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History's Headlines: Winston Churchill comes calling on Bethlehem

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Mar 22 2013 07:03:30 PM CDT
Updated On: Mar 25 2013 04:25:42 PM CDT

How many famous people have come to Bethlehem?

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -

How many famous people have come to Bethlehem? Well it is hard to give an exact figure but it’s not a bad record. There were all those Revolutionary folks like John Adams and Benjamin Franklin, etc.  Of course George Washington slept there, as did Lafayette.

Napoleon’s brother Joseph, who was, thanks to the French Army, briefly King of Spain, arrived in 1825. In the early 1870s a young fellow just starting out as a writer came to town to give a talk about his book. But the local press complained that Mark Twain still needed a lot of work if he was ever going to make it as humorist.

In 1876 Dom Pedro, the Emperor of Brazil, stopped in to take a look at Bethlehem Iron Company. Later, thanks to Bethlehem Steel’s publicity loving president, Charles “Charlie” Schwab, there was Thomas Alva Edison, a host of French field marshals and, in 1904, a Japanese Crown Prince. Some of them got banner headlines and others just a mention.

But arguably the best known person of the 20th century to come to the Christmas City was Sir Winston Churchill, eloquent World War II prime minister of Great Britain. Of him journalist Edward R. Morrow said, “he mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.” Some loved him, others hated him, but nobody was neutral about Churchill.

Churchill came to Bethlehem on October 23, 1929. Although hardly an unknown he had yet to gain the role of international statesmen. In fact he was regarded by some as something of a publicity hound. In the 1900s Theodore Roosevelt, speaking about an American novelist of the same name, wanted to avoid any confusion: “I am speaking of course of our Winston Churchill, Winston Churchill the gentleman.”

The reason Churchill had come to America in 1929 was a simple one. He needed to make some money. He was on a three and a half month lecture tour of the United States and Canada. His primary topics were the British Empire and free trade. Stops included Montreal, Ottawa, Calgary and Edmonton. Writing home to his wife, he noted Canada seemed like a land of possibilities. “There are fortunes to be made in many directions, but the time is not yet.”

After crossing Canada from east to west, Churchill’s party crossed over into the state of Washington. The thought of entering the land of Prohibition was not a pleasant one, but Randolph Churchill said they were well prepared. “My big flask is full of whiskey and a little one is full of brandy. I have reserves in both medicine bottles. It is almost certain we will have no trouble. Still if we do Papa pays the fine and I get the publicity.”

After a stint visiting William Randolph Hearst, his long time mistress Marion Davies and actor Charlie Chaplin, it was on to Yosemite. Here they were greeted by the Loretto, the private railroad car of Charlie Schwab. Named for his hometown, it was a Victorian era beauty complete with overstuffed chairs, a staff and an observation platform.

It was the Schwab link- a close personal friendship forged in World War I- that would bring Churchill to Bethlehem. At the start of the war Schwab had turned down a huge offer from Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany to sell his interest in Bethlehem Steel. “Gentlemen I have given my word to the British,” he told the German monarch’s go-between, “to retain my interest. And no sum you could offer me will get me to go back on my word.”

Since Churchill was First Sea Lord, in charge of the British Navy, he was a ready client for Bethlehem Steel. In order to get around American neutrality laws, Schwab had parts for submarines made in America and then taken by rail to Canada where they were assembled. Once the U.S. entered the war in 1917 Bethlehem Steel became the largest single supplier of arms and armament to the Allied cause.

Hearing that Schwab had been put in charge of American shipbuilding, Churchill sent him a telegram. “I am delighted to learn of your appointment which will enable you to turn your wonderful energy to an urgent and vital task,” it said in part. Schwab was later to say that Churchill’s words were those that pleased him most.

Over the next three days Churchill’s party was carried east in the Loretto. Throughout the trip Churchill was working, turning out magazine articles for American and British publications. He also met up for a time with Bernard Baruch, the multi-millionaire stock dealer. Following a New York speech and a trip down to Philadelphia on Baruch’s private car, Churchill and his party once more boarded the Loretto for Bethlehem.

The details of this one day stop in Bethlehem are a little vague. Perhaps Churchill just wanted to see where all his submarines had come from and perhaps Schwab wanted to show him. Local newspapers reported the presence of “Lady Churchill,” although his wife was not along on the trip. In its headline the Morning Call added an extra “h” to Churchill’s name.

It is known that Churchill’s party got a three hour tour of the plant by Steel vice president Edgar Lewis and a formal luncheon. If Churchill made any remarks they have not been recorded. There is no mention of his meeting with Schwab. By the end of the day Churchill and his party were back on the train and arrived in New York by evening.

Shortly thereafter Churchill would board a ship and be on his way home. Ahead of him lay history and destiny and his “finest hour.”