Originally published by The Morning Call, newspaper of Lehigh Valley, PA, “Bethlehem Steel history may be obliterated in Lackawanna, NY” by Paul Carpenter.
Without the preservation of physical mementos, we are lost. We cannot know who we are unless we can see and touch the remnants of the key events in our past.
America would be diminished without Independence Hall, Boston’s Old North Church, the Liberty Bell (rescued from the Redcoats when hidden in Allentown), the Declaration of Independence, or our consecrated battlefield sites — from the redoubts of Yorktown to the High Water Mark at Gettysburg.
It even was necessary to preserve things like the little $180 house where Elvis Presley was born 78 years ago in Tupelo, Miss., and a monument where the lives of Bonnie and Clyde ended 71/2 months earlier in Gibsland, La.
Americans need such relics so we do not wander around like amnesiacs, with no sense of who we are or how we got here.
One of the most important monuments to American history is in Bethlehem — a row of towering blast furnaces from the flagship plant of Bethlehem Steel, one of the most famous and vital establishments when it came to building the world’s most formidable nation.
It was Bethlehem Steel that gave the Golden Gate Bridge its backbone, provided armor for the ships and tanks that overcame Axis tyranny, and made us and our infrastructure strong in countless other ways. Our hearts and souls may have been molded at Independence Hall, but our sinews and spines were molded by Bethlehem Steel.
It’s a bit sad that the blast furnaces of that flagship plant are now illuminated by a sleazy gambling casino complex, but at least those furnaces still stand for posterity. Far sadder is what’s happening to Bethlehem Steel’s most awesome plant ever, its colossal industrial complex at Lackawanna, N.Y.
When I was a little boy, that was the world’s greatest steel plant. Its blast furnaces and other components were visible from where I lived and when they dumped slag into Lake Erie at night, it lit up the sky.
My father, my grandfather, most of my uncles and my brother worked there at one time or another, and driving (for miles) past that plant on our way to downtown Buffalo was always astounding.
As the week began, there remained only one part of the vast Lackawanna plant still standing. It was the plant’s administration building, called a “beaux-arts masterpiece” for decades after it was built in 1901, when the manufacturing site was still known as Lackawanna Iron & Steel. (It was bought by Bethlehem Steel in 1922.) I have vivid memories of that building.
As you’re reading this today, demolition already may have begun, despite desperate efforts by preservationists to save it.
“It’s time we got more progressive,” Lackawanna Mayor Geoffrey Szymanski was quoted as saying last month. “Bring down that building … and let’s get this city moving.” Szymanski and others in city hall did not get back to me when I called to ask about the reasons for pushing demolition.
In any case, the property is in the hands of commercial interests who have no motive to preserve artifacts of the past, much to the dismay of groups like the Lackawanna Industrial Heritage Group, headed by Danielle Huber of Lackawanna.
“There’s not much left here in Lackawanna,” Huber told me the other day by telephone. “It’s unfortunate that [Szymanski] does not see the benefit.”
In Bethlehem, there’s a different story.
Tony Hanna, executive director of the Bethlehem Redevelopment Authority, which has handled development of the local plant’s site, including the casino and other attractions, pointed out Thursday that there are some interesting similarities to the Lackawanna site.
The flagship plant, he noted, had two administrative buildings, including one now serving as part of Northampton Community College. The other, now vacant, was once Bethlehem Steel’s corporate headquarters and was symbolically constructed in the shape of an I-beam. That was in 1904, three years after the iconic administrative building in Lackawanna.
Hanna, observing that I’m not always generous in comments about gambling casinos, including the one at the center of the projects his authority advanced, stressed that the Bethlehem casino had much to do with the preservation of the flagship plant’s blast furnaces and other structures.
I am not opposed to the legalization of gambling casinos, as long as nobody makes me patronize one, but I have been ferociously opposed to the way the gambling industry was accommodated by politicians, especially in Harrisburg, and the way casinos have been licensed and regulated.
After talking to Hanna, however, I was encouraged by what he said.
“It’s a gorgeous building,” he said of the old I-beam headquarters in the Lehigh Valley. “It’s one of the most significant buildings on the site. … It will never be torn down here in Bethlehem.”
The gambling casino, Hanna added, “really did go a long way toward helping us preserve those buildings.”
So I must give the devil his due. What happened in Bethlehem is far better than what happened in Lackawanna.
I just hope it never turns out that the only way to preserve Independence Hall will be to allow a gambling joint right next to it.
Paul Carpenter‘s commentary appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays.