Bethlehem Steel – Close To A Family Legacy

There is an inexorable connection between Bethlehem Steel and Lehigh that fuels my work there…

 Return To A Distant Memory

For the last few years I’ve been working on a project called “The American Landscape,” an offshoot of my signature series, “Reflections on The American Small Town.” The purpose of the former is to give me a wider choice of small town architectural landscape subject matter to photograph within the conceptual construct of the Reflections series, without having to use reflection.

shop_buildings
Shop Buildings at the former Bethlehem Steel Plant in Bethlehem, PA

This project led me to Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, among other places. My main reason for going was to visit Lehigh University and photograph it and the historic downtown where my father attended engineering school. He took me there only a few times between the ages of 9 and 12 and the place has always held a mystic fascination for me. Lehigh was a huge part of my Dad’s life. He would sometimes go there for a weekend to help with fund raising or other alumni-related activities…but he never took us except for two or three football games, and for his 25th class reunion in the summer of 1969.

A Family Legacy

Bethlehem Steel sign
The company logo over the former office building entrance on E. 3rd Street

Dad didn’t get there that much himself. But having spent a good amount of time working on my photography projects there, and in an attempt to reconnect with him through memory and the actual place where he spent some of his happiest days, I find it strange that he didn’t take us there more often. Many alumni families across the country are actively involved with the University through alumni engagement groups. I know because I have made some efforts to be more involved myself. I feel compelled to do this because my Dad loved it so much, and it occupied a significant niche in our family…I feel like it’s my family’s legacy.

The Steel Factory

So, what does this all have to do with Bethlehem Steel?

Bethlehem Steel has a certain connection to Lehigh…and my Dad.

About a year ago I started another project, The American Landscape, for the same purpose as the Small Town project—to be able photograph more of what I want while still creating pictures with cohesion and meaning. And that project includes photographing the ghostly remains of the Bethlehem Steel plant. Derelict and essentially abandoned for 20 years by the summer of 2015 when I first saw it (again), it is a powerful sight. This was once the flagship facility of the second-largest steel manufacturing company in the United States. Steel was made here for almost 150 years. Ordnance and huge guns that helped defend the country in two world wars were made here by a workforce of thousands. Its steel built the monumental architectural landmarks of our country. And now it is silent on the banks of the Lehigh River, although it’s an enjoyable silence.It was eerie and yet calming, serene, to stand looking at the silent blast furnaces and only hear the wind blowing…my kind of experience and one that gets my mind thinking.

Some of the abandoned buildings at the former Bethlehem Steel plant

And one of the main thoughts for me is that Bethlehem Steel has a certain connection to Lehigh and my Dad, a place that he loved and where he defined himself in his earlier life.

He lived in Bethlehem for four years and established his legacy at the University. And although it developed liberal arts programs decades ago, Lehigh was and is one of the most prestigious of engineering schools in the nation. My father studied chemical engineering, the very thing that made Bethlehem Steel work. So there is this inexorable connection between the two that fuels my work there. When I look at the steel mill buildings and blast furnace structures standing huge and decaying against the onslaught of Time (an important element in my fine art photography), I see my Dad.

Treatment Shop No. 3
Interior of Treatment Shop N o. 3 with the blast furnaces in the distance.

I remember him explaining similar operations in New Jesey to me when we would pass by the plants in the car. He went on to become an intellectual property attorney but he was always an engineer in everything he did. Meticulous and with blazing intellect he lived his life by those precepts. And that’s why the old steel mill (what remains of it) is a fascination for me and helps me to explore my memories—what are now imagined recollections—of my father and Lehigh.

To see my fine art and commercial photography please visit my website at:

Author: jamestcallahan

James T. Callahan is a commercial and fine art photographer based in Hillsborough, New Jersey. His specializations are in product, industrial and architecture. His fine art work takes a poetic look at the American Landscape through 19th Century architecture, historic and abandoned railroads and the American Small Town. You can see his work on his website at www.jamestcallahanphotographer.com, and on Instagram at www.instagram.com/jamestcallahan/.

One thought on “Bethlehem Steel – Close To A Family Legacy”

  1. What a lovely story. The photographs of the steel mill are so absorbing I can almost feel and see the mill in operation. Your thoughts about your dad are very emotional and touching. I can feel you really miss him and love him and that you can almost feel his presence. I’m very sorry he is not here for you. I know he would be so proud of you, not only for your talents, of which you have many in various art form, but he would enjoy and compliment you on your excellent grammar and punctuation. You have a great talent for writing as well. I’ll look forward to your next episode in anticipation.

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