My earliest memories of Bethlehem Steel were born on my grandparents’ farm in Pleasant Valley, PA. They consist of images of a blazing night sky in the distance and plumes of smoke. “There go the coke works!” my mother would explain. I also recall the same site from my brother’s bunk at Lehigh University. It evoked a mysterious and somewhat lonely feeling, like the sound of a distant crow or a midnight train whistle (also familiar sensations on the farm).
My uncles worked at “The Steel,” and my brother managed his own division for many years. I worked for a staging company that provided audio-visual services for meetings and programs at Martin Tower and Grace Auditorium. I also watched the demolition of the Tower. So, as with most Lehigh Valley residents, The Steel touched my life in many ways.
Perhaps the melancholy feelings were a premonition of what would happen to Bethlehem Steel in future years. In 2003, The Steel essentially closed its doors—but was reborn in 2016 with the opening of The National Museum of Industrial History, located in the 100-year-old former Electrical Repair Shop.
The Museum acquired its building, the former Electrical Repair Shop, on the authentic steel mill site in Bethlehem and rehabilitated the facility with the support of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania in the form of a $4.5 million grant. The museum’s vision is to tell the story of America’s industrial achievements and the accomplishments of our workers, innovators, and entrepreneurs.
Initiated by Bethlehem Steel Corporation, the Smithsonian Institution and the newly formed National Museum of Industrial History entered into an affiliation agreement that set the stage for telling the story of the building, transporting, and defending America.
NMIH began borrowing almost one hundred machines from the Smithsonian’s 1876 collection that became the featured exhibit in the museum. That collection was supplemented with a significant donation of textile machinery and equipment, the acquisition of iron and steel objects, and historical artifacts related to the propane industry. The collection continues to grow with acquisitions donated by private individuals and institutions across the world.
Exhibits include the giants of the industrial age, both human and machine. There are permanent and changing exhibits (When you see the size of some of the giant machines, you’ll know why they are permanent!). My visit included the Robert Fulton exhibit, telling the story of the man who added steam to the American Industrial Revolution, opened up new trade routes, and helped usher in a major wave of globalized trade on a scale never seen before.
There are hands-on exhibits, videos, lots of big machines, iron and steel, silk, and propane galleries, self-guided tours, educational programs, and the outdoor Foundry Park. Archives include photo collections and electronic components. Visit machine shops and get a feel for life at The Steel and other industrial habitats.
There is something for everyone, including children and adults who are kids at heart and love big toys!
“The Steel” may be gone, but from its ashes and brownfield has risen a monument to America’s industrial heritage that spans centuries and products, extends from coast to coast, and has affected all of us.