Seventeen archival boxes examined and 2991 photos of historic documents snapped at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland but after two-and-a-half days I was ready to get out of there! I'll make sense of this data later. In the meantime, as Simon & Garfunkel sing, I've gone to look for America, and Pittsburgh's the goal. That's the fun of this journey, knowing that you have your mind set on going somewhere and covering the miles to reach that goal. So at 1:30 pm I set off for the five-and-a-half hour drive to Pittsburgh, glad to get out of this stuffy DC suburb and on to new sights. Well fifty minutes in I made a stop at my beloved Checkers with its renowned double-lane drive-thru and checkered logo against a retro chrome and red backdrop. Raul served me up a nice razor-thin patty and those delicious seasoned fries.
Setting off again I finished my meal in time for the next stop twenty minutes down the road in Harpers Ferry where the Shenandoah River meets the Potomac. Crossing the Sandy Hook Bridge I glanced to my right at the wide expanse of the two rivers meeting and I couldn't help but think of Lewis & Clark and Sacagawea canoeing through on their westward trek. I gasped at the raw beauty of the scenery, disappointed slightly that I couldn't park close-by to admire it some more.
Harpers Ferry is a quaint West Virginian town wedged between the aforementioned rivers, and Maryland to the east and Virginia to the south. I drove through all three states in as many minutes. Robert Harper settled the town in 1775. Less than a hundred years later the Union and the Confederacy battled here and eight times during the Civil War it changed hands amongst these parties. Industrial railway competition and the Civil War proved detrimental to Harpers Ferry and in the 20th century its population declined. Today it is considered a national park. I walked through it for about forty minutes as I couldn't spend too long here. Many of its buildings were rebuilt and it's probably bulging with tourists in the warmer months, but I enjoyed soaking in some of its history and scenery on a cool February day.
I backtracked through Maryland and cut north up Rohrersville Road, which winds through Maryland's farm country, with Hank Williams Jr. and Dwight Yoakam on to fit the Dixieland setting. In the foreground red barns and farmhouses rolled over the low hills. Maybe I imagined it but a small town had a gun shop in their restaurant. Off to the west the afternoon sun shone and the Appalachians bordered this entry into the American South. It took me a while to realize I was no longer in Virginia, because this was the frontier to God's country and there's little to distinguish west Maryland from it.
I hit the I-70 in Hagerstown and jutted left to I-68 that cuts through the splintered portion of Maryland that borders Pennsylvania along the Mason-Dixon Line and West Virginia through the Appalachians. My little Nissan struggled through the climbs and the western sun beamed in my face but boy was I happy climbing through the mountains. There was nothing to complain about. At one point I darted north onto what's known as the National Pike and was joyous when a saw Maryland rest area at the top of a rock cut through the mountains. I parked and laughed to myself at how unbelievable this journey was when I didn't have any expectations of this. I admit ignorance as I had no idea Maryland contained this kind of landscape.
The sun slowly set on my entry into Pennsylvania and as dusk hit a trim blood orange sky slivered between the charcoal and blue hues of the mountains and the dull glow of the light pollution of northern cities. Briefly the temperature dropped three degrees and a dusting of snow scurried across the road. The real fun came on the descent between Chalkhill, PA and Hopwood, PA. I had The Doors on and "The End" was playing through this treacherous, winding descent. I didn't fear the worst, but some truckers must've experienced "the end" at some point because signs dotted the shoulder warning about truck speeds and the perilous doom if they failed to abide or took a turn too quick. Pittsburgh was straight north up the road!
People will tell you that driving at night is boring and that you can't see a thing, but they're wrong! In this populated corridor your imagination takes over as you substitute characters into the story. With "Borne On the Wind" and other haunting tunes of Roy Orbison playing my imagination wandered. Night music for the lonesome. Along the shoulders ordinary churches popped up sporadically but it's business that's worshiped here. This is America, after all! Illuminated billboards reminded you to buy the products that they're selling. Huge Ford and Chevy dealerships the size of several football fields stretched lengthwise and perched above the traffic, and the used car lots fit into any nook and cranny. Who's winning and who's losing? The glow of Sunoco, Marathon, and Exxon gas stations attracted the eye. There's people out here tonight driving around aimlessly, I thought. Another town, another Dollar General. The penny-pinchers. The vernacular architecture burrowed under lamps so that one only saw the cinder block facades. Pick-ups lined the roadhouses and I wondered who's getting drunk and brawling on the gravel tonight. Through the whole capitalistic expanse I wondered whose coming out of the woodwork at night to conduct their business and get into trouble. In this uniquely American landscape the night writes the stories for you.
We're getting close! With Johnny Cash inspiration: How far's the city mama? Fifteen miles and lowering. I crossed the Monongahela River and laughed aloud. How far's the city papa? Ten miles and lowering. I passed a Primanti Brothers, a Pittsburgh staple, and knew it's real close. Five miles and it was all fast food joints and used car lots lining this river-like road. Finally, I reached Pittsburgh! My Airbnb is on Mt. Washington and from the brow I looked across at the Allegheny and Monongahela rivers and Pittsburgh glowing in the crisp night air! Alas!
