First-Hand:Tales from The Steel

Submitted by Thomas Blalock

In November of 1995, the unthinkable happened in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

‘C’ Furnace, the last operating blast furnace at the Bethlehem Steel home plant was shut down for the last time, thus ending 135 years of “hot metal” production there.

“The Steel” had closed ! That’s what the plant had been known as for a long time in the Lehigh Valley, including the time during which I grew up outside of the neighboring city of Easton.

I became interested in exploring certain aspects of the plant’s electric power system and I learned that the Plant Engineer there was Charlie Martin, a fellow Lafayette College graduate (although I never knew him while I attended Lafayette).

Eventually, I managed to get in touch with Charlie and arranged to meet him just before Christmas in 1999.

As is usual for me, I was early for our appointment so I pulled my truck into a cul-de-sac which led to an abandoned plant gate. A short time later, a vehicle pulled up behind me and it turned out to be a plant security guard. I was asked whether I was taking any photos of the plant. I lied and said “no” because I did not want to risk having my camera confiscated !

I told the guard that I was just killing some time until an appointment I had with Charlie. Obviously, the guard knew him and so departed in a friendly mood.

Much later, I learned that one could have been thrown in jail during World War II simply for attempting to take photos of the plant, even from a public sidewalk. This was related to the fact that the Bethlehem plant was heavily engaged in armament production during the war.

Putting all of this together, I considered myself very lucky because, prior to my encounter with the security guard, I had actually laid down on the sidewalk of the Minsi Trail Bridge, which divided the plant into two sections, in order to take a photo beneath the Cyclone fence running along the bridge.

At that time, a building still stood within the plant which once had housed U.S. Navy offices because of the extent of military work done there.

An incident which has been documented in print was related to the fact that U.S. Naval personnel were on the premises during World War II to supervise activities in the plant.

One day, a Navy officer happened upon a Bethlehem worker who was dozing off. That was not really unusual because the intensity of the war effort had led to a great deal of forced overtime for plant workers.

Anyway, the officer woke the worker up and chastised him for sleeping on the job by asking “Haven’t you ever heard of Pearl Harbor ?”. The disgruntled worker then replied “Oh, yeah. That was the morning that the Navy overslept !”.

Subsequently, other workers had to separate the two because they went after each other. The Navy wanted the worker fired, but manpower was in such short supply at the time that the request was not honored.

Today, a Sands gambling casino stands in the area to the east of the Minsi Trail Bridge, across from where I had laid down on the sidewalk, which apparently steals some business from the casinos in Atlantic City, New Jersey.

This area had been the ore yard where iron ore was sorted and stockpiled prior to its use in the blast furnaces to the west. Huge outdoor travelling bridge cranes, called ore bridges, had been used to move the iron ore around the yard. At one time, there were four of these behemoths but, when the plant closed, there was only one left. It has been repainted and is used as an “industrial motif” portal for the casino !

When the casino opened several years ago, Don Young and Mike Piersa were asked to set up a temporary steam boiler so as to be able to blow a steam whistle that once had been used to signal shift (“turn”) changes at the Bethlehem plant. Mike Piersa recently had completed an Honor’s Thesis at Moravian College in Bethlehem on the subject of the Bethlehem blast furnace equipment and, so, had an avid interest in the plant.

Don is retired from The Steel after more than thirty years as a Turn Foreman in the Electric Furnace Melt Shop at Bethlehem. Don actually has a degree in metallurgical engineering and, when I first met him, he was quick to tell me that “ electrical engineers think that metallurgical engineers are crazy, and vice-versa” ! Regardless, we became friends and Don has given me a tremendous amount of practical information regarding virtually all aspects of the operation of the Bethlehem plant.

The whistle that was blown at the casino opening ceremonies was actually rather special. It had been borrowed back from the Pratt Institute, located in Brooklyn, New York City, for this occasion. The whistle originally had come from the French luxury liner Normandie.

This passenger ship had been seized by the United States in 1940 to be refitted for use as a troop ship during World War II. Bethlehem Steel was hired to carry out this conversion while the ship was docked at Pier 88 on the Hudson River in Manhattan. Unfortunately, during this work, a welder’s torch (a Bethlehem Steel worker ?) inadvertently started a fire which raged out of control. The huge ship capsized and sank into the mud. Eventually, it was righted, but the damage was so great that it was scrapped. That was how its steam whistle ended up signaling shift changes at the Bethlehem plant !

