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A Mill that Shaped a Nation Volume 52 Number 6, November/December 1999
by Ralph Schwartz

Bulldozers fitted with giant claws were tearing apart the sprawling red-brick sheds and shops of the old steel mill in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. Workmen leaned from the arms of cranes and cut old electrical wires, which sliced through the air with a hiss. Everywhere, piles of brick and scrap metal awaited recycling. Within the Gas-Blowing Engine House, huge machines that once powered the mill's five blast furnaces were silent. "I felt as if the workers had just left for a coffee break," said Stephen Wilkes, whose photographs on the following pages document the stillness of a plant that, even in its desuetude, remains a potent symbol of the nation's industrial might.

Forty percent of the mill, home plant of the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, the nation's number two steel-producer, has been cleared to make way for a National Museum of Industrial History, created in association with the Smithsonian Institution and scheduled to open in 2003. The choice of the western end of the mill, known as the Lehigh division, for the museum site was not accidental. In both world wars it was the most important ordnance producer in the country: in 1917, it rolled the steel for the 180,000-pound, 14-inch guns of the battleship Mississippi. Steel for the Golden Gate and George Washington bridges was produced here, and it was said in the 1940s that 80 percent of New York City's skyscrapers would collapse if Bethlehem Steel's beams and columns were removed.

"There's a dearth of written material about the early steelmaking process," says Emory Kemp, director of West Virginia University's Institute for the History of Technology and Industrial Archaeology. "People thought these processes were going to go on forever so they didn't feel compelled to describe them." Machines provide evidence of how steelmaking worked, but those are dwindling in number as old plants close. "We've been preserving them on an emergency basis," says Kemp.

One hundred-forty years of metal production ceased in Bethlehem on November 18, 1995. Automation, failed market strategies, foreign imports, and aggressive domestic competition all played significant roles in the demise. For the city's natives, it was unthinkable that the blast furnaces' nightly red glow would be snuffed out, or that the deep, crackling cadence of the rolling mills would be silenced. The company hopes its redevelopment plan for the 160-acre mill, which includes a recreation and retail complex, will revive the local economy by creating some 4,000 full- and part-time jobs and generating $20 million annually in new tax revenue. Project boosters hope that east coast families will marvel at an industrial site in their own backyard instead of heading for the Mall in Washington, D.C. Heavy machinery from the plant has been salvaged for the 300,000-square-foot museum, a private, not-for-profit organization that will occupy Machine Shop 2, a one-third-mile-long building that served for years as an armaments production center, and two other buildings. One of the site's most impressive landmarks, Machine Shop 2 was the largest industrial building ever when it was erected between 1888 and 1889. "We could roll a battleship in there if we wanted to," says Steven Lubar, curator of technology at the Smithsonian's Museum of American History and advisor to the new museum. "Machine Shop 2 is one of the few places where it is possible to preserve the gigantic icons of the nation's industrial history."

Objects shown at the 1876 Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia and formerly included in a display at the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries Building will be featured in a 30,000-square-foot Preview Center, to be opened next year. Once an electrical repair shop, the center will house an 1875 Otis elevator, several historic steam engines and locomotives, and a wide range of nineteenth-century industrial machinery.

Looming over the site are the awesome jet-black smokestacks of the mill's five blast furnaces, where iron was smelted from ore in the first phase of the steelmaking process. Bethlehem Steel has cleared buildings deemed inappropriate for the site's future uses or too costly to maintain. Important buildings such as the furnace complex and the Gas-Blowing Engine House have been preserved and will be incorporated into an Iron and Steel Showcase, which will demonstrate how iron and steel were manufactured over a 150-year period. Wilkes' photographs preserve a memory of that not-too-distant age, when proud men and women produced the steel that built a nation.

Ralph Schwartz is author of Bethlehem on the Lehigh (1991).

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© 1999 by the Archaeological Institute of America
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