"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.