If you’ve read a few of my previous blogs, you know that I’m not a fan of “decay on display.” To me, these types of sites represent a lost opportunity, a failure to do something to save a structure before it was too late. The reason why I’m writing this blog about the Steel Stacks, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, is because visiting the site has changed my initial, somewhat narrow view.
Bethlehem Steel formally began in 1904, but really was the phoenix that arose from the ashes of the Bethlehem Iron Company that actually began in 1857. During the factory’s heyday, it was the second-largest steel producer in the United States. Its shipbuilding division was the largest in the country. Expansion continued at a fast pace as the country was becoming the manufacturing powerhouse of the world. Steel played a vital part in the building of important consumer products as well as integral components in most commercial building construction here, and worldwide.
So why did it all come to an end? There are actually many reasons. Foreign competition is often cited as the main reason, but not all of Bethlehem Steel’s challenges came from outside the US. Plastics were being used in more and more products that used to employ steel. Company management also failed to plan for the long term as they became focused solely on quarterly results to buoy their stock price. And, the environmental impact of steel production was coming under scrutiny as cities were starting to be choked by smog that was sickening people and polluting waterways. The company officially ceased to exist in 2003, two years after they filed for bankruptcy protection.
So, what is it about the Steel Stacks that, for me, makes it more than “decay on display?” Maybe the answer is that I know the history, appreciate the struggle, understand the decision-making challenges of the times, and see these ruins as, in some way, a tribute to all the people who toiled and gave their lives to the company in order for our country to grow, prosper, and lead the world. Also, let’s not forget that it allowed the people who worked there a chance to put food on the table and achieve their piece of the American Dream.