Bethlehem Pennsylvania was founded in 1741 as a Moravian mission community. There are several nicely preserved 18th century buildings in the old section of the city on the North side of the Lehigh river. The Colonial Industrial Quarter, located where the Monocacy creek meets the Lehigh River has a half dozen or so 18th century mill and other buildings in a park like setting. Access to the Lehigh Canal bike and walking path is a short walk from the Colonial Industrial Quarter parking area. The Lehigh Canal was built in the 1820s.
Bethlehem takes its history seriously and its residents have done an impressive job at preserving structures from its long and varied past. My main interest in visiting Bethlehem was to see what remains of the once mighty Bethlehem Steel Works. The Bethlehem Steel Works, at it's peak employed 31,000 people, stretched for four and a half miles occupying 1,800 acres in South Bethlehem. The mill ceased operations in 1995 and its owner, the Bethlehem Steel Company declared bankruptcy in 2001. Unlike many other former steel towns that lost mills in the 1980s and 90s, Bethlehem is attempting to preserve significant parts of the Bethlehem Steel operation and incorporate the old structures in new developments.
Iron manufacture at the Bethlehem Steel site began in 1863. At that time the site was in South Bethlehem and the name of the company was Saucona Iron Company. Bethlehem, South Bethlehem and West Bethlehem merged in 1917 becoming Bethlehem. After several name changes and years of growth, the steel making concern in South Bethlehem became the Bethlehem Steel Corporation in 1904. During it's greatest period of growth Bethlehem Steel was run by Charles M. Schwab, a flamboyant robber baron who lost his entire fortune during the great depression. Bethlehem Steel hit peak prosperity and production levels during WWII and like most of the rest of the US steel industry declined catastrophically in the 1970s. Today the site of the plant is one of the most interesting preservation/redevelopment projects I've ever seen. It's a unique mix of pragmatic efforts to revive the local economy and earnest efforts to preserve the most significant structures at the site. Bethlehem is a small city with current population of 74,982. I was impressed with what they were able to do with the limited resources at their disposal.
The entire Eastern section of the former plant site is being redeveloped as an industrial park. Almost all of the original buildings in this section have been demolished. This park has been able to attract a few tenants- primarily warehousing and transportation companies but is still mostly empty. The Western section of the site which was the original center of the plant, is being redeveloped as an entertainment, arts, commerce and history district. Much of the work is being financed by a casino and a tax increment financing zone. The Sands Bethlehem Casino includes a conference center, restaurants and shopping. The mayor and other residents of Bethlehem have been insistent on preserving significant parts of the plant like the blast furnaces and former headquarters building and are incorporating them in the redevelopment. The blast furnaces have become a backdrop for an amphitheater/entertainment complex managed by the Steel Stacks organization. Although Bethlehem itself is small, it is part of the larger Lehigh Valley metropolitan area which includes Allentown and Easton and has a total population of close to a million. The success of the site and casino is dependent on their ability to draw people from the surrounding area.
The former Bethlehem Steel Headquarters is currently empty. My understanding is that the redevelopment plan for this building is to covert it into apartments. There is a visitor center on the site that I didn't go into. Plans for an industrial history museum at the site have been been in the works since the plant closed in 1995. So far the museum has failed to open due to difficulties raising funds. This article points out that the man who has been president of the museum effort for the last 11 years is being paid a $181,000 per year salary. Another part of the redevelopment project is an effort to turn one of the larger mill buildings into a regional shopping center.
The Bethlehem Steel Works site is a very interesting place to walk around. Landscaping and street realignment projects are on-going as of summer 2013. All of the remaining buildings are fenced off, secured and are being preserved to some extent. There weren't many visitors to the rest of the site the morning I was there but presumably it gets lively on nights and weekends. There are several restaurants and bars in the area.
The Lehigh Canal path on the other side of the Lehigh river from the plant is a nice place to walk and provides interesting views of the blast furnaces. The efforts to preserve the Bethlehem blast furnaces are unique in the US as far as I'm aware. Efforts to preserve the Carrie furnaces in Rankin PA. are on-going but that site is undeveloped, remote and difficult to access. Otherwise, few of these iconic industrial structures exist in the country today. Blast furnaces were where iron ore, coke and lime came together to create raw steel or iron and so are at the heart of the steel industry. I'm glad that at least a few of these furnaces are being preserved.
A news article on the redevelopment efforts with a comparison to Lackawanna New York.
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