As Ed snaked through the streets of this once booming steel manufacturing town, we didn't see nearly as many trucks as would have been here just twenty years ago, when this was still a heavy industrial manufacturing area, and the overcast sky provided just the right amount of gloom to accompany the lyrics of Allentown, the Billy Joel song I was humming.
"Well, we're living here in Allentown. And they're closing all the factories down. Out in Bethlehem they're killing time. Filling out forms. Standing in line..."
This was steel country.
At one time, it was home to Bethlehem Steel, one of the largest shipbuilding companies in the world and the second largest steel-producer in the United States, until it closed shop in 2003, one hundred and forty-six years after it was founded.
The company was the subject of a 2004 PBS documentary entitled “Bethlehem Steel: The People Who Built America”. The film was the recipient of the 2004 Edward R. Murrow Award for Best News Documentary, and winner of the 2003 Mid-Atlantic Emmy Award for Outstanding Documentary. It can be seen in its entirety on YouTube.
There's a good chance, especially if you're from the Northeast, that you've been in or on a structure built with steel produced by this powerhouse of American manufacturing. But you don't have to be from the Northeast to appreciate the contributions made by Bethlehem Steel, because just three days ago, on May 27, 2012, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary.
Significant to this story, how?
Well, every bit of the 67,908 tons of structural steel it took to build that bridge, came from the little Pennsylvania town of Bethlehem. In the article I read, it stated that Bethlehem Steel also produced the steel for the George Washington Bridge in New York City, which prompted the President and CEO of The National Museum of Industrial History to say, "some like to say Bethlehem Steel anchored both ends of Interstate 80". As someone who has actually driven Interstate 80 from the George Washington to the Golden Gate, I find that to be a fun little factoid.
Today we headed to another Bethlehem factory, one in operation for more than 125 years, Lehigh Heavy Forge.
Lehigh Heavy Forge is one of the world's last remaining Forgemasters, and the only super heavy forge facility in North America. Their website says their first unique custom forging was for the 1892-1893 Chicago World's Fair - they were responsible for forging the 56 ton axle for the ferris wheel - at the time, it was the largest forging ever produced.
We were there to pick up a support skirt and an ellipsoidal head, components for a nuclear reactor located in Indiana. I have no idea what these two things do, but they were large, and heavy. They were loaded by an overhead crane, lowered onto the truck with these giant hooks.
You can see the ellipsoidal piece here. Wikipedia tells me an ellipsoid is a quadric surface, but since I didn't take anywhere near the level of math needed to explain that, you'll just have to look it up yourself. All I know is that it was shiny.
The building is massive, and although it looks (and is) old, it houses not only state of the art precision machine tools run by computers and skilled engineers, but it's also home to the largest open die press in the Western Hemisphere. With 10,000 tons of pressing power, it's able to handle steel ingots over ten feet in diameter!
The pieces we were contracted to haul were loaded on the rear of our trailer, over the spread axles, which is the area that can carry the most weight. The forge provided the wooden cradle the pieces were sitting in, and all Ed had to do was secure it and tarp it. Here, the crane operator helped him drag the tarps over the top of the pieces.
Once we were tarped and received our bills of lading, we made our way through the narrow passageway between the buildings. We were so close, I could have reached out and touched the worn, crumbling bricks.
The building, from the exterior, looks like so many of the large manufacturing facilities we see across the United States that have been abandoned. This one, upon approach, seems eerily quiet and gives off the same appearance; that is, until you step inside and see the engineers, crane operators and other workers still forging a future. They've got technology on their side now and have managed, as their website states, to "not just meet today's needs, but to anticpate tomorrow's demands."
It would be nice to see demand for our products again. To have manufacturing come back to the United States, with people filling the empty factories around the country, creating products we can be proud of. It would be nice to have another Industrial Revolution, modern style.