Forging America: The History of Bethlehem Steel
HomeHome > Blog > Forging America: The History of Bethlehem Steel

Forging America: The History of Bethlehem Steel

Jul 07, 2023

The wide-flanged beam, pioneered by Henry Grey and manufactured in Bethlehem in 1908 after Schwab scraped together enough money to build the country’s first mill, was unlike any other produced in the United States.

Only two decades earlier the I-beam was a revolutionary advancement that allowed builders to use a steel frame to strengthen and stabilize buildings far better than stone or wood. It allowed developers to go higher.

But even the steel I-beam couldn’t be counted on to push buildings much taller than 20 stories. Going higher would require riveting beams and plates together and adding support angles. It was expensive and, in most cases, the cost didn’t justify the height.

Grey’s beam changed that. What the I-beam did for building, the Grey beam did for building higher.

For Beedle, it was the foundation of what would become his life’s work.

”Why do people want to know which building is tallest? I don’t know. Why do they want to know that Mount Everest is the tallest mountain?” Beedle says. ”There’s something intriguing about things that are the fastest or longest or tallest. And when it comes to height, that beam started it all.”

The I-beam was essentially a column of steel, with narrow lips on the top and bottom, giving it the shape of an ”I.” Grey’s process widened those lips to as much as 161/2 inches, creating a beam that looked more like a sideways ”H.” The wider lips, or flanges, as they were called, greatly increased the strength of the beam.

The Bethlehem beam, as it was sometimes called, used that wider flange to provide strength so that architects and developers could reach into the heavens. Builders could move columns farther apart, allowing them to use less steel and build higher without rivets or angles.

The process was cheaper, too. If the steel company wanted to change the size or shape of the standard I-beam, it had to change the rolls. But with Grey’s process, Bethlehem’s new mill could change the weight per foot, or thickness, of the beam simply by adjusting the same set of rolls.

”Columns which are now riveted together at an expense of $9 to $14 per ton will be rolled in one solid section,” Schwab wrote to investors he hoped would help fund his Grey mill. ”To one familiar with the trade, the enormous advantages of such sections are quickly appreciated.”

Or in the case of rival U.S. Steel, quickly feared. After Schwab weathered a stock market collapse in 1907 by getting wealthy friends and even contractors to put up the money to help build the Grey mill, word of the new beam’s cost advantages began to spread. About 8,000 tons were ordered for the State Education Building in Albany, N.Y., and another 3,000 tons for a sugar refinery in Boston, but the coming-out party for Bethlehem’s new beam was the headquarters for the Gimbel Brothers Department Store in New York. The 12,000-ton order, valued at $384,000 or the equivalent of $7.6 million today, was by no means going to make Bethlehem Steel’s year, but it gave Schwab a showcase for his promising new beam, kicking off decades of dominance in the New York market.

By 1909, demand for the beam was so high that Bethlehem Steel had to turn away some orders, Schwab would tell The Wall Street Journal that year. The boom prompted Bethlehem Steel to spend another $5 million to improve its Saucon plant, which contained the Grey mill and lay east of the blast furnaces in Bethlehem. Improvements included a new mill that could produce channels, angles and small beams, from 6 to 12 inches.

The new mill started operating in 1911, making Bethlehem Steel the eastern region’s largest producer of structural steel, the technical name for the steel that went into making buildings and bridges.

In the coming years, the Bethlehem beam would go into the Metropolitan Life Insurance Co. Tower, the Time-Life Building, both in New York, and the 40-story Cadillac Tower, with its combination of Chicago School and neo-gothic architecture glistening in the Detroit skyline. Bethlehem Steel’s rival on the other side of the state was beginning to get nervous.

By 1910, U.S. Steel officials were telling their board that their 51 percent piece of the structural steel business was down to about 25 percent. U.S. Steel had just lost structural steel contracts for five jobs in New England, and four of them had gone to Bethlehem Steel.

”Bethlehem is cutting quite a swath in the East at present on their ‘H’ sections, and taking some business from us,” Henry Bope, the head of U.S. Steel’s sales department, told fellow directors, ”but we have felt that this condition is temporary.”

Within a few months, Bope was realizing U.S. Steel had reason to worry.

”There was a time when there was probably not a single user of structural material in the United States who was not on our books for more or less of his tonnage,” Bope said. ”But today, we are not getting any of this business.”

In 1911, U.S. Steel would build a mill in Homestead that could roll 27-inch I-beams it hoped could compete with the Bethlehem beam. But it couldn’t escape the fact it was selling an improved product from old technology, while Bethlehem was selling the latest innovation.

A second Grey mill was built in 1918, enabling Bethlehem to expand its line of beams by adding smaller and lighter wide-flange shapes.

By 1922, with a capacity of 650,000 tons a year, the Bethlehem plant was much larger than U.S. Steel’s structural plants in Homestead and south Chicago.

Sign up for email newsletters