Tracing the Impact of Bethlehem Steel Beyond City Limits

Bethlehem Steel’s legacy is everywhere in our city, ranging from the home plant turned arts venue to the recently demolished Martin Tower. Of course, this isn’t news. We know and feel the deep industrial history of our city, especially on the Southside, every day. Several fantastic projects capture this history, such as the Baltimore Museum of Industry’s Bethlehem Steel Legacy Project and the Women of Bethlehem Steel collection. Since beginning my Ph.D. at Lehigh a few years ago, I’ve been intrigued by the part of this legacy that transcends our city’s geography and overlaps with other Pennsylvanian steel cities, partially in an effort to make sense of my own reality.

I was born and raised in Coatesville, Pennsylvania, a straight shot south on Route 100 and a bit west on Route 30. You might have heard about the city from the horrible string of arsons in 2008 and 2009. You may have also read that Al Jazeera America so boldly referred to us as “2 square miles of ghetto” in 2015. Regardless of the damaging narratives that circulate about my beautiful city, we too have a rich steel legacy, and it’s very much bound up in Bethlehem’s.

Coatesville is home to Lukens Steel, a storied mill that rolled the United States’ first boilerplate and manufactured the arched column supports for the World Trade Center, steel for the first atomic-powered submarine, and plates for the Walt Whitman Bridge in Philadelphia. Lukens began in 1810 as Brandywine Iron Works and Nail Factory, after Isaac Pennock and Jesse Kersey joined forces. Eventually, Dr. Charles Lloyd Lukens teamed up with Pennock, but died almost a decade later. His wife, Rebecca Lukens, inherited the steel mill, which made her the first female industrialist in the country. However, she inherited a near-bankrupt mill while balancing many other responsibilities. As Rob Lukens, a distant relation, puts it:

Imagine the year is 1825. You are a 31-year-old mother, pregnant with your sixth child. You’ve already lost two children in infancy. Your husband has struggled for a dozen years to build an iron-making business in the rolling backcountry of Chester County on the banks of  Brandywine Creek. Suddenly he dies, leaving you alone. The ironworks employees are ready to leave and your overbearing mother implores you to abandon the business.

A bold leader, Rebecca confronted this challenge before her in order to save the business and support her family. She convinced the workers to remain, negotiated contracts and sales, procured raw materials, and more to ensure the mill’s success in a time of tragedy. She writes in her autobiography, “I had built a very superior mill, though a plain one, and our character for making boiler iron stood first in the market, hence we had as much business as we could do.”

Lukens was also one of Bethlehem Steel’s business rivals. In 1997, Bethlehem Steel bought out Lukens. The deal entailed: “Bethlehem Steel will pay a total of $650 million for Lukens. Bethlehem Steel will assume about $250 million of Lukens’ debt, including about $25 million of pension liability for steel workers at the Lukens plants. Bethlehem also will pay about $400 million–$25 per share–in cash and stock for Lukens’ outstanding shares; 62 percent of that amount will be cash.” The buyout, of course, impacted the city’s lived experiences. Some thought the buyout looked promising for the future of Lukens, and others criticized it. In 2001, Jim Ziegler, the president of Coatesville Savings Bank, observed: “Thirty years ago, there was a time I believe Lukens had 7,500 people […] but there was downsizing in the ‘80s and ‘90s, particularly when Bethlehem came in.” Many Coatesville residents were of the working class and depended on the steel company for income and/or retiree benefits. So, with Bethlehem Steel’s bankruptcy in 2003, workers from Bethlehem and Coatesville lost benefits and pensions.

The mill on Strode Avenue still stands as the oldest continuously operating mill in the United States, though a mere shadow of what it once was. After a dozen name changes, the mill is now run by ArcelorMittal, the product of a merger between Arcelor and Mittal in 2006. It’s based in Luxembourg and is considered the largest producer of steel in the world. Though, most people I know and speak to still refer to it as simply “Lukens.” There’s a lot in a name. Since it’s in operation today and employs around 650 people, the industry continues to influence our community. Even still, workers are fighting for industry to do right by them: just last year, United Steelworkers authorized a strike against ArcelorMittal since negotiations for a new contract passed the deadline. Workers are rightfully unwilling to accept the terms of “shifting more health care costs onto employees; reducing wage incentives; and walking away from obligations to retirees.” We are still reeling from a number of blows, the largest being the economic recession, and we are (hopefully) poised to regain our balance through recent revitalization efforts. These efforts seem to mirror, but absolutely differ from, the revival based in South Bethlehem’s historic arts district. Though many, myself included, know to be cautious in our optimism. 

All of this is to say that I see a lot of Coatesville in South Bethlehem, and vice versa. A lot of the struggles are similar, and I think that alone demands that we center the stories of those experiences: economic exploitation, labor, racism, poverty, and how they intertwine. Here, I only start to tease apart these two enduring steel legacies, which is, in a way, a love letter to my hometown through my current city. I’m not at all insisting that one steel company should be considered more than the other, but rather, that we look into their cross-pollination and how that impacts individual lives beyond what is often recorded. This is how we begin to shift narratives–and a few projects have already started.

Dir. Sarah Alderman’s interactive documentary BYPASSED attempts to shift this narrative imposed upon Coatesville.

Feature photo credits: Sam Sorensen

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