Like many prosperous Buffalo industries of the early 20th century, Bethlehem Steel began to significantly decline in the decades following World War II. In 1977, the Lackawanna Plant began to make cuts in its production and workforce due to decreased demand for steel and the sudden onset of steel imports from foreign markets. Despite complaints about declining profits, Bethlehem’s Lackawanna Plant was profitable every year from 1970-1981, aside from 1977. However, Bethlehem Steel disliked the high tax rates of the state of New York, and did not want to spend the millions of dollars in air and water pollution abatement which were required by state and federal authorities. The company built a new facility in Burns Harbor, Indiana, and stopped investing in new steel production methods at Lackawanna. Bethlehem Steel closed most of its Lackawanna plant by 1982 due to rising operational costs and the decreased demand for steel, leaving thousands of Buffalonians without work.
In 1988, The Lackawanna Steel Company site was declared a “Superfund” site by the EPA, which led to NYS declaring it a Class 2 Inactive Hazardous Waste Site. Since this time, the land has been under investigation for hazardous waste materials, including asbestos, and was officially declared a brownfield in 2003. While this made the city of Lackawanna eligible for federal assistance money to redevelop the site, a cooperative agreement had not been signed as of May 2006.
The city of Lackawanna redeveloped some of the land into small business zones, bringing about 700 jobs back to the town in the late 1980s. In 1993, Veritas Capital, Inc., purchased one of the bar, rod and wire plants on the old Lackawanna site and added another 250 jobs (the workers made automobile steering columns).Bethlehem Steel ended coke production at the Lackawanna site in 2001, and as of 2008 only a small steel finishing plant employing about 250 people remained.
A positive note for preservationists is that the Bethlehem Steel Administration Building has been granted a “90 day stay” as of August 22, 2012, during which time the building will be fully explored for reuse possibilities. Analysis of the building will decide whether or not it is structurally sound and ultimately worth preserving. The Administration Building has originally up for demolition in May 2012.
I recently found out that my grandfather, who was a professional photographer, was hired to take pictures of the Bethlehem Steel Company while it was still a dominant force in the area. His job was to take pictures of machinery and the building as a whole, on behalf of Bethlehem Steel. I’m hoping to get my hands on these soon, and will create an entire post devoted to my grandfather and his photographs, as I’m sure he has documented many other locations in Buffalo.
To learn more about the Bethlehem Steel Company in its prime, go here.