Former Bethlehem Steel workers keep the human history alive
It was almost midnight on one of those summer nights when it’s too hot to sleep.
Adding to the misery for 14-year-old Richie Check was the constant “BANG-BOOM” coming from the nearby Bethlehem Steel plant.
When Richie’s dad returned to his south Bethlehem home after his shift at the steel plant, he noticed the boy sitting on the side of his bed.
“Richie, what’s the matter?”
“Pop, I can’t sleep. It’s too hot. And your steel company, all you hear is that noise, bang-boom, bang-boom, all day. Can’t your steel company stop that noise?”
Richie’s dad put his hand on his son’s shoulder and said: “Richie, you be happy when you hear that bang and a boom. Because when you don’t hear it no more, you’re going to cry, because there’s no more work.”
Richard Check, now 80 years old, said: “Pop did not realize that 50 years later his son Richie did cry. They not only stopped that noise. They shut the whole plant down.”
The proud old steelworker broke into tears, and the audience applauded his moving story.
Check, who worked at the Bethlehem plant of Bethlehem Steel for 44 years, was one of three former local steelworkers who presented “Memories of Bethlehem Steel Corporation” to about 50 people gathered in Lower Saucon Town Hall, just over the mountain from the former steel plant.
Speaking with Check were Lester Clore, 69, and Frank Behum, 65. Both worked at the plant for 32 years. Behum is the author of a book titled “Thirty Years Under the Beam,” promoted as the real story of what it was like to work at Bethlehem Steel.
“Believe me, none of us that worked at Bethlehem Steel need microphones,” said Behum at the start of their presentation. “And there’s another thing you have to know: we all have hearing problems.”
The men represent Steelworkers Archives, Inc., which was formed in 2001 to preserve the history of local steelworkers.
They have two missions to keep the human history of the local plant alive. They will speak to any organizations or school groups interested in hearing their presentation, at no charge.
They also want to record as many oral histories as possible of the men and women who worked at the Bethlehem plant – no matter for how long or in what position.
They plan to have those oral histories preserved online by Lehigh University.
Clore estimated at least 7,000 people who worked at the local plant still are living, possibly thousands more. So far they have recorded at least 115 interviews.
The three men spoke with pride about being steelworkers and also with some anger about the demise of their company, which stopped making steel in Bethlehem in 1995.
Bahum demonstrated the atmosphere in the plant was fist against fist between management and union, “almost to the very end.”
They talked about some aspects of the steel-making operation that may have been much too technical for those who never worked in a steel plant. But their personal stories offered a raw and unsanitized glimpse into the dirt, heat, gas and danger of working at the Steel, as well as a strong sense of camaraderie with their fellow steelworkers.
“It was because of the efforts of thousands of people in that plant that we kept it going as long as we did,” said Clore. “They would have closed it years and years before had we had not chipped in and did everything we could to keep it open. That’s a testimony to the people who worked there.”
Bethlehem Steel operated in Bethlehem for nearly 100 years, said Clore, and employed 30,000 people during World War II.
Check said the plant was seven-and-a-half miles long and its No. 2 machine shop was 17 football fields long.
Check said up to 75 percent of New York City’s skyline was created with Bethlehem steel, as was San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. The steelworkers said another bridge now is being built in the San Francisco Bay area, with steel from China.
“I was so proud to follow my dad into the mills and so proud to grow up in south Bethlehem,” said Clore. “The Steel on the South Side was a way of life. They said if you walked to the mailbox you had to pack a lunch. You had to stop and talk to everybody on the porch.” He added children also had to be quiet during summer days if a neighbor was working night shift.
Behum said many churches in south Bethlehem played a role in bringing Europeans to town specifically to work at the Steel. “I’m a fourth generation steelworker,” he said. “My great grandfather, my grandfather, my father and myself all worked in the plant.”
Check said all eight of his brothers worked at the Steel, as did one of his five sisters. Including his father, who started at the Steel in 1910, “we gave that company 84 years of continuous service of their 100. We gave them 441 years, our total years that we worked for them.” Behum said that is a Bethlehem Steel record.
Check said in 1945, five steelworkers died from gas while working in the plant, on the same spot where the Sands Casino now stands,. He added 38 more also were gassed, but survived.
Tuesday’s presentation was sponsored by Lower Saucon Township Historical Society and Saucon Valley Conservancy. At least a half dozen former steelworkers were in the audience.
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