Museum fires up foundry group’s memory 25 years after ‘Last Cast’
The last operating blast furnace at Bethlehem Steel’s Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, plant went cold on November 18, 1995. That’s when the Lehigh Valley company shuttered the “hot end” of the plant. They transitioned to bringing in steel made at other locations to be rolled into beams, rather than the integrated process used in Bethlehem for over 100 years.
Today, The National Museum of Industrial History (NMIH)–– affiliated with the Smithsonian Institute––is located on the site of the original Bethlehem Steel plant in a former electrical repair shop building and seeks to preserve, educate, and display the industrial history of the nation. To honor the 25th anniversary of “The Last Cast” in Bethlehem, the museum fired up a mini-cupola on site and poured iron once again on November 14, 2020.
While it was not 3,000 tons like the blast furnace could make in a day, the small but significant amount of iron melted was cast into 6-inch medallions to commemorate the occasion. Modifications were made to the original pattern used for commemorative castings of The Last Cast made 25 years ago.
In 1995, the plant’s pattern shop (located across the street from the museum’s present location) made the master pattern depicting the outline of the blast furnace, and the iron and brass foundries made the molds and poured the castings from blast furnace iron. These original medallions were given to workers in the plant, most of whom would be losing their jobs after the “hot end” shut down. The new medallions feature the words “25th Anniversary” around the furnace image.
Using a small cupola built by a local craftsman, the museum gathered a group of volunteers to make several casts and pour memorial medallions. The museum was open to visitors and speakers reminisced about the company its Last Cast. The museum even served “overtime lunches” to former steelworkers, reminiscent of the bagged lunch the company furnished when double shifts came up at the plant.
Bethlehem Steel had five foundries in its original plant in Bethlehem, which began as the Bethlehem Iron Works in 1863. It operated the largest foundry group in the area, making castings up to 220 tons. The Foundry Division was comprised of the Iron Foundry, Brass Foundry, Steel Foundry, Cast Roll Foundry and Ingot Mold Foundry. The group made castings for the Bethlehem plant and the other Bethlehem Steel plants around the country, as well as trade customers. The Iron Foundry operated a total of 3 cupolas in its time, two 84” and one 60. The plant also had a total of seven blast furnaces at one point in its operation and employed over 30,000 people. Its main products were structural steel and steel forgings.
The Last Cast 25th anniversary was so successful the museum may hold one every year. The outdoor area where The Last Cast took place has been named “Foundry Park,” and plans are in development to use it as an exhibit for various types of melting furnaces, ladles and other industrial equipment. See nmih.org for more information on programs.