Bethlehem Steel: From Indiana to Alcatraz to the Empire State
By Mary Giorgio
In its heyday, Bethlehem Steel was the second largest steel producer in the United States, and supplied materials for some of America’s legendary landmarks, from Alcatraz Island to the Empire State Building. The company’s creation of a Porter County facility in the 1960s had a profound impact on not only Northwest Indiana, but Indiana’s entire economy.
Bethlehem Steel’s roots began in 1857. A small company opened in South Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, under the name Saucona Iron Co. The company produced iron railroad rails, eventually expanding their product line. In 1904, it was renamed Bethlehem Steel.
Under the leadership of Charles Schwab and Eugene Grace in the early 1900s, Bethlehem Steel transformed into a large and diverse steel operation. At one time, the company was the number one supplier to the domestic construction industry.
Bethlehem Steel first considered building a steel operation in Northwest Indiana in 1906. At that time, newspapers reported that executives were considering sites in Lake County. In the 1920s, a site in Porter County was also contemplated. In both instances, timing and the high cost of the proposed project prevented Bethlehem’s executives from completing the purchase.
In 1956, Bethlehem Steel decided to move forward with construction plans. They formed a subsidiary to quietly purchase land in Porter County near Lake Michigan. The Lake Shore Development Corporation eventually purchased over 3,000 acres of land. In 1962, the company announced its plans to build a finishing mill on the site.
The Burns Harbor Finishing Mill commenced operations in 1964. An opulent grand opening celebrated the new facility, in which 3,000 guests attended a two-day open house. The company spared no expense. It hired a special train to bring in guests from Chicago, served dinners of steak and lobster, and provided entertainment by Julie London and the Woody Herman Orchestra.
The erection of the Bethlehem Steel facility at Burns Harbor was a driving factor in the creation of the Port of Indiana. Due in part to the efforts of Bethlehem Steel executives, Congress authorized the creation of the Port of Indiana in 1965. Shortly thereafter, construction began on an addition factory, a Primary Production Facility at the Burns Harbor location.
The new Bethlehem Steel plants created thousands of jobs and generated lucrative tax revenues. As a result, the soon-to-be city of Portage attempted to annex unincorporated areas around the Burns Harbor facility. Residents resisted and instead formed the town of Burns Harbor. Bethlehem Steel supported the plan and assisted the town’s establishment by funding operations until the first tax collection had occurred. They were rewarded with favorable zoning of their unimproved lands.
The opening of the Burns Harbor plant came just before a major turning point for the US Steel Industry. It was the last integrated steel mill to be built in the US. Unfortunately, the late 1970s and 1980s saw the American steel industry struggle due to foreign competition and large draws from their pension plans. In 1977, Bethlehem Steel faced its first loss in 50 years. Debt restructuring somewhat curbed losses, but the prolonged recession of the 1990s ultimately spelled Bethlehem’s doom.
Bethlehem Steel filed Chapter 11 Bankruptcy on October 15, 2001. In 2003, its remaining assets were purchased by International Steel Group. The Burns Harbor facility was taken over by Mittal Steel in 2005. It is now owned by ArcelorMittal. Recently, in October 2018, the Indiana Historical Bureau erected a Historical Marker at the site to commemorate Bethlehem Steel’s tremendous impact on Northwest Indiana.