Last weekend, I returned to Lehigh University in Bethlehem, PA for my 25th college reunion. It was the first time I was back on campus in over 20 years. Bethlehem has been synonymous with steel since 1857, when the city’s first iron company was founded. Even today, many of the city’s 75,000 residents say that they, or their relatives, once worked at Bethlehem Steel on the south bank of the Lehigh River.
When I was attending Lehigh (’84-’87), Beth Steel (as it was known) was working at about 10% capacity and was on its last legs as a company. Even then, some mornings we’d wake up to find black soot on the cars. In 1998, after years of declining revenues, the famous plant went cold, and the site became one of the largest abandoned industrial sites in the nation. Over the years, with no tenants and with no protection from the city, buildings deteriorated or were vandalized.
Imagine my surprise when I returned last weekend and saw the central part of the mill (pictured above) as the only remaining component of a labyrinth of steel structures, and many of the old buildings refurbished and converted into loft apartments, restaurants, bars, retail stores & a massive casino with the giant stacks looming above them. I was also shocked when I saw the stack glowing different colors at night. They built a 5,000 person concert venue at the base of the stacks and use it as a dramatic backdrop to the show. Along with Red Rocks in Colorado, it’s the coolest concert venue I’ve ever seen.
I’m so glad the powers that be decided not to tear down such an important part of our country’s history. For over 150 years, Bethlehem Steel helped build our country and the people who live there deserve to have that heritage protected and preserved. The Stacks will now loom over the city forever and have now become a functional and important icon for Bethlehem. After a little research I learned that in 2009 the National Museum of Industrial History, partnering with the Smithsonian Institution, began renovating the 1913 Electric Shop for the exhibit hall, the performing arts center I described above - all part of the new SteelStacks, a 4.5-acre campus. The plant’s oldest remaining building, known as the Stock House, will be converted to a visitors center next year.
Other than that, none of the other 17 historic mill buildings on the site have been renovated or restored, and all of the historic buildings are closed to the public – for now. I spent a few hours walking around the streets of Beth Steel and took some incredible photographs. It felt very post-apocalyptic - with trees and bushes growing out of the sides of the buildings, broken windows and glass. It was an erie feeling walking around, like I was the last person on earth. I’ll share some of those photographs in the future.