Bethlehem Steel Corp. (Bethlehem)

The Bethlehem Steel Corporation, named after the city in Pennsylvania where it was founded, was one of the oldest operating steel mills in the world. From its beginnings in 1857 until its bankruptcy in 2001, Bethlehem Steel was a prominent leader not only in manufactured flat and rolled iron and steel for general industry, but also a noted shipbuilder that at first manufactured only superstructure components but expanded to produce the hulls of ocean liners and military vessels.

Augustus Wolle founded the company in 1857.  At that time it was known as the Bethlehem Rolling Mill, but in 1861 the name was changed to Bethlehem Iron Company. Before long the company had a number of large blast furnaces and a complete machine shop, producing a huge amount of railroad tracks for the westward expansion of the rail industry and manufacturing steel hull plates for U.S. Navy vessels. Bethlehem Steel was an innovator in new structural design of steel beams, and these revolutionary ideas found their way into building construction; today, the I-beam is one of the most recognizable steel shapes on earth.

During World War II, Bethlehem Steel produced steel hulls and ship plating for the war effort, as well as many of the large guns used on battleshipscruisers and destroyers. The corporation expanded and built a number of shipyards on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, and after the war ended, continued using these facilities for both military and commercial vessel construction. However, when legislation opened up the door to foreign steel production, many U.S. companies, including Bethlehem Steel, suffered mightily; imported steel was less expensive and it was difficult to compete with these new steel producers. Bethlehem Steel declared bankruptcy in 2001 and two years later the company’s assets were purchased by the International Steel Group.  Today, the company is managed by ArcelorMittal in Luxembourg.

Asbestos was used in the steel industry, particularly at the Bethlehem Steel Corporation in many of its operating areas. Asbestos was part of wall and ceiling boards, protective clothing worn by employees and wrapping materials for hot pipes and exposed boiler machinery. When many of Bethlehem Steel’s buildings began to age, asbestos fibers were slowly released into the air, and inhalation of the fibers by employees often resulted in severe health problems. As a result, asbestos use at Bethlehem Steel ceased, but an unknown number of past employees remain undiagnosed.