Bethlehem Steel History

What do the George Washington Bridge, The Golden Gate Bridge, the Empire State Building, the original World Trade Center Twin Towers and the Hoover Dam have in common? Portions of their steel were manufactured at Bethlehem Steel.

The unfortunate event of my aunt’s funeral resulted in a trip to Bethlehem PA, where my dad was born and raised. Because it’s such a strong part of my family history, we brought the girls for a visit to the now shuttered Bethlehem Steel. I’m not going to lie, this was a tough visit for me. I’ll explain why in a moment.

Bethlehem Steel Company was established in 1899, after several runs as an iron company with various names. In 1901 a man named Charles Schwab (no relation to the financial whiz of the same name) bought it. Schwab said, “I intend to make Bethlehem the prize steelworks of its class, not only in the United States but in the entire world.”

After several changes of hands, in 1904, Schwab renamed it the Bethlehem Steel Corporation. To the locals though, it was “Beth Steel.” In the early 1900’s they were making much more than steel, they had iron holdings, were building ships, and by the 1930’s were providing steel for the Golden Gate Bridge.

We walked along the Hoover-Mason Trestle, which was the elevated rail line built to transport iron ore and limestone to the blast furnaces. The cars ran 24/7/365. The elevated rail was in use from 1907 to 1995.

Can you imagine this as the background white noise of your life – sounds you always heard especially if you lived in South Bethlehem like some people we’re going to talk about in a moment.

If you don’t know how to make iron, you’ll know now if you stop at this information graphic! 1 ton of coke (which comes from processing coal,) 2 tons of iron ore or pellets which are mined from the earth, ½ ton of limestone which purifies the iron and 4 tons of heated, pressurized air. Inside the furnaces it got over 3000 degrees

This sounds miserable. Who worked in the literal trenches?

My grandfather for one – he worked at Beth Steel from 1920 – 1961. Originally from Asia Minor, he was kidnapped when he was just a teenager by the Turkish army when Turkey claimed Asia Minor for their own and began enacting genocide of the Greek people. He escaped and came to the U.S. and Beth Steel became his reality.  He wasn’t the only one. Bethlehem Steel was employed with European Immigrants, and as a result, many of the workers lived in houses right in South Bethlehem. The early 1900’s employment notice specifically said “unless you are willing to be careful to avoid injury to yourself, do not ask for employment. We do not want careless men here.”

My grandfather would tell (in Greek of course, b/c he didn’t speak English) you that the burns all over his body were proof there really was no way to be careful. They wore wet leather and wood shoes, but still, over 500 men died between 1905 and 1941. Thousands of others were injured. The men who worked here were too poor to disagree with the 7 day weeks and treacherous conditions. Workers were assigned to jobs by ethnicity. Greeks were among the lowest in the social ranks, and considered not white at the time.

During WWII, many women had to come to work when the men went off to war. In 1943, Beth Steel was producing one naval ship a day.

My grandfather spent time as a bricklayer, which fascinated the girls. When I showed them the brick buildings and said, “My Papou may have touched some of those bricks,” the girls wanted to touch the bricks too. We also now have a chunk of brick at home.

This was a preferred alternative though than being back in Greece, where he had escaped because of Turkish invasion and murder of, in excess of half a million Greeks. He raised my aunts and my dad, and instilled in them the belief that an education and investing in the stock market was key. (Sidenote: my Yiayia was a seamstress who brought home tons of stray dogs. Gee that doesn’t sound familiar at all.)

The plant closed in 1995. Now “the stacks,” the plant is still here, but they have also built a casino on a portion, have 3 outdoor music venues, a shopping mall, studios for PBS.

On the way out we stopped at a couple climbing structures for the kids, Real Estate Dad kissed his new girlfriend, and off we went.

This was a great lesson for the kids to see to understand what their roots are.

Another thing Bethlehem offers for the kids is the Just Born Factory. Unfortunately we didn’t get in for a tour but considering the fact that this family loves Peeps, Mike and Ikes and Hot Tamales, we intend to go back.