Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A Steel Giant in Bethlehem

Yet another cold and windy weekend was promised as Mala, Carolyn and I headed up to Allentown, PA, to meet Mary and Anhtuan. Anhtuan was up taking his pilot's 2 year flight review this weekend and us girls had plans to go urbexing. After booking into our hotel our first stop was the Lehigh Valley International Airport where we got a personal tour from Anhtuan's test pilot and friend, Nimrod. Bethlehem Steel used to have its own hanger and the sign still hangs here.
 Afterwards we all drove to the Nisky Hill Cemetery. A photographer friend had sent me the image below of a view from the cemetery looking across to the blast furnaces of Bethlehem Steel. Called A Lost World by Walker Evans, it entranced me, making the huge steelworks look mystical and unearthly. I wanted to take that shot for myself, but of I course would be taking it at a different time of year so there would be no foliage. Even so I couldn't rest until it was safe in my camera and the crew gladly helped me to obtain that, bless them. Both Mala and I had been thinking a good long hike would be required to get the shot but we were amazed to drive in and see the vast ruins almost immediately. It was huge. Even looking down on it across the river, it still dominated the valley, standing tall above the town with huge towers and pipes glistening dark orange and shining in the rain and heavy mist. It looked liked an alien building or a construction from a land of giants. A train hauling containers passed almost unseen beneath it, pocket-sized like a model railway. We were all mesmerized by the view and everyone leaped from the cars to take photos. Mala and Carolyn helped with mine.
We then drove to the other side of the river to see the blast furnaces up close. They really were enormous and I was pleased to see how much of the site had been saved from demolition. Old empty buildings were shadowed by the huge structures but these are supposedly being used in the future. One has been turned into a visitor center which showed a superb film on the steel plant but I was really expecting more. There wasn't much machinery or tools or even uniforms on display and the souvenirs were a little sparse. I had hoped to get a travel tumbler but none were available. so I just got a magnet.
Starting in 1857, Bethlehem Steel soon became dominant in world steel, producing the first wide-flange pieces of steel that were soon used in building the first skyscrapers. Responsible for 75% of New York's skyline and also for the Golden Gate Bridge as well as the Rockefeller Center and Madison Square Gardens. It was a major supplier of armor plate and large artillery in both the World Wars. It continued to grow and built other plants and shipyards worldwide, reaching a peak in the 50's when the company president earned the nation's highest salary. It was also one of the world's leading producers of railroad freight cars. A list of its production achievements is here. But change came after WWII when the bombed steel industries in Germany and Japan were rebuilt with newer technology and became more efficient, producing steel more cheaply. Bethlehem Steel's markets diminished and because its workers retired after 30 years on full pensions with benefits, the company found it was paying out more than it made, trying to survive with a smaller workforce yet still supporting those it had employed in its heyday. Read this link on how the end of the company came about.
By 1979, on Bethlehem Steel's 75th anniversary, a wide flange beam of all the steel that had been produced could circle the earth 370 times.
The State Hospital in Allentown looked very grand as we viewed it later that afternoon. Closed under protest in 2010, it's now used for law enforcement training.
We decided to go to dinner and then return to Bethlehem Steel later as it would be lit up once it was dark. We'd looked on Yelp for restaurants and opted for Thai, but noticed one or two were marked as BYOB; they weren't serving alcohol. We chose one that didn't state this and went to dinner. We'd sat down and were ordering when we discovered that our restaurant was also dry. Oh calamity! The car had been whisked away by a valet, impeding our escape, yet the prospect of an alcohol free meal was unthinkable. Carolyn and Mary valiantly offered to go out and see if they could purchase some badly needed brews, to no avail. We had to eat our meal booze-free. I did scour the menu to see if there were any loaded dishes but nothing.
So our friendly waiter took our photo with us toasting the viewer with water glasses! We finished our food and found no reason to hang around since however much we prayed with closed eyes at every sip, our glasses stubbornly remained filled with water. We collected the car and laughed at the irony of our lost opportunity to enjoy the guilt free trip with our designated driver, Anhtuan, who just happened to be almost teetotal.
Back down at Beth Steel, we soon forgot our tribulation as we turned the corner and saw for the first time the blast furnaces lit up. They looked splendid.
We clicked away with our cameras, and for once I was glad of the gloomy weather, The clouds hung so low that they also became illuminated with the spotlights pointing up from the ground. These structures really were magnificent. but even our enthusiasm after a while waned, as our fingers became more and more numb with the cold. And we needed to get Anhtuan to bed for an early night. He'd been unable to have his evauation that morning due to the inclement weather and so was due up in the clouds the following morning. So we drove back to the hotel, but not without stopping first for that much eluded drink!

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