STORY WRITTEN BY BRIAN BINGAMAN
@brianbingaman on Twitter
The 1,800-acre Bethlehem Steel campus became the largest private brownfield in America after the blast furnaces shut down for good in 1995, ending a rich history of metal production going back to the mid-19th century.
Rising like a phoenix from the ashes over the past decade, thanks to the arrival of the SteelStacks arts complex, the Sands Casino, the Sands Bethlehem Event Center, the PBS-39 studios and an industrial park, the former Bethlehem Steel site continues a remarkable rebirth with a new Smithsonian Institution-affiliated museum that resides in a 1913 brick building that used to be the steel plant’s electric repair shop.
On Aug. 2 the 18,000-square-foot National Museum of Industrial History opened, appropriately, with high-pitched blasts from a steam-powered Bethlehem Steel shift whistle.
Although Bethlehem Steel — which made the skeleton of New York’s Rockefeller Plaza, beams for the Golden Gate Bridge and armor for more than 1,000 U.S. warships — is prominently featured in the NMIH, a close look around the galleries also tells the stories of other global industries rooted in Pennsylvania, such as silk and propane.
It’s also about the machines that brought America from an agrarian society into the Industrial Revolution. Among the more than 200 items on view are lathes, drill presses and engines from the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (which were in an exhibit dedicated to the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition), a 20-foot-tall Nasmyth steam hammer, World War I-era anti-tank field cannons, the longest commercially operated portable steam engine in the U.S., a 115-ton Corliss steam engine, the first propane tank created by chemist and explosives expert Walter Snelling more than 100 years ago, a wall-size print of the iconic 1932 “Lunch Atop a Skyscraper” photo (the men are sitting on a Bethlehem Steel girder), Jacquard machines and looms, and many more.
Making remarks prior to the museum’s ribbon-cutting, U.S. Rep. Charlie Dent (R-15th District) said: “The only problem with this museum is it can never be big enough. It’s not just about the past … it’s part of our present and our future.”
The museum’s president and CEO, Amy Hollander, said: “Each artifact and interactive is a gateway to a bigger story. Who designed it? Who made it? What problem did it solve? How did it transform the lives of the people in the community it served?”
For example, you can get a sense of what child laborers — who worked 12-hour days six days a week before the activism of Mary “Mother Jones” Harris — dealt with by holding a 20-pound tray of bobbins, which they would carry for hours in the silk factories. There are first-hand accounts from workers and entrepreneurs alike, and film footage from the Laros Silk Mill.
“The NMIH forges a connection between America’s industrial past and the innovations of today, to inspire the visionaries of tomorrow. And to do that, this museum explores the role of industry in America’s growth as a global power, through the stories of people, machines and ideas,” said John L. Gray, director of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
A few of the officials present for the museum’s opening made references in their speeches about how long the NMIH was in the making — nearly 20 years. According to the Associated Press, millions of dollars were available to get the museum organized, and the delay went on so long that it led to an investigation by state prosecutors. AP reported that a 2014 grand jury report stated the museum was mismanaged and wasted public and private funds. Even though now former Attorney General Kathleen Kane announced last year that the state probe found no evidence of criminal wrongdoing or misappropriation of funds, her office did issue an ultimatum to open the museum within two years, according to AP.
What does being a Smithsonian affiliate mean?
There’s a sharing agreement of objects and educational resources between the Smithsonian museums. It also means opportunities for the NMIH’s objects to be shown outside of Pennsylvania.
So why did Bethlehem Steel close in the first place?
The official reason, found in the NMIH: “New competitors emerged with scrap-based steel making and continuous casting and rolling, which saved labor, energy and material handling costs.” The upgrades the company would have to have made to keep up were declared too expensive.
Hang on. This can’t be the only museum out there about American industry.
Other institutions that focus on Pennsylvania’s role in the Industrial Revolution include the National Canal Museum a few miles northeast in Easton, Scranton’s Steamtown National Historic Site and Pennsylvania Anthracite Heritage Museum, the Pennsylvania Lumber Museum in Potter County, and the Drake Well Museum in Venango County interprets the birth of the American oil industry.