On the Road: A letter from Bethlehem

Posted 2/21/20

Part of the Single Sisters homes, constructed circa 1750. by George McNeely This writer has long wondered why Philadelphia seems to have mostly turned its back to the nearby, gritty foothills of the …

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On the Road: A letter from Bethlehem

Part of the Single Sisters homes, constructed circa 1750.

by George McNeely

This writer has long wondered why Philadelphia seems to have mostly turned its back to the nearby, gritty foothills of the Appalachians, where our citizens have made so much money?

Through the centuries, Philadelphia has benefited from a steady stream of valuable commodities out of those hills and valleys: wheat and other agricultural products, wool, coal, iron, steel, natural gas and a myriad of manufactured tools.

This writer decided to spend a day exploring Bethlehem. It is fascinating.

Bethlehem is a tale of two cities: first, the surviving Moravian settlement from the 18th century and second, the behemoth known as Bethlehem Steel.

The Moravians were yet another of the bewildering number of non-conformist Protestant splinter groups that emerged in the UK and northern Europe in the 15th and 16th centuries and eventually changed North America.

The Moravians consider themselves as the first Protestant sect, founded by the theologian and philosopher Jan Hus in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) almost a century earlier than Martin Luther pounded his 95 theses on that church door in 1517. Jan Hus led the Bohemian Reformation and was inevitably burned at the stake.

His followers were also inevitably hounded around Europe and some ended up in Moravia in what is now the Czech Republic. Despite their precarious circumstances, they were fervently committed to missionary work. In 1741, a group of Moravians made their way to William Penn’s “holy experiment” of Pennsylvania and 500 acres of fertile land at the junction of the Lehigh River and the Monocacy Creek. They came several generations after Daniel Pastorius had founded our German Township, but they moved west to land that was available at that time.

There they built a utopian community called Bethlehem. The Moravians believed in earthly engagement and thus developed a wide range of trades that enabled their community to be largely self-sufficient. Miraculously, a number of those 18thcentury stone buildings survive today (in various states of preservation) in the picturesque valley just below Bethlehem’s charming Main Street. Various mill buildings, a smithy, a tannery, an ice house and the earliest pumped municipal water system in America (built in 1762 and a model for the later system in Philadelphia). Together they evoke the remarkable energy and innovation of those early settlers.

Early Moravians lived communally in single-sex dormitories, several of which survive today as stunning examples of late Central European Medieval buildings very far from their home. Thick stone walls, tiny deep windows, crooked buttresses and chimneys, chevron-patterned wooden doors, and multi-storied gambrel roofs with quirky little dormer windows. Even on a clear winter’s day, they are a wonderfully romantic reminder of the misty crooked towns of Hans Christian Anderson’s northern Europe.

That these buildings are still standing is a minor miracle, despite the best efforts of Bethlehem’s city fathers in the era of post-war urban renewal.

In the 19th century, the Moravians gradually lost control of Bethlehem as the city expanded. Building on their industriousness, others founded businesses that eventually overwhelmed that early utopian community.

The second tale of Bethlehem’s history started with the 1857 founding of the company that later became known as Bethlehem Steel. Its first blast furnace opened in 1861, and the rest is history.

The remaining blast furnaces of the Bethlehem Steel works.

Bethlehem Steel was second only to Andrew Carnegie and Henry Clay Frick’s US Steel, based in Pittsburgh. It produced the iron and steel tracks for our expanding railroad and streetcar systems. Later it moved into iron plates and guns for the US navy and army. Still later it developed the classic H-beam that was used to construct the Chrysler Building, Rockefeller Center, the Empire State Building, and the Golden Gate, George Washington and Ben Franklin bridges. In the 1920s, Bethlehem Steel's chief engineer claimed that "… Bethlehem Steel owned New York."

It represented the apex of American industrial might. In 1958, its president, Arthur B. Homer, was the highest paid executive in America. While workers suffered terrible conditions, at its headquarters building near the blast furnaces visitors were greeted by statuesque receptionists dressed in identical uniforms, like Rockettes of steel.

In these days of disruptive Internet entrepreneurs, it is hard to imagine the power, prestige and influence of such corporate behemoths. But, even as those receptionists were being trained by airline stewardesses, economic forces were undermining the American steel business. It all came crashing down in the later 20th century. Bethlehem Steel ceased production in Bethlehem in 1995 and finally declared bankruptcy in 2001.

Today, the quiet rusting hulks of the steel works still claim their central position in the fertile Lehigh River valley, dominating the surrounding modest residential neighborhoods. Remember Edmund Burke’s theory of the sublime? The steel works today fit his description perfectly.

The majority of the Bethlehem Steel campus is now owned by Wind Creek, a casino and hotel company that advertises “Stayrooms starting at $159.” Gradually the campus is being opened to tourism and renovated for modern entertainment uses. Behind the new band shell and visitor centers, most of the immense and deteriorating structures remain as moody reminders of America’s lost industrial might.

From our Chestnut Hill perspective, I will not name names, but certain local families benefited from investments in Bethlehem Steel and its many ancillary businesses. Local families owned the land that produced the coal that fired those furnaces. Local families owned the canals and railroads that shipped the steel to our local ports and shipyards. And Philadelphia businesses serviced those industries and stocked the homes of the many steel-working families.

Take a day trip out to Bethlehem to explore its Moravian treasures and the Bethlehem Steel campus. Ask for a wonderful tour guide named Loretta Hine at Historic Bethlehem. Appreciate the money that flowed from there to support Philadelphia institutions.

In his poem Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelly wrote: “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!” But perky Bethlehem is overcoming despair and working energetically towards its third tale.