The Minsi Trail Bridge divided the Bethlehem plant, more or less, into two major sections. These were the Lehigh plant to the west and the Saucon plant to the east. However, these designations were really more functionally related than strictly geographical. The Lehigh plant was home to the blast furnaces, foundries, and forging operations. It was the location of the original Bethlehem Iron Company during the nineteenth century. The Saucon plant developed during the early twentieth century and was home to the structural steel rolling mills and the open hearth furnace shops that supplied these with steel ingots. There were, however, some foundry and forging operations to the east of the bridge and some open hearth shops and rolling mills to the west.

During the latter nineteenth century, the Bethlehem plant developed a reputation for its ability to produce mammoth, high quality steel forgings. During the early twentieth century, this plant produced nearly all of the huge gun barrels required for U.S. Navy battleships. Many of these gun barrels were shipped to the Watervliet Arsenal, north of Albany, New York, for final finishing. Likewise, massive steel shafts required for the construction of gigantic steam turbine-generators were forged at Bethlehem and many of these found their way to the equally huge General Electric plant in Schenectady, New York.

The reputation for heavy steel forging that developed in the Bethlehem Steel plant actually survives today. A company called Lehigh Heavy Forge is still operating out of some of the old Saucon plant buildings, right next to the Sands casino. They are, in fact, still using at least one of the massive old hydraulic presses from the Bethlehem Steel era to produce steel shafts and other large steel forgings.

The Bethlehem plant site is located in South Bethlehem, along the south bank of the Lehigh River. This area also was the location of the homes of a great many of the tens of thousands of steel workers employed at the plant, and their families.

South Bethlehem was a huge melting pot of various ethnic groups. Interestingly, these groups tended to segregate themselves in different areas of the Bethlehem plant.

Steelworker John Wadolny described this segregation in the 1986 book Crisis in Bethlehem by John Strohmeyer, including personality characterizations.

Machinists in the various machine shops of the plant tended to be Germans (“smart”); blast furnace operators tended to be Hungarians (“tough”); rolling mills tended to be operated by Slovaks (“diligent”); the plant security patrol tended to be Irish (“gutsy”); and, unfortunately, extremely dirty and unpleasant jobs such as the tending of coke ovens generally were handed out to Hispanic, Mexican, and Portugese workers.

David Kuchta, in his 1995 book Memoirs of a Steelworker, asserts that the work force at the Bethlehem plant was “mostly white”. He further comments that “We are all Union brothers regardless of our color or ethnic background. I am very proud of this.”

Apparently, religion was also a factor in this segregation. Jim Phillips once served as the superintendent of the Blowing Engine House (which provided the air blast for the blast furnaces) and later became Assistant Chief Engineer for the plant. According to Jim, “if you wanted to work in the Lehigh plant, it was better to be Protestant and, if you wanted to work in the Saucon plant, it was better to be Catholic” ! He also said that, in all the years he worked in the Bethlehem plant, he remembers meeting only one person of the Jewish persuasion.

In 30 Years under the Beam by steelworker Frank Behum (2010), the author interviews a former Bethlehem plant worker named Glen Snyder who describes his first days on the job in the Saucon rolling mills in 1964.

Snyder comments that his first job as a maintenance man there was in the “tabernacle”.

It turns out that this refers to a cooling water pump house associated with the first roll stand of what was known as the 42-inch Mill. Apparently, it had been called the tabernacle for quite a long time because it is actually referred to as that on a 1921 Bethlehem Steel drawing of this rolling mill that was sent to me by Jim Phillips.

It seems that the tabernacle had become something of a clubhouse (or hiding place !) for maintenance men in the Saucon rolling mill complex. Don Young maintains that the name “tabernacle” was used in a bigoted sense since there were so few Jewish workers in the plant. Don also remembers meeting only one Jewish employee during his tenure.

Bethlehem Steel always played “second banana” to the monstrous U.S. Steel Corporation. However, Bethlehem developed certain areas of expertise that U.S. Steel never could match.

One of these areas involved the rolling of structural steel shapes (I-beams, etc.). Around the turn of the twentieth century, a man named Charles Schwab (not of the investment group) had become a protégé of Andrew Carnegie in Pittsburgh. However, Schwab’s personal lifestyle (gambling, etc.) did not set well with the rather conservative Carnegie. Consequently, Schwab left Carnegie Steel (which shortly thereafter became U.S .Steel) and maneuvered himself into the leadership role at Bethlehem Steel.

