Beyond Steel
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Iron and Steel in the Lehigh Valley

By John K. Smith

The fortunate combination of natural resources, transportation networks, and entrepreneurial talent combined made the Lehigh Valley the center of the nation's iron industry in the middle decades of the nineteenth century. In the latter decades of the century, although the center of rapidly expanding steel industry moved west to Pittsburgh, the Bethlehem Iron Company survived and even prospered by shifting from the industry's key product–railroad rails–to battleship armor and large guns. This strategic shift paid enormous dividends in World War I in the form of massive profits the company earned supplying munitions to the Allies. By Armistice Day in 1918, Bethlehem was the second largest American steel company. In the 1920s Bethlehem became a diversified steel producer–both geographically and in its product lines–through the acquisition of several large competitors and the development of the novel Bethlehem beam for building construction. In the twentieth century, as the scale of steel production increased Bethlehem could not longer rely on local sources of raw materials, especially iron ore which it obtained from mines in Cuba and Chile. Buying materials in shipload quantities from far flung locations, obviously favored steel mills located on deepwater ports. Although Bethlehem had such plants near Baltimore and Buffalo, the company continued to invest in its home plant located sixty miles north of the nearest port, in Philadelphia. Although the Bethlehem plant was located near important markets, especially for structural steel, the economic disadvantages of its location for basic steel production made the plant increasingly uncompetitive. In the mid-1970s technological and market changes in the steel industry took a heavy toll on Bethlehem Steel generally, and especially on the home plant. After 270 years of continuous iron-making in the Lehigh Valley, the Bethlehem blast furnaces were blown out for the last time in 1995.

In the eighteenth century, Pennsylvania became the center of colonial American industry. Within the colony, Berks County, which encompassed the Schuylkill River valley, had the largest number of iron-making and ironworking establishments. The Lehigh Valley had only one facility, the Durham Furnace near the Delaware River, which started production in 1725. Later it would be operated by George Taylor, who would be a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Iron from this furnace was floated forty miles downstream to Philadelphia in unique Durham boats.

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