For the past week, I’ve been up north visiting family. My great aunt passed away, and we traveled up to Pennsylvania to intern her ashes and scatter my grandfather’s. It’s not often I get to visit with my extended family—they’re scattered between New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and I live all the way down in South Carolina. It was a rare chance to see old places, and since our trip up to Jonestown, PA was less than two hours from Bethlehem, we carved out time for a side trip so I could go snap some pictures.
Nineteen years ago, Bethlehem was home. We moved in July of 1995, and the last time I visited was fourteen years ago. Bethlehem Steel officially ceased operations in 1995 after 140 years of operation. In August of 2000, I walked with an old friend through downtown Bethlehem at night, carefully herded as she warned me to stay close. It wasn’t the Bethlehem that I remembered, and as I took my old home in, the germ of a story took shape in my mind.
There are a number of towns in the Rust Belt that have crumbled under the weight of a broken economy and never recovered. I imagined a city that continued to spiral, its dark, dead heart ripe for an opportunistic madman and what roughly amounted to a terrorist cell. It took many years and two drafts for me to really learn about the characters involved and the conflict that drove them, but it was never a story I thought I could publish.
And then I fell in love with YA, and I realized my story had a home.
For almost three years, I’ve been weaving this story about a girl, her truest friend, and the person she loves most, all trapped at the center of an ancient war. There are numerous settings I’m attached to within the story, but the one I love most is Bethlehem Steel. Research brought me to Shaun O’Boyle’s photographic essay, shot in 2006. The images are downright haunting. Here was the city I imagined, an industrial powerhouse that was once a symbol, now crippled, crumbling, and hollow. The more I dug, the more it took shape in my head. Thankfully, there are a number of photographers and hobbyists who have provided enough photographs and information for me to map a place I’d never walked through.
Until this past Sunday.
Bethlehem was still three and a half hours from our last destination in New Jersey, and we’d been on the road since eleven that morning. I had roughly an hour to capture as much of the remaining steel mill as I could. It took a bit of circling around the city to find it, and along the way I captured a couple of photos.
Founded in 1857, Bethlehem Steel produced steel for New York City, the Golden Gate Bridge, and steel for ships during World War II. The heart of South Side Bethlehem is Bethlehem Steel, and it was resurrected in 2009 with the introduction of a new casino. Today, the site is now an arts and entertainment district renamed SteelStacks, home to the casino, a performing arts center, and three outdoor concert stages. We followed the buses and a crowd to the stacks, and once I spotted the entrance, I was so excited I leaped out of the car with neither purse nor phone, only my camera. I broke a flipflop, but it couldn’t stop me, because I recognized everything I saw.
The iron foundry was a bit different from the photos I studied, but from its relative position to the stacks, I had a rough guess of what it was. I continued on, snapping pictures as I went.
Somewhere far past these buildings is the site of the climax of AMoA—not sure if it’s still there. It’ll have to wait for another trip, I suppose…
And then I found the engine house.
I was so thrilled to find this place! It was blocked off by a partition, so I couldn’t see into it very well, but I could still make out the tops of the engine flywheels.
There was an exhibit of one, which I photographed from a half dozen angles.
If you think these are big, the engines are even bigger. They had to be, to help provide power for the stacks!
The cool thing about the engine house? This is where chapter 1 takes place! I wasn’t able to get to the other side of the engine house or continue down to check out the other end—I was phoneless and at this point had lost my family in my excitement, not a wise idea—but I was able to properly map out in my head which direction Eid had run from and how far he’d had to go. I also discovered a number of new details I couldn’t make out from photographs, like the ridge of the railway line running alongside the stacks. I’d known it was high, but I didn’t understand HOW high until I was standing right next to it. The corridor I’d put together from photographs was no longer there, but I had a rough approximation of what it might have looked like, years ago.
While I couldn’t explore the mill as thoroughly as I would have liked, it was absolutely thrilling to be in a place I’d pieced together in my head. I felt like I’d entered my story and gotten a chance to walk around inside it. If the mill hadn’t been renovated, I’m not sure I would have been able to. It was a great relief to discover that a once abandoned industrial symbol had found new life.
Musikfest was vastly different compared to the last time I visited, but you really can’t beat listening to live bands echoing off of enormous steel stacks. If you ever have the opportunity, go. The novelty of the site alone is worth the trip, and I’m immensely glad I made it.
Well, that’s all I’ve got for this trip. It was definitely an eventful one—I got to see my grandfather’s childhood home and visit his favorite creek. Jonestown is strikingly similar to some of my favorite places much further south in the Blue Ridge, and I missed him quite a bit when I saw it. He’d often told me about walking through the woods at night and what it was like growing up on a farm, and it was wonderful to put a place to a name. Perhaps Jonestown will end up in a story or two.
I’ve got some plans for a blog series this upcoming fall, so stay posted! Thanks for reading, and I hoped you enjoyed it. Kris Reisz referred me to the Sloss Furnaces out in Birmingham, and since I also have family out in Louisiana, Birmingham is right along the way. Hopefully I’ll have more steel mill adventures soon. If I do, you’ll know where to look 🙂