Since Schwab had firsthand knowledge of Carnegie (U.S.) Steel’s strengths and weaknesses, he proceeded to develop areas of expertise in Bethlehem that he knew were not strong ones in Pittsburgh.

Schwab arranged to purchase the patent rights of an Englishman named Henry Grey, who had developed a revolutionary rolling mill that was capable of rolling structural beams having exceedingly wide flanges. This configuration was a great strength advantage for beams and columns used in the huge skyscrapers and bridges being constructed in the early twentieth century.

The installation of a “Grey Mill” (subsequently referred to as the 48-inch Mill) actually initiated the development of the Saucon plant complex at Bethlehem. Both wide-flanged beams and “H-columns”, so called because of their cross-sectional shape as well as the fact that they were most often used as vertical support columns in the steel frameworks of large skyscrapers, were produced. However, due to this initial exclusive production at Bethlehem, these structural shapes also came to be known as “Bethlehem Beams”.

The 48-inch Mill in the Saucon plant produced such an overwhelmingly great percentage of such beams and columns used in the construction of Manhattan skyscrapers during the early to mid-twentieth century that a sign once hung over the entrance to the 48-inch Mill building which read “Welcome to the Mill that built Manhattan” !

The spacings of all rolls in a structural steel shape rolling stand are adjustable. The main rolls are driven via jointed shafts (to accommodate the raising or lowering of the upper roll) from an adjacent pinion gear stand. The pinion gear spacing, of course, is fixed. Thus, it is this pinion spacing that is used as a dimensional specification of the size of the mill.

The 48-inch Grey Mill was started up in 1908. In 1920, a second, slightly smaller such mill was installed and was known as the 42-inch Mill. In addition, there were two 28-inch mills, one for rolling smaller structural shapes and the other for rolling railroad rails.

All of these early mills were steam engine driven. These engines were rated in the tens of thousands of horsepower. New engines installed on the 48-inch Mill in 1920, when its original engines were moved for use on the 42-inch Mill, were rated for 35,000 horsepower each and were said to be the largest such engines in the country (and possibly in the world) at that time.

Don Young claims that every time one of these engines was taken out of service for major maintenance, it seemed that its horsepower rating was increased when it was put back into service. This could have been true since minor improvements probably would have been made to an engine while it was out of service for maintenance.

During the 1920’s, however, the use of electric motor rolling mill drives had begun. In 1920, the 28-inch structural mill was rebuilt and equipped with a 25-cycle drive motor. Then, during the 1950’s, it was equipped with a d.c. motor drive and, by then, was called the 32-inch billet mill. In the 1980’s, this motor was replaced with a d.c. motor which had been used to drive a 35-inch blooming mill in the Lehigh plant merchant mill complex.

The 32-inch mill was fed from what was known as the No. 1 40-inch blooming mill, or “bloomer”, which was still steam engine driven. This billet mill fed two light structural mills, the 12-inch and the 18-inch mills, also in the Saucon plant and both electrically driven. Later, it fed a new “Combo Mill” constructed in the 1960’s in the space formerly occupied by the 28-inch Rail Mill. This new mill was capable of rolling a wide variety of structural shapes, by changing rolls, and was completely electrically driven.

Two more steam engine driven bloomers continued in operation. The 46-inch bloomer fed the 48-inch Grey Mill and the No. 2 40-inch bloomer fed the 42-inch Mill, both mills still being steam engine driven.

During the late 1980’s, the “intermediate” stand of the 48-inch mill was equipped with a new electric motor drive. One reason for this was that a crack had existed in the steam chest of this stand’s engine for some time. The crack had been “drilled and plugged” and the steam chest itself had been banded for additional strength, but the fear was that the failure of this engine would, of course, shut down the entire mill.

This entirely new installation included a 59-inch roll stand. The larger dimension was decided upon because it was thought that this mill might eventually stay in operation by receiving steel slabs (to be reheated) from another Bethlehem Steel plant, possibly from Sparrows Point, Maryland or from nearby Steelton, PA.

That, however, never occurred. Thus, the anachronistic situation developed whereby this modern electric motor driven stand continued to be fed from a steam engine driven bloomer, and continued to feed into a steam engine driven finishing stand, until 1995 !

The open hearth furnaces, which traditionally had supplied steel ingots to all of these rolling mills, remained in operation until the Combo Mill was built in the 1960’s.

