New possibilities dawn for Bethlehem Steel Historic Site

Blast Furnaces
Blast furnaces at Bethlehem Steel in Pennsylvania. Image courtesy of Bruce Ward.

On January 30, a Northampton County grand jury called for the firing or resignation of Stephen G. Donches, once PR executive at Bethlehem Steel Corporation and since the 1990s, president of an effort to create a National Museum of Industrial History (NMIH) on the grounds of the old Steel plant.  The district attorney, John Morganelli, delivered “a blistering assessment” of Donches and the board of mothballed Beth Steel executives, for mismanaging and swallowing up $16 million in private donations and $1.48 million in state and federal grants without producing the promised museum.  The board authorized approximately $180,000 per year as salary for Donches since the mid-1990s, without demanding that he build a competent staff, develop a balanced revenue stream, collaborate with the community, put forward credible strategic or interpretive plans, or take any other intermediate step toward opening.  They demanded nothing for that lavish salary beyond the annually renewed and broken promise that opening day would come “next year.”  Apparently some board members also benefited personally as well.  Despite all that money and all those years, and despite the Smithsonian Institution’s donation of a collection of ravishing industrial artifacts, the grand jury concluded, “there exists no tangible evidence to believe that the museum will ever open and be viable under the current leadership.”

Image courtesy of the National Museum of Industrial History.
A decade-old poster announces the opening of the National Museum of Industrial History. Image from

Therein lies the challenge for everyone who believes both in the importance of capturing the history of industrial America for future generations, and in the value for Bethlehem of claiming this powerful site as an engine for redevelopment.  The story of Pittsburgh has demonstrated that former industrial powerhouses can mobilize the power of their history in the new economy.  The story of Detroit suggests, ominously, that if they do not, they face abandonment, deterioration, pollution, desertion, and implosion.  The people of Bethlehem have the will and imagination, and the powerful history, to take Pittsburgh’s brighter path forward.  Even better than in Pittsburgh, Bethlehem’s iconic blast furnaces are still standing.  In these seventeen years of failed leadership at NMIH, many local groups and individuals have tried to help but been turned away.  Many good ideas have come and gone, many dedicated people and community groups have gathered and disbursed, online presences have been created, oral histories collected, research commissioned and performed.  Enormous talent has stepped up to make the Bethlehem Steel site and its surrounding supporting industries a national landmark of industrial preservation and a vibrant center of tourism and education.  A coalition of interested local groups continues to work with Bethlehem’s Redevelopment Authority on the future of the site.  The Smithsonian collection remains available to add lustre to a National Museum of Industrial History.  With so much left to work with, the grand jury report could be the beginning of a bright new day.

Blast Furnaces
Bethlehem Steel Furnaces. Image courtesy of Bruce Ward.

Attorney general Kathleen Kane is entirely correct to insist that Pennsylvania non-profits show value and deliver on their promises. Not surprisingly, the NMIH team responded to the grand jury report with huffy denials and whining about how hard it has been for them to get funds.  Not content with that absurdity, they compounded the silliness by pretending that it was only to honor the dying wishes of widow Phyllis Payne Hurd that they failed to adapt their plans effectively to new economic realities.  As the attorney general will hopefully grasp, their very denials condemn them.  If further proof were needed after so many years, this response demonstrates that the current leadership will never make the grade and deserves to be scrapped.

But discarding the idea of a National Museum of Industrial History at the Bethlehem Steel site would be piling betrayal upon betrayal and snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.  Rather than follow the way pointed out by the grand jury, I hope that a new effort can be started, building on the work already done outside the control of the old NMIH team.  That new effort should be managed and led by people with actual know-how in industrial history and museum development; such people abound in and near Bethlehem.  The regional market for tourism is booming, the Sands casino group that now owns the site is obligated by the terms of its agreement with the state gambling board to see the site interpreted.

One of five remaining furnaces at the site.  Image courtesy of Howard Gilette.
One of five remaining furnaces at the site. Image courtesy of Howard Gilette.

The change can begin with the city’s own elected leaders.  Bethlehem’s mayor and city council chose not to challenge the fiasco that was the NMIH.  Ten years ago, though, the US Conference of Mayors told newly-elected Mayor John Callahan that he was the luckiest mayor in the nation to have that fantastic historic and tourism resource at hand to rebuild his city’s economy.  If the city’s leaders now took up their responsibility to advocate for the city, they would find willing partners in the coalition of concerned and dedicated community groups that already exists.  Mobilizing the intellectual, financial, and social capital drawn to the NMIH idea over the years in spite of its leadership, the city of Bethlehem could finally build itself a true jewel. 

Unfortunately, follow up news reports from Bethlehem indicate that the NMIH team means to cling to power while continuing to deny responsibility for its obvious failure. If Attorney General Kane permits this to the current board and leadership, there is nothing to hope for. But if she removes them in accord with all the evidence, the city may still have a chance to show effective leadership. It’s not rocket science, after all. Reach out to the community, to the Smithsonian, to scholars, collectors, funders, steelworkers, and others who could help with this important project. Create the National Museum of Industrial History as a legacy to the city’s people, their hard work, and noble achievements. And along the way, build them a real path to a prosperous future.