Looming across the Bethlehem skyline, the blast furnaces hum, smoking with activity. Each magnificent tower stands powerful and productive, preparing steel for locations all over the globe. Business is booming and the company boasts production of steel for the Golden Gate Bridge, much of the New York City skyline and tanks used in the Second World War. This is Bethlehem Steel.

 

Library of Congress A postcard from about 1912 features a panoramic view of Bethlehem Steel Works’s grounds and buildings in South Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The company made steel for the Golden Gate Bridge, the New York City skyline, and World War II tanks.
Library of Congress
A postcard from about 1912 features a panoramic view of Bethlehem Steel Works’s grounds and buildings in South Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. The company made steel for the Golden Gate Bridge, the New York City skyline, and World War II tanks.

Bethlehem hosted one of the most highly functioning, greatly productive steel plants in the United States. From the time of its origination under a different name in 1857 to its inevitable filing for bankruptcy in 2001, Bethlehem Steel transformed the face of the city.

The company made and shaped the metal into cylinder, shaft, and sheet shapes and had locations in Chicago, Baltimore and other major cities in addition to that of the Lehigh Valley. It employed thousands of men and women in both production and in its offices.

One such man was Bernard Mulligan, my paternal grandfather and an employee of Bethlehem Steel for thirty-one years. As a businessman, he served in many positions including both the purchasing and marketing of raw materials.

The transitions he made between jobs kept him busy and constantly moving within the United States and internationally as a tradesman. He made a lifelong career with the Bethlehem Steel and still looks back at his time there fondly.

“I think there was always a lot of pride in Bethlehem Steel. There was a certain pride in what was built there,” Mulligan explained.

A booklet published in a successful time for Bethlehem Steel, the 1970s, explained the relationship between the factory and its city as a codependency:

“The city and the plant have always been good neighbors, both recognizing mutual interdependence. The City of Bethlehem has benefited…from our continuous efforts to solve the problems of environmental quality control with practical, effective solutions. Bethlehem Steel intends to remain a good neighbor.”

Unfortunately, such a promise was not destined to be kept.

The deterioration of the plant was a slow one, and it lasted for a period of about sixteen years as facilities slowly shut down.

“The shock was not as great as it could have been,” Mulligan said.

Image courtesy of Bernie Mulligan Bernie Mulligan (second from the right) is part of a Bethlehem Steel factory tour in 1980.
Image courtesy of Bernie Mulligan
Bernie Mulligan (second from the right) is part of a Bethlehem Steel factory tour in 1980.

But the employees were required to learn new trades after serving in a specific area consistently for decades, even changing positions only a few years before retirement.

Several conflicting elements prompted the slow demise of the American steel corporation that was once so prominent in Bethlehem. In the end, many were forced to find new jobs and start afresh.

Despite this, few surviving employees of the steel today view the company with any residual bitterness or negativity.

“Of course, some had a certain amount of resentment, but you never heard a man say he wasn’t proud to have worked there,” Mulligan said. The pride in the Bethlehem Steel was stronger than the company’s ability to continue production.

The blast furnaces become rusted. Slowly, a build-up of soot and decay threaten the power of the fixtures. The brown rust covers the once sleek black metal and the ground becomes overgrown with plant life. The blast furnace’s once powerful image transforms to brokenness.

Without a purpose, the stacks stand in their stoic magnitude and watch the city, its economy, and its prospering people struggle. They become a monument of failure and the near-death of a once thriving city. Unemployment rates skyrocket and businesses throughout the Lehigh Valley suffer with the loss of the major thriving industry.

I never knew my hometown this way, as a broken place in distress. By the time I was old enough to contemplate my surroundings, Bethlehem was thriving.

Today, Bethlehem is alive with music, culture, and an ability to embrace all of its various fluctuations of success. My first concert experience was at the Bethlehem Steel site, now affectionately renamed Steel Stacks.

Image courtesy of Jessica Mulligan Bethlehem Steel as it stands today.
Image courtesy of Jessica Mulligan
Bethlehem Steel as it stands today.

Clearly, two decades after the decisive shutdown of the plant, the image the stacks bore was reborn. The site became nationally protected as an historical landmark. On the location, the community college has added a new building for classes.

The Sands Casino built a new thriving business within a state-of-the-art architectural design that blends the rusted style of the Bethlehem Steel fixtures with a modern look. Its casino complex hosts guests in its swank hotel, concerts and events in its venue and a shopping center. PBS television station has also opened on the site, hosting tours and doing live broadcasts from the studio.

Possibly most significant for the rebirth of culture in the area was the addition of a new site for the ArtsQuest non-profit arts organization.

Hosting thousands of events annually, the organization celebrated its thirty-first Musikfest in 2015. The location has become a center for weddings, parties, movie showings, festivals, races, and concerts both within the building and at an outdoor stage that sits right next to the steel stacks themselves.

Jeanne Schleicher, a five year employee of ArtsQuest, saw what the transformation did for the former Bethlehem Steel site.

“It became a place for the community,” emphasized Schleicher. “It’s a place for young night-life, but it’s also a place for family. Now, everyone can come down for free events, perhaps without even realizing what once happened on the very ground they tread.”

As a fellow employee of ArtsQuest since 2013, I have had the privilege of spending many summer nights gazing at the structures that so define my city. I have answered questions about them to guests on the site. This summer, I even had the opportunity to gain a new perspective as I strolled along the newly constructed Hoover Mason Trestle, an elevated walkway created to allow visitors to walk right up along the metal and peer in at its secrets. I have spent countless hours all over the new ArtsQuest campus thinking about its past, but also about its future.

Employment on site at the former Bethlehem Steel plant is something I never take for granted. Working there changed my life and continues to do so, but perhaps not in the same way that it changed my grandfather. He worked for the Bethlehem Steel to gain a career and provide for his family.

Decades later, a new generation is experiencing all that these remnants have to offer, but this time in the historical power they hold. My grandfather and I are proud to be a part of that history, even if each of our roles was small.

Every night, the stacks are lit with each color of the rainbow, glowing with hope and promise. The stacks, once a symbol of prosperous business and employment, saw a time of great regression. Now, however, they have become art. The community has come to find them endearing and a symbol of pride once again. While their sound may have been hushed, their history remains loud.

“There will always be traces of it, in museums, recognition, repurposing and in other ways. They will always still be there,” said Mulligan.