At that time, an installation of Basic Oxygen Furnaces (“BOF’s”) was made to refine blast furnace pig iron into steel, as the open hearths had done previously. The BOF is the modern version of the early Bessemer Converter, but pure oxygen is blown through the molten iron to refine it into steel rather than just air.

In order to construct the new BOF facility, Bethlehem Steel purchased all of the properties in an area adjacent to the Saucon plant that was known as Northampton Heights. All of the existing houses, of course, were demolished. This caused some consternation among the steelworkers because that area had been known as South Bethlehem’s “red-light” district !

Prior to the BOF’s, the No. 2 and No. 4 Open Hearth Shops had been the sources of steel ingots for the Saucon rolling mills. At one time, the No. 3 Open Hearth, in the Lehigh plant, had fed a merchant rolling mill complex at the extreme western end. Also in the Lehigh plant, the No. 1 Open Hearth had provided molten steel for the adjacent Steel Foundry whose major product was steel rolls for use in rolling mills, but huge steel ingots were also cast to be forged into very large products such as turbine-generator shafts. Such forgings were subsequently heat treated and then machined in one of several large machine shops in the plant. Later, the function of No. 1 Open Hearth was taken over by the Electric Furnace Melt Shop.

Eventually, the No. 2 Open Hearth Shop contained a total of sixteen furnaces, each with its own smokestack. This long row of stacks dominated the Saucon plant skyline and it was those that I was taking photos of before being accosted by the security guard while waiting to meet Charlie Martin (the No. 4 Open Hearth, just to the east, contributed five more stacks to the skyline).

In Memoirs of a Steelworker, David Kuchta describes the job of cleaning out the flues of an open hearth furnace. It took so long for these flues to totally cool down after a furnace was shut down that the maintenance workers had to begin the cleaning operation while the flues were still very hot. Each man on a crew could work inside the flue for only a minute or less at a time. They wore wooden sandals strapped to their work shoes because, otherwise, the hot bricks would melt leather or rubber soles !

Even though the No.2 Open Hearth building and its row of stacks were still standing in 1999 when I visited Charlie Martin, the open hearth furnaces themselves were long gone. The huge building had been in use merely as a storage area for ingot moulds.

In fact, even the BOF facility that replaced the open hearths had been demolished by that time. The abandoned gate that I was waiting at had been the entrance to the BOF building area.

I think that the 48-inch Grey Mill (and perhaps other rolling mills) was still in place then. Unfortunately, however, I did not even know of the existence of this historic mill at that time and, so, did not ask to see it. Sadly, the 48-inch Mill installation was just too massive to save for historic purposes and it has since been scrapped.

Charlie, and plant electrical engineer Ray Brodeur, did give me a tour of the Lehigh plant and it was that experience which fired my interest in the history of the Bethlehem plant itself in addition to its electric power system.

The specific reason that I had contacted Charlie in the first place had to do with the existence of an interesting piece of electric power equipment at a substation located in nearby Freemansburg.

The Bethlehem plant had an extensive internal power system operating at a frequency of 25-cycles rather than our standard of 60-cycles (60-Hertz) in the United States. For various reasons, the use of this odd frequency was common in large integrated steel plants during the early twentieth century.

The interesting piece of equipment at Freemansburg was a large, outdoor, hydrogen-cooled frequency changer. I had noticed it while driving by the substation decades before and was puzzled because it looked like an oil storage tank except for the fact that it had a General Electric logo on the side. It wasn’t until a rotating machinery class at Lafayette, when the professor happened to mention it, that I finally knew what it was.

Sometime after my visit in 1999, I was in contact with John Winders, an engineer with Pennsylvania Power & Light. The frequency changer functioned as a link between the PP&L 60-cycle power system and the Bethlehem Steel 25-cycle system. John told me that the Freemansburg substation itself was jointly owned by PP&L and Bethlehem Steel. In fact, according to him, the joint ownership was so specific that even the station battery, used for lighting and breaker operation during an emergency, was part of the agreement. Thus, it seems that both parties owned 62-1/2 volts worth of the 125 volt battery !

Charlie and Ray took me to see the Freemansburg substation and its outdoor “freak”, as these machines were often called. Afterwards, we drove to another facility, known as Converter Substation, on the north bank of the Lehigh River which housed a conventional indoor Westinghouse frequency changer that operated in parallel with the one at the Freemansburg Substation.

