One of the most fascinating buildings of the Industrial Revolution is the Bethlehem Steel in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. At their peak, it was the world’s second largest steel producer and one of the largest shipbuilding companies in the world before going bankrupt in 2001.
The company’s history traces to 1857, when a group of railroaders and investors of the city of Bethlehem, Pa., founded the Saucona Iron Company, which four years later was renamed Bethlehem Iron Company; the works was designed principally to turn out wrought-iron railroad rails. In 1899 the facilities were acquired by a newly formed enterprise, the Bethlehem Steel Company.
The first blast furnace was put into operation in 1863, and the second in 1867. Rails for the booming railroad industry were produced, and when a government contract for steel armored plate was awarded to Bethlehem in 1887. In 1904 Charles M. Schwab became president and chairman of the board.
Soon after Schwab hired an electrical engineer, Eugene G. Grace, whose management skills allowed the more entrepreneurial Schwab the freedom he needed to plan the growth of the company. Together, the two men became the team that built Bethlehem from a small producer with an ingot capacity of less that one percent of the national total in 1905 to the world’s second-largest producer in fewer than 35 years.
In 1907, Bethlehem Steel was once again on the forefront of manufacturing by being the first to adopt Henry Grey’s mill rolling process. This process assisted the plant in producing H-section steel beams that were lighter, wider and cheaper than traditional beams. These revolutionary beams allowed for taller skyscrapers and longer bridges to be built. By 1913, Bethlehem Steel made it possible to build high rise buildings, now a staple of many city skylines.
The Great Depression of the early 1930s wreaked havoc on some of the nation’s largest financial institutions. But Bethlehem Steel survived and flourished, this time due to President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933. The act suspended antitrust laws contingent upon an agreement in which companies such as Bethlehem Steel addressed labor reform and workers’ rights. This marked another instance in which the company triumphed in times of national hardship. Its most notable project of the decade was the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, California, to which Bethlehem Steel supplied 68,000 tons of steel.
By the 1970s, it was cheaper to import steel from other countries than it was to produce in the United States. Bethlehem Steel reported a loss of $1.5 billion in 1982, and began shutting down chunks of its massive operations throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Bethlehem Steel was forced to cease production on November 18, 1995.
With the shuttering of the plant in 1995, some 1,800 acres of infrastructure once devoted to heavy industry stood vacant–an urban explorer’s wet dream, it seems. Less than six years later, on October 15, 2001, the company filed for bankruptcy, effectively marking the end of one of the greatest corporate empires the United States of America had ever seen.
The site of the company’s original plant in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania is home to SteelStacks, an arts and entertainment district. On November 9, 2016, a warehouse being used as a recycling facility that was part of the Bethlehem Steel complex in Lackawanna, New York caught fire and burned down On May 19, 2019, Martin Tower, Bethlehem Steel’s former corporate headquarters building in West Bethlehem, was demolished.