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5 Facts You Probably Didn't Know About SteelStacks

5 Facts You Probably Didn't Know About SteelStacks

November 2, 2017

The SteelStacks is an iconic symbol in the Lehigh Valley and is easily recognized as one of the most popular tourist destinations in the region. It is located in Southside Bethlehem by the Lehigh River and is next to PBS Studios, ArtsQuest, and the Sands Casino. Locals and tourists alike gather for festivals like MusikFest and Oktoberfest, movies at Frank Banko Alehouse Cinemas, among many other exciting events. However, SteelStacks has a history that only a true Bethlehem local would know and is just one of the many furnaces that used to produce steel for the entire country.

After interviewing Mr. Leonard Ortwein, a 90 year-old retired steelworker, I was lucky enough to get an inside story about his experience working for nearly 40 years at Bethlehem Steel and learned some fascinating facts about the city’s greatest icon.

1. Bethlehem Steel was the second largest steel company in the country.

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Source: National Museum of Industrial History, The Story Behind The SteelStacks

The Bethlehem plant alone had 24,000 workers. The entire corporation, which included the Lackawana plant, Bethlehem, Johnstown, Williamsport, Lebanon, South San Francisco, Los Angeles, and then eventually Burns Harbor in Burns Harbor, Indiana, had over 100,000 employees. While the Maryland plant in those days was the biggest plant Bethlehem had steel tonnage wise, Bethlehem was third.  

2. Bethlehem Steel Corporation produced steel for the George Washington Bridge, the Empire State Building, and the Golden Gate Bridge.

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The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

In 1904, Bethlehem Steel Corporation began its operations and existed for 9 decades as America’s second largest steel producer and largest shipbuilder.

3. The chairman of Bethlehem Steel in the ‘30s, E.G. Grace, had taken a $1,000,000 bonus in 1936, the year President Roosevelt was trying to bring the country out of the depression.

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E.G. Grace, Chairman of Bethlehem Steel

Grace also was funneling money into Saucon Valley Country Club which Ortwein relayed a story that illustrated his corruption.

“When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, it was on a Sunday and he was playing golf at the Saucon Valley Country Club with a couple of his cronies and when the news was delivered to him out on the golf course that Japan had attacked Pearl Harbor, he looked at his buddies and he said, ‘gentlemen, we're gonna make a lot of money.’ And that was his concern about the nation's situation, and he was right. Yes, he did make a lot of money. But what a heck of a thing, first of all, he didn't need a lot more money. He had more than enough. That's the way it was.”

4. Three Main Factors Contributed to Bethlehem Steel’s Downfall

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These factors were foreign competitors, the development of mini mills, and the mismanagement of the entire steel operation, according to Ortwein.

After WWII, Japan and the other countries around the world had to rebuild their own steel mills from the ground up, and of course, they built the most modern.

“They had the brand new mills, they had cheap labor, we could not compete with them,” said Ortwein.

Location was another factor because an integrated steel mill that was landlocked was at a disadvantage due to freight costs to haul in the ingredients for a blast furnace. Many of the other integrated steel mills were built at sea level, but here everything had to be brought in by train which was a huge disadvantage.

Finally, the mismanagement of the company brought Bethlehem Steel to its knees. First, by refusing to invest the money towards an electric furnace, the cost for maintaining the BOF was just too high. As mentioned before, E.G. Grace was also corrupt in funneling Bethlehem Steel’s profits into other funds that were not beneficial for the company, but for himself.

5. The Song “God Bless America” was played when the last heat was tapped out of the Basic Oxygen Furnace in 1995.

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A worker in the blast furnace at Bethlehem Steel Co., Source: The Baltimore Sun Darkroom

The day the steel plant shut down was a defining moment for the city, but for the workers, it was a symbol of a new and uncertain era.

When asked how he felt about witnessing the steel plant’s decline and eventual collapse, he simply said, “I felt very sad. I'm sad to this day. I'll never get over that. It was a very important part and we had a nice living out of that steel company. I was proud to work at Bethlehem Steel.”