps between 1905 and 1941) led to the turbulent union organizing efforts that is a national historic epoch in itself. While even a peacetime two-year military veteran will get a fawning “thank you for your service” nowadays, very little lip service comes the way of laborers who toiled for decades in such places as Bethlehem. As Pulitzer Prize winning journalist John Strohmeyer wrote in his book “Bethlehem in Crisis”: “it takes uncommon talent, a strong body, and a mind that knows no fear to transform piles of (raw materials) into the molten metal that is poured, rolled and pounded into the various shapes that support the mainframe of civilization.”

Bethlehem Steel workers were fully unionized by the early Forties, but the end of World War II was also the swan song of the Machine Age. It was succeeded by the Atomic Age and the Information Age, overlaid with several iterations of the Consumer Society. Although I’m not one to deny the march of time, it seems that now we are best at manufacturing clickbait, data-mining and misinformation. Still, Bethlehem presently has it better than many Rust Belt locations, with a stabilized population based on a more varied economy. Many monolithic company towns have lost half of their citizens along with most of their tax base. For instance, U.S. Steel built the city of Gary, Indiana from scratch in the early 1900s. It is dominated by the monstrous Gary Works mill which blocks out Lake Michigan. It was once the world’s largest steel plant and is still the biggest in North America, but automation and foreign competition has reduced its workforce to 3000. The company controlled the town but never cared much for building a sustainable housing stock or providing public amenities, leading to a hollowed shell of a city.

(A telling anecdote from Hardy Green’s excellent 2010 book “The Company Town” notes that during Gary’s “heyday” the city’s largest green space was the front lawn of the factory superintendent’s mansion).

South Bethlehem, where Steel Stacks is located is not without its issues: it depends partly on a large casino (which I guess is OK if you don’t gamble) and well-heeled students from the hillside campus of Lehigh University can mix uncomfortably with lingering pockets of Forgotten America. But Steel Stacks is a promising development and if you ever go there to see a concert or a movie, have a close-up look at the plant and take heed of its story, and give a thought to those who built yesterday what we take for granted today.

Photos and text by Rick Ouellette

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