Bethlehem Steel Project in Bethlehem, PA

In June, 2007, I went to Bethlehem, PA for a two-day conference sponsored by Rutgers University-Camden to try to begin a wider project on the history of Bethlehem Steel and its workers. It was a wonderful experience because the group in the area, including several colleges, the Mayor of Bethlehem, retired steelworkers and the local historical society, is working to protect the home plant and its history.

I was, of course, desperately envious of the financial and community support that this Bethlehem Steel project is receiving.

The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania has decided to allow casino gambling and a license was granted to an individual to use the now deserted site of Bethlehem Steel for a venue. The individual promised to share some of the proceeds of the revenue with local historians but instead sold his license to The Sands Corporation out of Las Vegas, which is now beginning to develop the site. Plans are out for a casino, a convention center and hotel on the Bethlehem steel site. The old blast furnaces would be maintained as a 'tourist' destination and several of the experts at the conference described similar projects in the Ruhr Valley in Germany, where abandoned steel mills are lit at night by red and blue spotlights.

Retired steelworkers are, in some cases, horrified that the plant where they spent so many years of their lives could be turned into a kind of freak show but they want to see the blast furnaces, and other buildings maintained as a historical display of a disappearing species--the steel industry in the United States.

The conference involved a lot of discussions groups, and I participated in one that tried to figure all of the issues involved in worker histories' issues of the union, of race and gender and age, of community- and of how these could best be preserved and presented. Other groups covered topics like museum design- one group even envisions a huge IMAX screen showing old movies of the steelmaking process.

A highlight of the conference was a tour of the blast furnaces and other buildings inside the original facility, a tour led by retired steelworkers who are active in the local historical society. Their reminiscences of the different processes, and of the social relations among the workers, were marvelous and very moving- as all steelworkers stories are. In some cases, the rooms look like the workers had just left for shift change. One photo shows a sticker for a USWA campaign for grievance committeeman- who knows what year since the plant has been completely shut down since 1995?

The photos included in the section are from that tour.

As of August, 2007, we are all working together to create an inventory of all resources relating to the history of all Bethlehem Steel sites and of the workers who spent their lives there.

There is a plan to hold another conference about Bethlehem Steel in the spring, 2008, hopefully in Dundalk so that everyone can see the Sparrows Point plant- or what is left of it- and perhaps even get a plant tour from the new owners.

When this inventory is ready, it will be included on this site.

--Bill Barry

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