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Trestle project links Lehigh with community groups

The Hoover-Mason railroad trestle, built in 1905, runs the length of the blast furnaces of the old Bethlehem Steel plant and ends near the present-day Sands Casino. (Photo courtesy of the Bethlehem Heritage Coalition)

Julia Maserjian spends her work days in the company of computers, paper documents and recorded materials. But when she gets a chance to stand in the shadow of the Bethlehem Steel blast furnaces and stare upward at the Hoover-Mason railroad trestle, she is truly in her element.

“The digital world always draws you back to the analog world,” says Maserjian, a digital historian in Lehigh’s Library and Technology Services group. “You can’t be subtracted from it. It can’t just be about zeroes and ones. With historical scholarship, you have to give context to it and draw people in. And you start with the tangible object to do that.”

Those objects will soon be much closer for South Bethlehem’s residents and visitors. Earlier this year, the Bethlehem Redevelopment Authority announced plans to transform the Hoover-Mason railroad trestle into an elevated linear park similar to New York City’s High Line.

Railroad cars once brought raw materials from one side of the steel plant to the other on the trestle, which was built in 1905. It runs the length of the blast furnaces and ends near what is now the Sands Casino. By next summer, visitors will be able to walk the trestle and experience a view that was once available only to steelworkers.
 
At Lehigh, Maserjian has been at the forefront of the Beyond Steel digital archive project, making historical documents and oral histories from Lehigh’s collection and those of other organizations more accessible. Her knowledge and appreciation of Bethlehem’s rich industrial history has deepened in her nearly ten years at Lehigh, where she also serves in an advisory role with the university’s South Side Initiative.

Planting the seeds of collaboration

“I became part of this community of historians,” she says. “We all share a love of history and a profound respect for the memory of place in Bethlehem.”
 
Beyond Steel planted the seeds of collaboration among the various history groups in Bethlehem. When the trestle project was announced, Maserjian realized it was an opportunity for the community to tell the history of the site and the community surrounding it. She attended a meeting of the redevelopment authority and proposed that there be greater input from local historical institutions and heritage supporters.

The authority, under the leadership of executive director Tony Hanna ’73, agreed to consider a plan. Nine organizations, including the South Side Initiative, formed the Bethlehem Heritage Coalition and set about developing an interpretive proposal.

“I don’t know that any one of us could tell the complete story of Bethlehem,” Maserjian noted. “Each of the members of the coalition has a piece of this history to share.”

Dana Grubb of the South Bethlehem Historical Society is also a coalition member. He says the common goals shared by its member groups created a natural partnership on the project.

“From the trestle you see parts of the south side community, and there is an area where you can actually see St. Michael’s cemetery and the neighborhoods around it,” Grubb said. “Bethlehem Steel has its own history, but it also affected and interacted with the history of South Bethlehem and its ethnic communities. We came up with so many ideas that could be approached from that [trestle] platform.”

Making the Steel’s significance accessible

The Redevelopment Authority has now engaged Local Projects, a museum media design firm, to design and execute the historical interpretation portion of the Hoover-Mason Trestle redevelopment. Maserjian and the coalition will continue to be involved as the project moves forward.

Maserjian says the trestle project is just the beginning for the Bethlehem Heritage Coalition.

“I feel really proud,” she says, “to be working with this group of people—to have us come together, when, let’s face it, we’re all often after the same pools of money and support. I believe we’ve set the tone moving forward with this project for collaboration among these groups.”

Seth Moglen, associate professor of English and former director of the South Side Initiative, described the Hoover-Mason Trestle project as a model for the kind of university-community collaboration that SSI and Lehigh seek to foster.

“For more than a century, steel-making shaped every aspect of life in the city. It’s a matter of enormous importance for former steelworkers and their families, and for all of us in the city today, that the many meanings of the Steel be explored in ways that are publicly accessible.

“By acknowledging and analyzing the complex meanings of our past, we can learn much about the kind of city we have been—and the kind of city we want to become.”

Story by Hillary Kwiatek

Posted on Thursday, September 12, 2013

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