Community Discussion of Bethlehem Steel with Donald Young, Past Steelworker

On June 4th, the Bethlehem Area Public Library hosted a lecture on the long and complex history of Bethlehem Steel, which was led by Donald Young. Young, 87, worked in the steel industry for 56 years, mostly with Bethlehem Steel. The work meant so much to him that he devoted his life to it, both as a worker and as a historian after his retirement. Young’s experience and love for the industry compelled him to produce Bethlehem Steel in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania: A Photographic History, a book he co-authored with Ann Bartholomew. This article aims to summarize the key points of Young’s lecture.

Pictured: The lecture screen in the Cohen Room at Bethlehem Area Public Library where Young gave his lecture.

The Origin of Bethlehem Steel

Young began his lecture by discussing the origin of Bethlehem Steel. He focused on the transition from iron to steel, and how the trade began to help cultivate the Lehigh Valley. According to Young, the Lehigh Valley Railroad reached Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in 1855, increasing trade in the area with its transportation of coal to and from the region. Noticing the consistent use of the railroad, John Fritz and Robert Sayre created the Bethlehem Iron Company to produce iron rails. In the 1870s, the Lehigh Valley Railroad wanted to switch from iron rails to steel rails because of their reliable durability, so Bethlehem Iron began creating steel as well. Young emphasized that in order to make this transition to steel production, Fritz built a new mill in 1873 near the railroad tracks in Bethlehem. The new mill housed Bessemer converters, which were capable of producing eight tons of steel in about one heat, or approximately one hour. In 1887, the company introduced open hearth steel making, decreasing the waste of materials in the production process. Young conveyed that Bethlehem Iron earned the attention of the United States military and began producing equipment for it. The company’s relationship with the military would last through World War II. Bethlehem Iron’s ability to adapt to changing industrial needs cemented its place as a national producer of steel, which inspired the company to change its name to Bethlehem Steel.

In addition to the details of material production during the mill’s early days, Young also articulated the company’s relationship with its workers and the local community. He emphasized that while Bethlehem Steel grew, so did the city itself. The company was known for providing jobs for waves of immigrants that came to the Lehigh Valley in the 19th century. Notably, the company created labor groups that shared the same language background in an effort to prevent language barriers from affecting the efficiency of the mill. According to Young, creating groups based on ethnic background as well as shared language and religion allowed for immigrant workers to at once relate to their peers while also being discouraged from interacting with those outside of their direct group. In this way, Bethlehem Steel leaders attempted to discourage labor organizing. However, despite ethnic differences, the workers bonded while not at work and founded a community based on their shared experiences in the production of steel.

Pictured: The Bethlehem Steel Gray Mill, 1949.
Source: Joseph E.B. Elliott, American, b. 1949. (1994 (Printed 2009)). Adjusting a Mill Stand, Grey Mill. (Bethlehem Steel, Bethlehem, PA). [Photograph]. Retrieved from
The Growth and Peak of Bethlehem Steel

After establishing the founding Bethlehem Steel, Young transitioned to the company’s period of peak growth, which took place in the first half of the twentieth century. Young attributed Bethlehem Steel Company’s growth to Charles M. Schwab, who became president of the company in 1904. Schwab had a vision for the success of the steel mill that prompted him to build an entirely new plant, one that aligned with his ambitions for modernization. To modernize the steel mill, Schwab replaced all of the furnaces, and in 1907 Schwab introduced the innovative Gray Mill. Young explained that the Gray Mill was used to produce wide-flange beams which were easily formed into various sizes and weights. Wide-flange beams were sought after by construction companies. Producing these beams allowed Bethlehem Steel to meet the need for steel for large bridges and skyscrapers. Schwab’s presidential reign ensured that Bethlehem Steel would grow and maintain a commitment to modern projects and materials. In 1916, Lehigh University graduate Eugene Grace, Schwab’s mentee, became president of the company, and continued Schwab’s vision. Throughout the 20th century, the company provided steel for famous architectural landmarks. Young listed projects such as the George Washington Bridge and the Golden Gate Bridge, and these names were met with a chorus of impressed wows from the audience. Referring to the relationship between Bethlehem Steel and the United States military earlier, Young acknowledged that the company continued this relationship through both of the World Wars by forging steel and iron for guns and armor. 

Young then briefly discussed the company’s complex relationship with its workers by sharing a few stories from this period. According to Young, during Schwab’s leadership, he introduced “bonus” pay in an effort to increase productivity. This promise of bonus pay encouraged the mill workers to work overtime without any days off. After working extra days, they then had to stand in massive lines to receive their pay. If they did not stand in line, they did not get paid. Young emphasized that the unfair treatment of workers created tension, which led to a labor strike in 1910. Schwab called the Pennsylvania State Police to put down the strike, where one worker was killed. Ultimately, the 1910 strike failed; however, it is important to note that the steelworkers’ union, which was a part of United Steelworkers, had numerous successes throughout the century. They were able to secure fair pay and pensions for the mill’s employees. 

In addition to the working relationship between the workers and Bethlehem Steel, Young also depicted the lack of safety precautions utilized at the mill in the early-to-mid 20th century. He summarized that Bethlehem Steel’s employees worked in unsafe conditions and were not provided appropriate protective gear. According to Young, these unsafe conditions garnered the attention of the United States government because the high number of deaths in the steel industry. Regardless of this attention, improvements in safety protocols and protective equipment were not really achieved until after World War II. Bethlehem Steel also employed women for a short time during World War II. While men were off fighting the war, the company continued production of military equipment with the help of local women. The women were especially useful for packing dynamite into shells because their hands were smaller than the men’s hands. Young detailed that despite their usefulness in the mill, the women lost their jobs as men returned home from the front.

Pictured: The Bethlehem Steel logo.

The Decline and End of Bethlehem Steel

To bring his lecture to a close, Young discussed Bethlehem Steel’s gradual decline that eventually led to its closing. According to Young, this was due to an increase in steel imports from other countries, which created more competition for the mill.  In 1988, a new $60 million mill was built in a last ditch effort to save the company, but Young emphasized that the rest of their equipment was not advanced enough for the new mill to be productive and profitable. Slowly, Bethlehem Steel began closing sections of its plant to accommodate its loss in revenue. On November 18th, 1995 Bethlehem Steel produced its final batch of steel, and in 1998 the coke plants were closed, signifying the end of the Bethlehem steel plant. 

Young then again connected the history of the company to the local community. As the company declined, more and more of the city’s residents were laid off. Many, after years of commitment to the steel mill, were forced to pursue other jobs. Despite this, loyalty towards the steel stacks remains strong. At the end of Young’s lecture he opened the floor for questions, but, instead, many of the audience members took the opportunity to share their own connections to Bethlehem Steel. Stories about parents and grandparents floated through the room while Young nodded along appreciatively. Importantly, Young’s lecture provided a space for the younger generation to learn about their city’s history while allowing the older generation to share their more personal experiences with those around them. 

Pictured: The cover of Ann Bartholomew and Donald Young’s book about Bethlehem Steel which was released in 2010.

History lectures provide a space for the local community to learn more about their area and to make connections with those around them. The Bethlehem Area Public Library hosts free events for all ages every week, including arts and crafts sessions, yoga classes, and language courses. These events are free and open to the public. Additionally, the library houses many books about the history of Bethlehem Steel, including Young’s book. For more information about the Bethlehem Area Public Library and its upcoming events visit  Bethlehem Area Public Library

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