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History's Headlines: Bethlehem Steel's stone arches

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Apr 11 2014 07:51:34 PM CDT
Updated On: Apr 14 2014 06:38:47 PM CDT

History's Headlines: Stone arches

BETHLEHEM, Pa. -

There is a lot for visitors to see at the former Bethlehem Steel site: huge blast furnaces, buildings that stretch to a distant horizon and modern structures re-purposed to give the space a park like air. And then there are the stone arches.

At first they seem out of place, like ruins of an ancient monastery or a Roman aqueduct somehow transported across the Atlantic to the banks of the Lehigh. It is easy to wonder, isn’t Bethlehem Steel about steel? What are these stone arches doing here, the roofs they once supported long gone, leaving them open to the sky?

Well, before you could have steel, you had to have stone. And these wonderful, massive pieces of 19th century stonework may yet serve another and very modern purpose. Recently the site has been submitted as a proposal for the East Coast location for Stone Brewing Company, a West Coast brewer.

Bethlehem developers note that the site has character, charm and spring-fed water reservoirs. Although other places are hoping to get Stone Brewing to come to their towns, they may not have the history because it was here, near these arches, that some historians believe steel making began in Bethlehem.

Bethlehem Steel was born as the Bethlehem Iron Company in 1860 and was making iron by 1863 on land that was a Moravian cattle pasture. Its primary purpose was to create iron rails for the growing transportation network of Asa Packer’s Lehigh Valley Railroad.

His right-hand man, Robert Sayre, was in charge, working closely with John Fritz. While working for the Cambria Iron Company in Johnstown in 1857, Fritz had invented what was called a “three high roll mill” that enabled rails to be shaped by rollers before they became brittle and cracked. This saved time, money and produced a better quality product.

Iron rails were already being made in Allentown and other places in the Lehigh Valley and sold nationally. Although almost all the order books for Bethlehem Iron are gone, it is known that in 1867 large shiploads of iron rails from Bethlehem were sent around Cape Horn to San Francisco to be used by the Central Pacific Railroad in the building of the first transcontinental railroad with the Union Pacific Railroad.

Fritz had built a great iron making facility. But by 1865 the company’s board was talking steel. Henry Bessemer’s process was turning steel rails in England. They lasted longer than iron rails that had to be replaced after 5 to 7 years of wear, but between their cost and the tariff to import them they were no bargain. Others in America were already talking about making them here.

“A railroad which could afford the initial expense,” wrote the late W. Ross Yates, longtime Lehigh University professor and Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, in his 1987 biography of industrialist Joseph Wharton, “would in the long run greatly profit from switching from iron to Bessemer steel.”

By 1867 Sayre was noting in his diary that he was “examining the process for manufacture of steel from ore.” He had also made contact with Alexander Holley, an engineer who had been in England, studied Bessemer’s process, and had gained patent rights to it.

The following year Fritz was overseeing the construction of what would be the building to house Bethlehem’s Bessemer converters.

In 1870 Fritz made a trip to Europe to study steel-making there. He was allowed access in France to the Schneider et Cie Ironworks at Le Creusot and the Bessemer facility in Sheffield, England. He did this despite the fact, as he notes in his diary, that he also had to keep Asa Packer’s sons Robert and Harry out of trouble during their tour of Paris nightspots.

In the meantime the building with the stone arches was going up in South Bethlehem. It was originally built as one structure that was 931 feet long. The part that remains roofed today was where the Bessemer converters were located. The now roofless area of the arches housed a three high rolling mill, a modification of Fritz’s Johnstown invention.

Why was stone used for the arches? The major reason was probably because it was traditional and sturdy. Pennsylvania German stone masons were the major labor source and they were more familiar with it than brick. And local brick was not of the same high quality as it was in Philadelphia.

Fritz, himself a Pennsylvania German, must have trusted stone more. And so did Holley. On his trips to Bethlehem Holley noted the high quality of the construction and machinery Fritz was using. “When Holley once suggested that Fritz had probably made some of the machinery unnecessarily strong,” writes Yates, “he is reported to have laughed and said, ‘Well, if I have, it will never be found out.’”

Fritz’s mill went into operation to much fanfare on October 4, 1873, making it the 11th America company making Bessemer steel. Roughly two weeks later the Panic of 1873 caused the collapse of the railroad building boom that had fueled the iron industry since the 1850’s. Iron furnaces in the Valley collapsed, laying off hundreds of workers. Those iron makers that survived limped along, never really being healthy again. Bethlehem’s steel making enabled it to make the technological leap into the 20th century.

The Bessemer converters, by then outdated, stopped making steel in 1902 and were dismantled. The big building was cut up, part of it becoming the iron foundry. The section with the arches became a boiler room.

In the 1970s, over a hundred years after it was built, the roof was removed from the arched building. “The only reason they were left standing was because they supported utilities,” says Bethlehem Steel historian Mike Piersa. Thanks to their durability and beauty those stately arches may once more thrive into the 21st century.