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Toward a more compelling sense of history

An infrared black-and-white exposure, taken several years ago, shows the exterior of one of Bethlehem Steel’s remaining giant blast furnaces.

They heard about the glory days of an industrial giant—about smells belching from massive smokestacks, huge pistons pumping air into blast furnaces, and tens of thousands of men marching daily into the plant to make steel in the face of fire and danger.

“A lot of men,” said the tour guide, “couldn’t take the noise, the smell, the heat, the cold, the constant movement.

“In its day, it was really something. It was like walking into another world.”

“It” was Bethlehem Steel, once a powerful symbol of American industrial might, and now a giant rusted hulk occupying a large tract of land along the Lehigh River.

The guide was Frank Behum, president of the Steelworkers Archives and author of Thirty Years Under the Beam, a collection of oral histories from a dying generation of steelworkers.

Behum’s rapt audience: Nearly 80 Lehigh student orientation leaders who wanted to learn more about South Bethlehem and the role “The Steel” played in its development.

“I told them to ask me anything. And they bombed me, one question after another,” said Behum. “They were interested in how steel was made, but they were really interested in the people of South Side and how we all worked together.”

“We all pitched in”

Behum, a fourth-generation career steelworker, told the students about the ethnic enclaves that developed along the streets of South Mountain and the spirit of cooperation that characterized the era.

“We talked about the churches and social clubs and the role these played in keeping everyone together, helping each other out,” Behum said. “You had to do that back then. If you were hurt at Bethlehem Steel, you didn’t get paid. So we all pitched in to help. If someone was baking bread, they baked an extra loaf for the family that was out of work.”

The students also learned about the hundreds of men who died on the job, the sometimes bloody clashes between workers, management and police; and those who guarded the plant against espionage.

“This was during the wars,” Behum said. “And about 90 percent were women, who were paid by the government to patrol the grounds with single-action Colt revolvers. That’s where the term ‘pistol-packing mama’ originated.”

A more vibrant place to live and learn

As part of orientation weekend, the Bethlehem Steel tours were designed to “give students a better perspective on the history of South Bethlehem and this massive area of land across the street from campus,” said Allison Ragon, director of the First-Year Experience. “Many students have no idea the kind of impact that Bethlehem Steel made on the South Side and the U.S., nor do they realize the vast connections to Lehigh.”

The tours resulted from a collaboration between the Office of the First-Year Experience and the South Side Initiative (SSI), which brings together faculty, students and staff with Bethlehem residents.

Seth Moglen, associate professor of English and SSI co-director, was “delighted” at the opportunity to share Bethlehem’s rich history with students.

“What the students are learning are the experiences that defined life on the South Side for more than a century,” he said.

“This kind of exchange—of community memory, history, knowledge and aspiration across generations—will help make Lehigh and the South Side a more vibrant and compelling place to live and learn.”

Behum, a history buff, enjoys sharing his knowledge. He also wants to make certain that the fading experience of the steelworkers is enshrined in the city’s collective memory.

“I hope these students may want to go to the Lehigh library and learn more, listen to the steelworkers’ oral history, hear what life was like for them and learn about their contributions,” he said.


Photos by Ursula Pfitzer

Story by Linda Harbrecht

Posted on Friday, September 14, 2012

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