Photo © Tom Kirsch, opacity.us
The ruins of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation in Bethlehem, PA are undoubtedly one of the most impressive industrial sites that have been left to rot in the United States' rust belt. Bethlehem Steel was the second largest steel producer in the country, and one of the largest shipbuilding companies in the world before going bankrupt in 2001.
The existence of the Bethlehem PA site begins in the 1860s with the Saucona Iron Company; after some difficulty in organizing and financing the company, it was decided to move the proposed plant location to South Bethlehem, and thus the company was re-incarnated as the Bethlehem Rolling Mill and Iron Company. Anticipating the U.S. Navy's need for armored steel warships, a heavy ordinance and armor plate forging plant was constructed along the Lehigh River. The first blast furnace was put into operation in 1863, and the second in 1867. Rails for the booming railroad industry were produced, and when a government contract for steel armored plate was awarded to Bethlehem in 1887, guns were manufactured for the first America battleships - the U.S.S. Texas and the U.S.S. Maine.
The mill was source of innovation on the grandest scale possible during the turn of the century. A 125-ton steam drop hammer was designed and installed at Bethlehem to forge the thick armor plates, the largest of its type. Even so, it was replaced only two years later by a 14,000 ton force hydraulic forging press designed by Bethlehem's chief metallurgist Russell Davenport, again the largest of its kind to be built. In 1904, Charles M. Schwab who had resigned from U.S. Steel, had formed the Bethlehem Steel Corporation with Joseph Wharton, and the company moved into position as the leader in the American steel industry.
In addition to armor, weaponry and rail, Bethlehem also supplied machinery for other steel companies and forged parts for the Niagara Falls hydroelectric generating plant. With the installation of a revolutionary apparatus called a grey rolling mill, the plant was able to produce the first wide-flanged structural shapes in the country, which were used in skyscraper production. Many notable landmarks are constructed from steel produced at the Bethlehem Steel works, such as Rockefeller Center, Madison Square Garden, the Golden Gate and George Washington bridges, Alcatraz Island and the Hoover Dam.
Throughout the years, the company expanded by acquiring shipyards throughout the country, most notably being the Fore River Shipbuilding Company in Quincy MA in 1913. It had also purchased the Lackawanna Steel Company, which also included railroad and coal holdings. Bethlehem Steel landed a federal government contract to roll uranium fuel rods for nuclear reactors at the Lackawanna plant from 1949 through 1952. The company prospered in the 1950s, producing about 23 million tons of steel per year as the plants in Germany and Japan lay devastated from World War II. The company built its largest plant and started a small town in Indiana called Burns Harbor, only 10 miles or so from the city of Gary, which was started by U.S. Steel.
Foreign steel companies began rebuilding their plants to utilize modern techniques such as continuous casting; U.S. companies resisted these changes, and also began giving steelworkers higher benefits. By the 1970s, it was cheaper to import steel from other countries than it was to produce in the United States. Bethlehem reported a loss of $1.5 billion in 1982, and began shutting down chunks of its massive operations throughout the 1980s and 1990s. BethEnergy coal mining was discontinued in 1991, the railroad car industry was left in 1993, and shipbuilding was discontinued in 1997 in an effort to preserve steel production.
In 1995, the Bethlehem PA plant ceased steel producing operations. Attempting to reduce the impact of shuttering the plant, plans were made to reuse the land for cultural, recreational, educational and retail development under the name Bethlehem Works. Bethlehem Steel filed for bankruptcy in 2001, and its remnants were acquired by the International Steel Group in 2003.
In 2007, the Bethlehem property was sold to a developer with plans to build a casino, which drew some criticism surrounding the depressed nature of the area still affected by the closing of the plant. An ironic twist occurred when the casino had trouble finding the 16,000 tons of steel needed for construction due to a global steel shortage. The gambling facility was completed in 2009; some structures were demolished to make way for the casino, but the furnaces and gas blowing engine house were saved.