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Bethlehem Steel

Once the second biggest steel manufacturer in the united states, Bethlehem Steel was one of the world's largest shipbuilders, provider of the steel that fueled the skyscraper boom, and a proud icon of American industrial might. This was their flagship plant, with furnaces dating as far back as 1861. Bethlehem Steel was driven to bankruptcy in 2001 when shifts in construction methods made their high grade steel obsolete. The property is now owned by a casino, and while some of the structures have been destroyed the National Museum of Industrial History will be housed in several of the buildings.

My first trip to Bethlehem Steel's massive flagship plant inspired the sort of awe and reverence one typically associates with a religious experience. I hiked a long way up a railway bed and across an old trestle, past a railway car nestled beneath some brambles, and in no time I was in the old employee locker rooms. At the time I had no idea what the odd chains and hanging baskets were for (they looked strangely like incense burners used in some sort of holy rite) although I later learned that the baskets were where workers put their clothes and they were then hoisted via the chains to the ceiling, an ingenious system that lifted articles out of would-be thieves' reach.

After that I went through several buildings that I can no longer identify, finding may way into the long hallways of the machine shops and eventually onto the old elevated railroad bed. Bethlehem Steel's plant was like an enormous city - indeed, it was built to be fairly self-contained. The scale of the furnaces and the hallways of the machine shops, which seemed to stretch off into infinity, were humbling. While much of the machinery had been removed, much still remained, and when I entered the gas-blowing room, with enormous engines like locomotives lined up in a row and wheels that dwarfed me, I was beside myself. To think that such an immense place had gone out of business was terrifying, but it was so peaceful outside in the warm afternoon sunlight among mammoth rusty cogs hidden in the grass that I scarcely noticed. By the end of the day I was very tired and was excited to return.

I never really got the chance before the casino tore down many of the buildings and altered the site forever. I tried three times. The first time I was caught right after I entered by an older security guard who was actually pretty nice after threatening me with $500 trespassing fines (the fact that I didn't run and was very polite went a long way, I think). He drove me back to the entrance to the site telling me about some of the buildings as we went. The second time I didn't even get in the fence before a pickup truck pulled up. Again, the security guards were pleasant after threatening me with hefty fines should I try to enter. It was disappointing because there were so many buildings I hadn't been into, so many parts of the campus I wanted to photograph again or differently or in more depth. Bethlehem Steel was a place that you could easily spend an entire month photographing before you fully mined the wealth of amazing shots there were to take.

When I went back to make a third attempt and saw the casino construction underway and workers swarming all across the site, my heart sank. I thought I'd never get another chance to see the site before it was gone. luckily, I was wrong.

I had pretty much written Bethlehem Steel off as a loss after the casino began work. Suddenly the site was very well secured, there were hundreds of people on the premises, and several of the buildings were demolished. I periodically kicked myself for not spending more time on the day I had gone, getting up earlier and staying there later. I had taken how easy it had been to get on-site for granted, and when security was increased later it was one of the first places I met with the crushing disappointment of being constantly shut down whenever I tried to photograph it.

It came as somewhat of a surprise when a good friend of mine, another photographer, called me and told me that he was friends with one of the workers for the National Museum of Industrial History, which was going to open in some of the buildings they were saving. This friend, a walking industrial history encyclopedia named Mike, could get us onto the grounds. I was very excited. After a somewhat odd experience earlier in the day, we met Mike in the afternoon. At that point we were allowed around the bases of the blast furnaces, under the elevated railroad, into the machine shops, and into the gas blowing rooms, which were being restored as part of the museum. Mike was a very kind and very knowledgeable guide, and was able to fill us in on much of what we were photographing. This was a real blessing, since often at industrial sites I am fascinated by machinery and tools but have no idea what they are used for. This gallery has (in my opinion) benefited greatly from the information Mike supplied. I left very happy and hopeful, because if the machine shops and the gas blowing rooms could be saved, perhaps there was a chance for other sites out there as well. If there was even one person like Mike - a very hardworking individual who worked tirelessly to save as much of our industrial past as possible - maybe all of the places I photographed weren't destined to be demolished. It was a very exciting prospect indeed.

Photographs and unattributed text by Matthew Christopher. For more images click the thumbnails below.