"These mills they built the tanks and bombs that won this country's wars" - that's not only Bruce Springsteen's lyrics, it's the belief of Bethlehem's locals and it's the truth. Although Springsteen was referring to Youngstown, Ohio, neighbouring Pennsylvania's Bethlehem Steel epitomized America's ginormous industrial role in World War II. At its height, CEO Eugene Grace promised Roosevelt that Bethlehem Steel would produce a ship a day for the war effort. It did so and then some exceeding this promise by fifteen ships to an astounding figure of 1,121 produced. At this point Bethlehem Steel employed over 30,000 people in Bethlehem and the steel works sprawled across nearly 1800 acres. Its mining, manufacturing, and ship building operations spread globally. Nearly, every skyscraper in New York City built before 1929 contained steel from Bethlehem - think the Chrysler Building and the Rockefeller Center - and even the Golden Gate Bridge is a proud product of The Christmas City.
For all the good of American capitalism that Bethlehem Steel symbolizes it is scarred with the bad. Local engineer and businessman Matthew Malozi, whose family held a deep history of working in the mills, summed it up that the unions blamed the executives for being too greedy and the executives blamed the unions for demanding too much, but in reality everyone was getting fat from the wartime and postwar profits. We all know the feeling of loosening our belts after a feast and the subsequent lack of motivation to do anything. This overabundance of affluence coupled with rising foreign steel production, especially as the war-torn economies of Germany and Japan revitalized, domestic competition from mini mills, and the hesitancy to drastically overhauling the existing steel works marked the slow, drawn out death of Bethlehem Steel. On November 18, 1995, workers watched the last pour from the Blast Furnace C and three years later all operations ceased.
As I parked down the street, I started marveling at the site of the Bethlehem Steel Works protruding its dark rusted colours into an increasingly sunny day. It's difficult to put into words, but the sheer size of the blast furnaces is unbelievable, especially as you see yourself beside them and picture the men - and a time women - working in them. They are massive dense hunks of steel. One wonders if the earth around the steel works sinks, it's such densely compact matter. The trolleys carried the raw materials on-site, the skip cars hoisted the material up to the blast furnace, and the furnaces themselves all formed a whole greater than the sum of its parts that is truly monstrous. As I walked along the catwalk which safely allows visitors to inspect and contemplate, the steel structure rattles and creaks as if it has breathing lungs. Yet, it is a cold February wind rather than hot, pressurized air that once caused the depths of the furnace to exceed 3000 degrees Fahrenheit. Nonetheless, while the workers are long gone and no steel is produced, the spirit of steel production still lives on. As the rust peels away it reveals the intricate layers of Bethlehem's history coupled thoughtfully with placards describing the cultural, environmental and technical history.
So why should we care about a big hunk of steel that once produced yet more steel? There are many reasons. Sure, we can consider the rather dated mindset of man versus nature. The Lehigh Valley, which Bethlehem is part of, surely represented this narrative with its supply chain of raw material extraction; the development of intricate supply lines dominated through manipulating land and water through canals and railroads, respectively; the monstrosity of the steel works itself with massive blast furnaces that transformed pig iron into steel, the carpentry mills developed the tools for shaping the steel, the machine shops that did the shaping and more. Beyond this, there's the war narrative mentioned above where I truly believe American industrial power mattered far more than its military might. There's the immigration narrative that shows how so many nationalities - some sixty-three I was told by a sweet old volunteer at the National Museum of Industrial History - worked in the Bethlehem Steel Works and defined their legacy in America. There's the nation-building legacy that I also alluded to above with the construction of America's bridges and skyscrapers.
More importantly, though, I believe the real reason to care about the remains of this now defunct company is that this represents where our civilization stood in the 19th and 20th centuries. This is long-term thinking. Around much of Europe we see the remains of great civilizations like the Romans. In this case we care about the Coliseum and the aqueducts. This should be no different for the steel mills, for while they are recent in memory and many have chosen to forget them they were crucial to giving us our standard of living. We take for granted already the role of these behemoth industries in building our societies' infrastructure. We need to preserve these to timestamp that this is where we were as a civilization. We developed this technology at a certain point of time because we deemed it the most efficient, robust way to improve our civilization. Things change and evolve, as they should, but that does not mean that we should forget the past nor raze it. We hold the past to show our progress. We should be proud of our triumphs
As we progress we still must marvel at our past accomplishments and we must see them to truly do this. We must appreciate that at the time of their life, these tools of progress were truly groundbreaking and scientific. It's tempting to undermine the past with our current hubris of progress, but we should instead reflect on this past industry as a stepping stone to where we are now. Despite hardship hitting those involved in industry we mustn't forget the contributions that were made, nor raze the infrastructure that enabled progress to happen. Instead, we must preserve it and preserve it to last as long as the Roman architecture because it is vital that we use our past to understand our present to measure our progress as a civilization. It's time in North America that we preserve our history - good and bad - so that we better understand ourselves.