These rotating frequency changers were capable of transferring power in either direction, but were used to bring outside (PP&L) power into the Bethlehem plant.

Converter Substation was built during World War II when the level of war-related activity in the plant was substantial and more outside electric power was needed. The nameplates on the two machines comprising the Westinghouse frequency changer indicated that it consisted of a 25-cycle motor driving a 60-cycle generator, even though it was being used the other way around !

This machine had been built by Westinghouse for another customer, not Bethlehem Steel. However, when the U.S. Government learned of the need for such a machine at Bethlehem, Westinghouse was directed to deliver it there instead. The nameplates reflect the fact that, at its originally intended location, it was to be used in the opposite mode.

As with all rotating electrical machines, there were losses associated with the operation of the Westinghouse machine. Cooling water was obtained from the Lehigh River and was returned to the river warmed up. The substation operator took advantage of this by creating a side business of growing watercress in the warm discharge water year round and selling it !

This story about the watercress was told to me by a man named Ben Pinckney. I was directed to him by my contacts at PP&L. Ben had worked at the Bethlehem plant, but by this time was working for Lehigh Heavy Forge.

I contacted Ben (who turned out to be a very interesting guy to talk with) to arrange to visit two old electric power substations. These were both along the border between the property allocated to Lehigh Heavy Forge and the future location of the casino.

One had been known as “Car Dumper Sub” because it provided direct current for the operation of motors in the machine that rotated railroad hopper cars to empty them of their loads of iron ore, and to power the ore bridges that then were used to distribute it around the ore yard east of the Minsi Trail Bridge.

The other was known as “Loop Sub”. The 25-cycle power system within the plant had been arranged in a loop configuration to assure greater reliability and Loop Substation was the central control facility for the operation of this loop system.

Both of these substations were basically derelict by the time that I saw them, but both still contained drawing files holding hundreds of drawings relating to the 25-cycle power system. With Ben’s blessing, I walked away with more than a dozen of these drawings.

The drawings were a fantastic source of information regarding the particulars of the plant’s electric power system. I also came across rather interesting comments that had been included by the draftsmen on some of the drawings.

One drawing included the intriguing remark “1000 kw M-G set moved to No. 5 Temp due to Reinert’s Folly” ! I decided this deserved some investigation.

According to Charlie Martin, Fred Reinert had been a very competent and well respected electrical engineer in the Bethlehem plant. Following the plant closing, Fred took a job with the Brandenburg Demolition Company who had the contract to demolish facilities within the former plant (so, they’re the ones who scrapped the historic 48-inch Grey Mill !).

I contacted Fred and he told me the story himself.

The “Temp” in the note is not short for “temporary”, but referred to the No.5 Tempering Facility, more commonly known as the No. 5 High House. This was where huge steel forgings, such as battleship gun barrels and turbine-generator shafts, received necessary heat treatment.

A high overhead crane would lower a long forging into a cylindrical “pit” furnace. Then, when it was hot enough, the crane would lift it out and lower it into a quenching bath tank in order to harden the forging. The “tempering” actually was subsequent reheating of the forging in order to relieve internal stresses in the steel caused by the sudden quenching.

One weekend, Fred was called at home because a problem had developed with the motor-generator set that provided direct current for the crane motors in the No.5 High House. A huge forging had been heated and was hanging from the crane over the quench tank. The hope was to do something quickly so as to “save” the heat treatment.

In desperation, Fred suggested something that could be tried. In all probability, in their haste, the electricians did something wrong while trying to carry out Fred’s suggestion. The result was the total destruction of the M-G set generator and, of course, the loss of the heat treatment on the forging.

Deserved or not, Fred was blamed; hence “Reinert’s Folly” !

A back-up (1000 kw) M-G set associated with one of the electrified rolling mills in the Saucon plant was moved to the No. 5 High House to replace the destroyed equipment.

Another cryptic note on one of these drawings was “C.L. Eichenberg Memorial Hi-Line”.

Eichenberg had, for a long time, been a superintendent in the electrical department of the Bethlehem plant. An old 25-cycle high voltage transmission line ran from the Saucon plant to the Coke Works, located some distance away to the southeast of the main plant.

Eventually, conventional 60-cycle power was gradually introduced into the Bethlehem plant. A new 60-cycle transmission line was to run to the Coke Works. For reasons unknown, Eichenberg insisted that this new line be run on the same steel towers used for the former 25-cycle line. Therefore, the old towers could not be scrapped, as others had wanted to do and, thus, the drawing note memorializing this decision !

