23,000 people once worked here

Documentary photos made at the Bethlehem Steel mill at the end of production in 1997 and a brief revisit in 2022.

From 1982 to 1997, I documented the passing of the industrial era in the Northeastern United States. During that time, I worked independently and as a staff photographer for the Hagley Museum and Library. The projects I worked on told the story of closing shipyards, lace mills, textile plants, oil refineries, steel mills, coal mines, railroad operations, and almost everything else that once made the “rust-belt” a production powerhouse. A historian that worked closely with me once quipped that I was…the undertaker of American industry, making a memorable image of the workplace corpse before the wrecking crew arrived.

“THE STEEL.” That’s what workers at Bethlehem Steel Corporation’s mill in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania called the place. Iron and steel products were manufactured at this location along the Lehigh River from 1857 to the final production at the Combo Mill in March 1997, two years after the blast furnaces went cold. Today, virtually all the Bethlehem Steel mill is gone, mined for the scrap metal value of its building. The Bethlehem Steel Corporation entered bankruptcy in 2002 and it disappeared as an entity in 2003.

The original photos  for COLD STEEL were made with the cooperation of Bethlehem Steel, on four long days in January, April, and July 1997. It is hard to describe a facility that covers a thousand acres and has hundreds of buildings; it is even harder to photograph it. In many of my earlier projects I had worked to make a visual record of a place, but in Bethlehem I was trying to catch ghosts. I was seeking the spirit of the place, the echo of the workers that had once built and operated the vast enterprise. Nothing can match the experience of the steel mill in operation, or the feeling of desolation after the last worker has left.

In September 2022 I made a “tourist’s” visit to the former Bethlehem Steel mill to see what changes had been made in the twenty-five years since I last photographed the place. In addition to the National Museum of Industrial History which preserves the history of the site, there is now a concert stage —Steel Stacks— with the derelict blast furnaces as a backdrop, a community college, art center, hotel and outlet store. An elevated walkway allows visitors to get a close look at the rusting industrial artifacts. A gambling casino now sits where the iron ore storage yard once was, one of the remaining ore bridges serves a giant stand for the casino’s logo. In an original steel mill building next to the casino is the operations of Lehigh Heavy Forge Corporation the last heavy forge in the USA. I am truly interested to see what the future holds for this place where a titan of heavy industry once thrived.