The steel plant in Bethlehem, PA, closed in 1995. The coke works shut down 3 years later. This behemoth mill was 4½ miles long. As it became more and more derelict, this town looked for ways to repurpose it. Several solutions were tried. For example, 3 years ago a 1913 electrical repair shop became the National Museum of Industrial History. Was it a good idea to create a museum to preserve and show America’s industrial heritage? The Smithsonian apparently thought so and became an affiliate. Still, would travelers be interested in looking at a couple of hundred industrial artifacts celebrating 4 industries that thrived in this area? This question remains unanswered. Personally, I found it a 4 Compass operation because an enthusiastic woman named Susan showed Ruth and me around, and she knew how to interest us. Truthfully, If we had toured the National Museum of Industrial History on our own, we would have spent less than an hour there and would not aspire to return.
The industries that are thoroughly explored in this facility include iron and steel, silk, and propane. It begins with Machinery Hall. Sound interesting? Then go, but opt for a guided tour. Machinery Hall tells the story of American industrial strength that was celebrated in 1886’s Centennial Exposition. Iron and Steel acknowledges the primary industry that made this area an international power… until 1995. I did not know that PA’s Lehigh Valley once contained a silk industry of national importance. Propane? Yawn.
Machinery Hall is mostly a showcase for the large machines that were displayed in the Centennial Exposition. Held in Philadelphia to celebrate the United States’ 100th birthday, it attracted 37 participating countries and had 10,000,000 visitors to see the 8,000 machines displayed–engines, pumps, boilers, and turbines that meant lots of machine-made goods for a growing powerhouse of a nation. The Smithsonian was the source for most of the large, once state-of-the-art machines that the exposition visitors ogled.
The Bethlehem Iron Company’s first successful venture was producing wrought-iron rails for a growing national railroad network just before the Civil War. Eight years after the war ended, this company that had 5 names over time, began making Bessemer Steel that produced rails lasting 6 times longer and carrying heavier loads. New York’s art deco Chrysler Building contains 20,291 tons of Bethlehem H-beams and is still the tallest brick building in the world. Susan told us that Charles M. Schwab was the King of Steel. When I told her I knew nothing about him, she suggested that I read a book called Forging America. Ruth got reengaged when Susan told us that 25,000 women did 53 types of jobs for Bethlehem Steel during World War II as it made 1,127 ships for the war effort.
The silk section was the most interesting to me because I knew nothing about this American industry. Susan, a big silk fan, was especially animated as she explained this part of the museum that contained a huge once locally used Jacquard loom. She told us that Alexander Hamilton established Patterson, NJ as America’s Silk City, that immigrant silk workers asked for more money in 1880 that the silk magnets refused to pay, and that Allentown still has a silk mill.
Even Susan was starting to fade as she tried to make propane, a fuel that was once burned off as waste, come alive as a major museum subject. She spent less time telling us about the local American Gasol Company, which became the star of this new industry.
The National Museum of Industrial History now has a temporary show called “Don’t Touch That Dial”, which celebrates 100 years of radio, until November 3, 2019. One of its cleverer touches is its entry tickets. They are time cards that visitors punch in with.