Project Leader: Amey Senape - Project Assistant: Andrea Freimuth
At 5:30 p.m. on November 18, 1995, Bethlehem Steel poured its last cast and the blast furnaces were extinguished. After more than a century of prosperous noise, heat and dirt, steelmaking in Bethlehem, PA ended. A community dominated by the production of steel beams, massive military guns and armor plating lost its identity virtually overnight. A corporation that occupied 20% of the city’s land area and contributed significant annual tax revenues, shrank and eventually disappeared in bankruptcy proceedings.
On November 19, 2005, as a Public History graduate class project at Lehigh University, the staging of a public event to commemorate the 10-year anniversary of this watershed moment in the community’s history took place. This was an excellent opportunity to connect defining events as the community continued to struggle with deindustrialization and the controversial redevelopment of the former Steel site. The event provided not only an opportunity to recognize the accomplishments of the generations of men and women who toiled in the mill, but also encouraged the community to seek inspiration from its rich industrial heritage as it shapes its future.
A free program that included theater, music, photography and video was held in Zoellner Arts Center. The event was capped off with an informal Q&A session with former steelworkers, historical groups and visual artists. Over 350 attendees cried, laughed and sang along while learning about the history that binds their community together. Scholarly research drew content from primary sources including historical documents, photographs and video footage. In addition, five oral histories of former steelworkers were conducted, including the foreman in charge of the last cast, and were edited into a 13-minute video segment where they shared their thoughts on the Steel, the significance of the last cast, their memories of the day that steelmaking ended and their vision for the future.
This historical research was used to craft five live performances depicting the evolution of steelmaking and its affect on the workers in Bethlehem between 1900-1995. Local amateur actors, including several former steelworkers, delivered the historically-based monologues portraying workers from five significant time periods. Local musicians performed steel-related folk songs between each performance while a loop of historic Bethlehem Steel photos projected on a screen onstage. All steelworkers in attendance were given red ribbons to pin on their jackets as they entered the auditorium so that others could identify them. In addition, red carnations were given to former steelworkers who were willing to discuss their experiences at the Steel during the Q&A reception. At the end of the performance, all Steelworkers were asked to stand and were thanked for their hard work and dedication by an enthusiastic ovation from the crowd.
The budget of $3,000 was raised from local businesses, citizens and organizations to keep the event free thereby encouraging maximum participation. The event was organized in approximately 10 weeks and required over 600 hours of work. This project was a major undertaking combining research, writing, fundraising, supervising, organizing, communicating and coordinating, but, in the end, was enormously rewarding for all those involved. After final accounting, the remaining $174 was donated to the South Bethlehem Historical Society.
This event provided a much needed venue for the community to reflect on its great accomplishments at a time of painful changes and uncertainties. In a town currently known for its colonial past, this event focused the spotlight on the community’s more recent industrial heritage. It also spread the message that Bethlehem’s industrial past can be used as a foundation for the future as its shared accomplishments can empower the community and help them move forward. This event brought together numerous diverse institutions and individuals who believed in these goals, but had never worked together before. In this way, the seeds of future cooperation were sown among these various groups and their existence and missions were highlighted for the community. Furthermore, this project exposed the community to the field of Public History and to Lehigh University’s program, encouraging others to embrace public history as a vital part of their community identity and use it as a strong foundation upon which it can build.
Amey J. Senape is a graduate student in the Department of History with a concentration in Public History. She is also completing coursework for an Historic Preservation Certificate from Bucks County College. Beyond academics, she is co-founder of the grassroots organization Save Our Steel, founding member of the Friends of Broughal School and is currently employed by the Delaware and Lehigh National Heritage Corridor as an Historic Resource Specialist and Manager of the Lehigh Valley Industrial Heritage Coalition. After completing her degree, she plans to continue actively advocating for the preservation of the community’s heritage and cultural resources.