One of the things I most miss about living in Scotland is the relative dearth of stone ruins in my home country. In no way to diminish the culture of American Indians, there’s a particular poignancy about stone—which is supposed to be forever—falling apart. As a homeowner I’ve discovered that you constantly have to repair to keep any kind of building up—something better suited to those with more money than we have. In any case, my memories of Scotland quite often center on ruined castles and the gothic dreams that accompanied visiting them. I can’r recall how many we actually had a chance to explore, but it was many. And not only castles, but other crumbling structures, including monasteries. Monasteries are, if possible, even more gothic in ruin.
On a rare sunny day this spring I visited the remains of Bethlehem Steel’s silent behemoth. This industrial powerhouse took up much of the valley dividing the south side of Bethlehem from the older, more genteel colonial part of town. While these ruins are modern—the factory shut down only in 1995—and steel, it nevertheless caters to gothic sensibilities. There is a raised platform that allows visitors to examine the exterior from a safe distance, but still close enough to get a sense of its enormity. The great steel furnaces and blowers and train cars are rusty after nearly three decades of sitting in the elements. The roofs are falling in on some of the buildings. Others have been repurposed or replaced with contemporary businesses. Walking through, however, you can’t help but to imagine past lives. This was hard, dangerous work. For most it meant small rewards. A living wage. A modest house.
The Bethlehem Steel stacks are a landmark. Allentown and Bethlehem merge into one another and out driving backroads it’s sometimes hard to tell which you’re in. Once you spot the steel stacks from afar, however, you know where Bethlehem is. Like a star guiding magi, the ruins proclaim that something significant once happened here. Lives in Scottish castles, I expect, were often boring. Our “something new every second” culture didn’t exist and news traveled slowly. There was surely humdrum jobs in Bethlehem Steel as well. Days when remembering that during World War One this factory produced a battleship per day. Or when the realization that Manhattan’s skyscrapers couldn’t have existed without the I-beam developed in this plant. There’s a sense of history about such places. What makes them fascinating is that they’re falling apart.