Tuesday, June 8, 2010


Big Steel, 2010

During my drive-by of Pennsylvania’s Lehigh Valley two weeks ago, I had a chance to swing through Bethlehem. I say “swing” because I literally had just enough time to park the car, take a couple of pictures and then get back on the road.

I was never in Bethlehem when the great Bethlehem Steel plant was in operation. It must have been quite something to see and hear. I can imagine that it was big and noisy, bright in the night sky and belching smoke and steam and all kinds of nasty things into the air.

The plant made railroad rails for the great western expansion of the late 1800s. In the 1930s, those same rails carried steel sections of the Golden Gate Bridge across the country from Bethlehem to San Francisco. The company once owned 15 shipyards, where steel from Bethlehem was used to build over 1,100 U.S. Navy ships up through the end of WWII. Steel from this plant went into the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building, Madison Square Garden, Rockefeller Center, the Hoover Dam and even the federal prison at Alcatraz.

Bethlehem Steel fell victim to less expensive imported steel during the 1970. The Bethlehem plant ceased operation in 1995. The company went into bankruptcy in 2001 and was sold a couple of years later.

Today, only the giant stacks of the old plant survive. If you’re into manufacturing history, they’d be a fascinating place to tour. Most of the other buildings have been torn down or earmarked for redevelopment for other uses. Perhaps the greatest irony, given the manufacturing might that once resided here, is that part of the old site was converted into a casino, the construction of which was delayed at one point because of a global steel shortage.

I didn’t have enough time during my swing through Bethlehem to do much more than snap a few pictures. The light was in my face. It was hard to capture much detail in mill itself. I wish I’d had the chance to get closer and do something with the abstract shapes of the pipes, stacks and other mechanics of the place.

All Quiet Now, 2010

Aside from several obvious issues, Big Steel was good work for the people and the prosperity of the Lehigh Valley. Times have been tough for a lot of people and for the towns and cities of the Valley since the great mills of Bethlehem and Allentown shut down. But as I stood out in the sun taking these pictures, I couldn’t help but remember the second verse in William Blake’s poem-turned-anthem Jerusalem, in which Blake hoped that Jesus would return to reverse the harm the great mills of Britain’s Industrial Revolution were doing to “England’s green and pleasant land.”

And did the Countenance Divine,

Shine forth upon our clouded hills?

And was Jerusalem builded here,

Among these dark Satanic Mills?


  1. Your photos of them here are making them look much more beautiful than they are in real life. Wonderful connect with the poem here.

  2. Great story. You might be happy to know that they are developing the Carrie Furnaces, an old steel mill site, as a historic landmark along the Monongahela River, near the 1892 Homestead Strike site. (http://www.riversofsteel.com/) When it's done, you'll actually be able to walk through one of these giant old factories, legally. Many local photgraphers and artists have found ways into the site, as it seems to attract the curious.