The Bethlehem plant did generate its own 25-cycle power starting in the early twentieth century. The Freemansburg frequency changer was installed in the 1930’s to supplement this internal source of power.

The means used to generate this power within the plant turned out to be rather unique and fascinating, and involved machines that I had never known existed prior to the Lehigh plant tour that Charlie and Ray gave me in 1999.

Our first stop on that tour was the Blowing Engine House adjacent to the blast furnaces. This was where Jim Phillips had worked decades earlier. The blowing engines provided the air blast for the furnaces. They were monstrous, eighty foot long internal combustion engines that ran on waste gas (called “top gas”) from the blast furnaces. Each engine had two gas cylinders in tandem and an air cylinder (called an “air tub”) which fed into the cold blast mains to the furnaces.

There had been as many as seventeen of these engines in a row (some were gone by 1999), and Charlie said they were not really all that noisy in operation. The sound created by the engines consisted of a repetitive “whooshing” sound caused by the operations of the intake and exhaust valves, plus a low background humming sound caused by the huge flywheels at the ends of the engines.

The main combustible component of blast furnace top gas was carbon monoxide. The huge size of these engines had to do with the fact that CO is not a terrific fuel, so a lot of it is required. The advantage of using it was simply that there was a lot of it available which, otherwise, would just be wasted.

Charlie said that the blowing engine operators could tell when there was a cooling water leak in one of the blast furnaces because that would add hydrogen to the top gas which would become apparent as a knocking sound in the engines. Thus, the blowing engine foreman could phone the blast furnace foreman to tell him there was a leak somewhere !

Blast furnace gas was used for many heating purposes throughout the plant as well. The supply of gas was so important that, occasionally, one blast furnace would actually be operated so as to maximize its “waste” gas output rather than its pig iron output ! A man called the “gas checker” was responsible for maintaining the supply of gas as required and was the equivalent of the dispatcher for an electric power system.

Of course, carbon monoxide is very hazardous for workers. A terrible incident once occurred at the No. 3 High House just west of the Minsi Trail Bridge. A problem had developed with a pit furnace there and two workers were sent down into it to investigate. They did not come out. So, two more workers went down. The same thing happened and, by the time this episode was over, eight workers had died from CO poisoning. It was difficult to understand how this tragedy happened because all of the workers were very much aware of the dangers of carbon monoxide gas.

Another horrible event occurred one time at one of the blast furnaces. These furnaces ran for years before the need to replace their refractory linings. However, it was still important to accomplish this and put the furnace back into productivity as soon as was possible. Somebody had the “bright” idea to speed up the cooling down process with one of the furnaces by spraying water into the top. Unfortunately, this individual did not consider the fact that spraying water onto red hot coke created hydrogen gas. A horrific explosion resulted which killed several workers.

The same type of gas engines used to “blow” the blast furnaces were also used to generate 25-cycle power in a building called the Gas Engine Power House, just west of the Blowing Engine House.

This was, in fact, a primary reason for the use of the low 25-cycle frequency, not just at Bethlehem, but at many other large steel plants as well. The slight periodic speed variations of these reciprocating engines made it difficult to parallel (synchronize) their alternators so as to feed into a common power system when a frequency as high as 60-cycles was used. Another reason for the lower frequency was its use to operate very large motors driving rolling mills (after the steam engine era). These were rather slow speed motors and a lower frequency allowed for a simpler motor design.

There were seven of these power-generating engines and, again, their use had to do with the availability of essentially free gas from the blast furnaces as fuel.

When it became necessary to introduce outside 25-cycle power to the plant (from PP&L), the first attempt to parallel these reciprocating engine generators with the outside power was accompanied by “considerable fear and trembling”, according to an anonymous history of electric power in the Bethlehem plant given to me by Ray Brodeur. Regardless, the paralleling worked just fine.

The primary destinations for the molten pig iron cast from the blast furnaces (they were “cast”, not “tapped”) were the open hearth shops in the Saucon plant. Secondary destinations were the Iron Foundry in the Lehigh plant and the Ingot Mould Foundry in the Saucon plant. The molten iron was transported in special refractory-lined railroad “sub” cars, so called because they resembled submarines on wheels.

