Evolution of a City: A Brief History of Bethlehem

By Michelle Pittman Photos by Louis Capwell

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Photo by Louis Capwell ©2010

Bethlehem was founded on Christmas Eve in 1741 by a small group of Moravian settlers who were trying to establish a permanent home. The Moravians were members of what is now recognized as the oldest organized Protestant denomination, having broken with the Roman Catholic Church in the 15th Century. They came to North America from Moravia, located in the present-day Czech Republic, settling first in Georgia, then later just to the north in Nazareth, before purchasing 500 acres at the confluence of the Lehigh River and Monocacy Creek.

The Moravians made short work of planning and developing the city, in part due to their communal approach to creating missionary settlements. Rather than build individual family homes, they divided their population into “choirs” based on age, sex and marital status, and built halls for each sect. Within 20 years, the Moravians had completed more than 50 buildings, including some that still stand today, such as the Brethren’s House, Sisters’ House, Widows’ House, Congregation House (Gemeinhaus) and Old Chapel on Church Street.

The communal system under which the city was founded meant that the Moravian Church owned all of the property and individual labor was performed to better the community, supporting its growth and missionary efforts. This system stayed in place until 1762, when the communal good gave way to a cash economy and a more family-oriented settlement.

The church community, however, continued to grow into a center for trade and industry. By 1845, the Moravians had abandoned their policy of exclusivity and allowed non-church members to buy plots of land, though not in the established borough, today’s Historic Downtown. In order to maintain their old way of life while allowing for new settlers of varied backgrounds, the Moravians formed a separate settlement across the Lehigh River, in what is now South Side Bethlehem.

The Industrial Revolution had arrived in Bethlehem, and with it immigrants from England, Wales, Ireland and Germany. Because the Lehigh Valley was rich in natural resources, and Bethlehem was located right along the river, many businessmen were anxious to set up shop there. The influx of immigrants provided the knowledge and the workforce to make large industries viable and profitable in the area.

The first major industry to appear in the new settlement was the Pennsylvania and Lehigh Zinc Company, founded in 1853 and, for more than 30 years, the largest employer in South Bethlehem. It was followed by the Lehigh Valley Railroad, whose first line from Easton through Bethlehem to present-day Jim Thorpe was completed in 1855 and used primarily to transport anthracite coal.

But it was the founding and operation of the Saucona Iron Company in 1857 that would dominate much of Bethlehem’s future. For the established railroad, the iron company was a chance to control the source of iron rails, which it needed to continue laying new track. By 1863, the first furnace of the newly renamed Bethlehem Iron Company was put to blast. The rest is a small slice of American history.

Photo by Louis Capwell

By the late 1800s, the company opened the first heavy forging plant in the country, charged with providing the U.S. Navy first with guns and later with armor plating for warships. By 1904, Bethlehem Iron had become the Bethlehem Steel Corporation, with Charles Schwab serving as the corporation’s first president and chairman of the board of directors. Schwab steered the company towards mass production of wideflange steel beams, later developing the I-beam, which revolutionized the construction industry.

The success of Bethlehem Steel also ushered an era of modernity into Bethlehem. A university and hospital were built. Entrepreneurs who had helped shape Bethlehem’s industry turned their attention to the city’s social life. Newspapers and theaters flourished. Goods and services unimaginable to the early Moravian settlers became the norm.

 
Bethlehem Steel continued to be a major supplier to the U.S. Navy and armed forces throughout World War I and II, employing as many as 300,000 people and producing more than one ship per day during World War II. During the 1950s and ‘60s, the company continued to grow and provide steel for construction, defense and power generation. Bethlehem Steel’s product helped construct numerous American landmarks, including the Golden Gate Bridge, the Chrysler Building, Empire State Building, Madison Square Garden, Rockefeller Center, Alcatraz Island and the Hoover Dam.

By the 1970s, however, foreign steel was proving to be a cheaper resource than the American-produced alternative. Bethlehem Steel lost $1.5 billion in 1982 and began closing operations and restructuring in an effort to stay competitive. But by the end of 1995, after 140 years of prosperity, Bethlehem Steel ceased operations. In order to reduce the impact of the plant’s closing on Bethlehem, Bethlehem Steel worked to develop alternative uses for the 163-acre property it had occupied. The consensus was to reuse the land for cultural, recreational, educational, entertainment and retail development.

Photo by Louis Capwell

In 2007, a portion of the property was sold to the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, which opened a casino on the site in 2009. The completion of Sands Casino Resort Bethlehem, which includes 3,000 slot machines and electronic table games, marks the largest casino development to date in Pennsylvania. A hotel, event center and shopping mall are all planned for future phases. Other plans include Steel Stacks, a community project led by ArtsQuest, the PBS affiliate WLVT, and the National Museum of Industrial History to help revitalize the South Side.

Bethlehem still retains much of its history, from the original buildings handcrafted by Moravian settlers to the ingenuity of the entrepreneurs who helped spur the country’s second biggest steel producer. But it is also a melting pot of all the generations and residents who have come before and tried to build a better life for their children and their neighbors. For every person that Bethlehem has touched, whether through religion, trade or industry, they too have left a mark on the city, making it the perfect location to stop in, slow down and explore.

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