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Bethlehem Steel Company was once the second-largest steel producer in the United States, second only to U.S. Steel. At its height, Bethlehem Steel had plants in six states, and owned iron mines, coal mines, ore carriers, shipyards, and other businesses which used the iron and steel produced by the steel plants. Thousands of workers produced armaments that saved the world from tyranny, beams that took commerce skyward, bridges that spanned some of the great waterways of North America. But everything was tied back "home" to the original plant, founded in 1858 in South Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Above, an engraving shows the Bethlehem Iron Company.

Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley was the first place in the Americas where iron was produced both inexpensively and in large volumes. In 1840, Welsh Ironmaster David Thomas introduced British blast-furnace technology at his factory in Catasauqua along the Lehigh River. Combined with the rich natural resources of the area: anthracite coal, iron ore, and limestone, the new technology ushered in revolutions in agriculture, transportation, and manufacturing.

The first iteration of Bethlehem Steel was incorporated in 1858, when Robert Sayre of the Lehigh Valley Railroad incorporated Bethlehem Rolling Mill and Iron Company in South Bethlehem. The first Blast Furnace of the newly-organized Bethlehem Iron Company went into production in January, 1863, and by 1899, Bethlehem Iron was re-organized under the Bethlehem Steel Company name.

Bethlehem Steel was a dominant force in steel production for over 100 years, but by the early 1980s, the company was beginning to falter. Factors beyond the control of Bethlehem Steel were affecting the American steel industry, and management struggled to keep production profitable in the face of a changing market. In 1985, the company was reorganized into three independent business units: Bethlehem Structural Products and CENTEC (which manufactured centrifugally cast rolls) joined BethForge as separate entities, each responsible for its own marketing, operations, and financial performance.

As part of the changes in the 1980s, Bethlehem Steel began to concentrate their investments in other plants. The home plant in Bethlehem was becoming increasingly inadequate for the changing industry. Bethlehem Steel's newer plants had been designed with more modern manufacturing standards in mind, making them more efficient and more profitable to run.

One of the biggest issues was the layout of the plant itself, and the means of bringing in raw materials was inefficient and expensive. The Philadelphia, Bethlehem & New England Railroad moved raw materials, hot metals, and products from shop to shop inside the Bethlehem plant complex, and transported finished products out of the plant.

Right: An ore trolley car on the Hoover-Mason trestle with a PB&NE "cow and calf" locomotive on the ground-level tracks. The Minsi Trail Bridge and a Bethlehem Steel Ore Bridge are in the background.

The heart of the Bethlehem plant was the "hot end," with its powerful blast furnaces which produced pig iron: the first step in the metal-making process which fed all the other departments. The pig iron created in the blast furnaces was sent forward to the Basic Oxygen Furnace to be converted into steel, which was then moved on to the foundries and mills which created finished products.

Bethlehem Steel began reducing plant operations over a period of several years as they attempted to adjust to the changes in the American Steel industry. In the photographs below, the toll of this gradual shut-down is seen on the infrastructure of the Bethlehem plant.

Left: The Bethlehem Plant originally ran several blast furnaces: Above are the "C," "D," and "E" Furnaces as seen from the general offices in 1995.

Blast Furnace "A," pictured above, was shut down in 1961.

Right: blast furnace row as it appeared in the early 1990s. The Hoover-Mason rail trestle, visible in the foreground, is already overgrown with weeds.

On November 18, 1995, the last blast furnace at Bethlehem Steel shut down. With no more hot metal for making steel, few departments survived for long – many had already been shut down, while others closed the same day.

The final afternoon at Blast Furnace C was captured through photographs, marking the last opportunity to document the making of pig iron at Bethlehem Steel. In commemoration of the event, a heavy cast-iron medallion was formed from the last batch of iron.

Above: the last cast of pig iron from Blast Furnace "C" pours into submarine cars. 
Left: Two of the crew on the last shift at Bethlehem Steel. Right: a view of Blast Furnace "C" during the last cast.
A cast-iron medallion cast in the brass foundry to commemorate the last cast on November 18, 1995

The ingot mould foundry and the iron foundry at the Bethlehem plant remained in operation until November 1995, when they lost their source of hot metal from the closing of the hot end of the plant. Iron and steel were formed into ingots to be transported for processing into finished products.

Right: Two workers talk in front of one of the largest ingot moulds made in the factory. The arched windows in the background indicate that it was made in the iron foundry, around 1987.

Above: a storage bin at the iron foundry, with a transfer car in the foreground. Left: a massive pouring ladle, used to pour molten iron into moulds.

Other Bethlehem Steel departments gradually closed down over the next two years. The combination mill, which produced hot-rolled steel piling, continued to operate until March 1997. Partially-formed steel "blooms" were shipped by rail from Bethlehem Steel's plant in Steelton, Pennsylvania.

The 46" shear at the Grey Mill

The Grey Mill began producing wide-flange "H" beams in 1905, giving Bethlehem Steel an advantage over competitor U.S. Steel. These beams were used in iconic buildings across America, including the Woolworth Building in New York City. The mill shut down in October, 1995.

Finished steel beams piled up in the storage yard at the Grey Mill.

Left: The interior of the Bethlehem Steel Combination Mill.

The Electric Furnace Melting Department was the last steelmaking shop of the Bethlehem Plant to close, ending operations on November 22, 1995. The Brass Foundry also closed in November along with the hot end of the plant, but ran until the last minute to make items like bearings for the combination mill.

Left: Workers Bill Mackaravitz, Marty Castelani, and Joe Bilsak stand in front of a pony ladle in the Electric Furnace Melting Department. Right: Workers close a flask mould in the brass foundry.
The last ingot produced by the Bethlehem plant passes the No. 5 High House and No. 8 Machine Shop on its way to the Press Forge.

Bethlehem Steel Corporation did not last much longer than its home plant. In October of 2001, the corporation filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, but the move failed to keep the once-mighty steel giant in business. In February of 2003, Bethlehem's board of directors approved the sale of assets to the International Steel Group, marking the end of Bethlehem Steel.

25 years after the last cast, the blast furnaces still stand, along with a few other buildings. Most of the Bethlehem plant has been demolished, but tourism and industry still occupy the site, including Wind Creek Casino, and the National Museum of Industrial History, located in the historic Electrical Repair Shop.

Symbolic of the end of the Bethlehem Plant, the blast furnaces are shown framed by Open Hearth No. 3, in its final stages of demolition.
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National Canal Museum Delaware & Lehigh National Heritage Corridor
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