The open hearths were charged from one side with molten pig iron along with some scrap metal from a nearby yard. A lengthy process then refined the charged metal into steel suitable for use in the adjacent rolling mills. The furnaces were tapped from the other side into gigantic refractory-lined ladles lowered into a pit by overhead cranes. The ladles would then be teemed into ingot moulds and the resulting steel ingots were eventually fed into the blooming mills.

The tapping of the furnaces was the responsibility of a worker called a “second helper”. One time, an Open Hearth Shop foreman named Lew Fields became incensed because of delays in tapping one of the furnaces. Finally, he simply ordered the second helper to tap the furnace. According to Don Young, the besieged helper just decided not to tell Fields that there was no ladle in the pit awaiting the charge of molten steel !

The result of this war of wills was a huge puddle of molten steel flowing around in the pit. Fields was such a competent foreman that, following this unfortunate incident, he was given another supervisory job which actually was a promotion. Don Young explained that molten steel in the pit was not unheard of because, occasionally, an open hearth furnace lining would be pushed a little too far and the resulting “break-out” created the same sort of mess. After cooling, the steel would be broken up and carted to the scrap yard.

In the early years of open hearth operation, tapping was an extremely hazardous task because it was accomplished simply by manually pounding a steel bar through the fireclay used to plug up the tap hole.

Eventually, a process known as “jet tapping” was introduced. A device was placed outside of the still plugged tap hole which contained an explosive charge and, when a remote firing button was pushed, the resulting concussion would blow out the fireclay plug. The device itself would, of course, then be destroyed by the flow of molten steel (this device actually was an adaptation of armor piercing artillery shells developed during World War II).

One time, the wife of a high level Bethlehem Steel manager, who was active in a local women’s social club, decided that it would be exciting for the club members to witness the tapping of an open hearth furnace.

The manager ordered that a special viewing platform be built to allow the women’s group to witness the procedure. His wife was to actually push the button to activate the jet tapper, but Union rules required that the second helper stand alongside of her when this was done.

This was a unique event, so the platform was crowded with women, managers, and newspaper reporters. Understandably, the manager’s wife was very nervous at being in such a terrifying environment. Her nervousness caused her to ask the second helper about the consequences of nothing happening when she pushed the button. The sweaty, cigar-chewing second helper replied, for all to hear, “Well, lady, then we’re fucked” !

Further Technical Reading

“The Bethlehem Steel Works during the Early Twentieth Century and the Development of its Electric Power System” by Thomas J. Blalock

Canal History and Technology Proceedings, Volume XXIV; March 19, 2005

National Canal Museum, Easton, PA(pages 81 thru 118)


The Freemansburg frequency changer had already been taken out of service when I saw it in 1999. The machine was scrapped three years later and, in fact, today the entire Freemansburg substation is gone !

I believe that Converter Substation may still be standing, but it no longer produces 25-cycle power (or watercress!). In 2003, the failure of a high voltage bushing led to the shutdown of the Westinghouse frequency changer.

Lehigh Heavy Forge still had been using some old equipment with 25-cycle motors. However, it made more sense to change out those motors instead of maintaining the frequency changer. Ray Brodeur said that, prior to its shutdown, the load on the “freak” was actually much less than its own losses.

The site of the former Bethlehem Steel plant is, today, a curious mixture of the old and the new. The Sands casino stands just east of the Minsi Trail Bridge, with the remains of the last of the ore bridges framing its entrance.

East of that, Lehigh Heavy Forge remains in operation in a complex of old Bethlehem Steel buildings. The No. 5 High House still stands, but is derelict.

Likewise, west of the bridge, the derelict No. 3 High House is still standing, next to a modern hotel.

The mammoth No. 2 Machine Shop still stands, but also is derelict. It once contained lathes capable of turning steel forgings as much as one hundred feet in length.

The five blast furnaces, along with surrounding ancillary equipment, are still standing, now perpetually cold. Regardless, they are so substantial that they will last a very long time.

A thriving outdoor summer performance space, called “Steelstacks”, operates just south of the furnaces, with the huge blast furnace complex as a backdrop.

The National Museum of Industrial History is working towards the installation of large steam engines and other artifacts, from the Smithsonian and elsewhere, in what once was the Electrical Repair Shop building in the Lehigh plant.

Somehow, one of the 25-cycle generators, along with its attached flywheel, managed to survive the demolition of the Gas Engine Power House years ago. It is still there, out in the open, along with an indication on the ground of the outline of the twin gas engine that once drove it.