Image above: Photo of the front of the Musikfest guidebook for 2023, 2023. Courtesy Musikfest, Maltas Con Leche, and Americasbesthistory.com.
Spotlight on Lesser Known History
Bethlehem Steel, Pennsylvania
America's Best History Spotlight
On this page we're going to Spotlight the lesser known historic sites and attractions that dot the history landscape across the USA and are worth a visit if you're in their area. And while they may be lesser known, some are very unique, and will be that rare find. You'll be, at times, on the ground floor, or maybe even know something others don't. It'll be fun. Visit them.
If it wouldn't have been for William Allen giving five hundred acres of land to the Moravian Church, there wouldn't be a Bethlehem. If it wouldn't have been a need during the industrial revolution for a steel plant on the south side of town, there wouldn't have been Bethlehem Steel. And if it hadn't been for both of them, the celebration known as Musikfest would not have begun forty years ago in 1984. There was a need to revitalize the downtown and historic area with vibrant shops while maintaining their historic character. There was a need to do something with all those apocalyptic looking buildings and Steelstacks south of town. Now Artsquest and PBS Channel 39 are headquartered just across the street. The National Museum of Industrial History just around the block in one of the old Steel company structures, plus a walkway where you can straddle down amongst the stacks. A five thousand seat stage that can hold large music acts is also on the South side. The north side only needed some tents and stages spread amongst the already historic site. And Musikfest was born, small in 1984 but mighty, and today up to five hundred acts perform over the ten days of the festival in about twelve venues per year. And it draws over a million people per year to this free festival, the largest in the United States..
Photo above: Patrons dancing to the Rumble, featuring Chief Joseph Boudreaux, Jr. on the Levett stage with Steelstacks rising behind and ArtsQuest across the street. Courtesy Americasbesthistory.com
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Info, What's There Now, History Nearby
On April 2, 1741, William Allen deeded the acreage of William Penn, formerly Lenape Indian land, to the Moravian Church. They named it Allentown. It's doubtful they saw the incarnations that would occur in the tweening years. A thriving community prior to the American Revolution, one that grew to even greater proportion during the one hundred years when Bethlehem Steel produced steel for ships, bridges, and other structures during the Industrial Revolution. And now Musikfest, forty years old, an attempt to revitalize an aging and barely surviving downtown, when the Industrial Revolution went south, then to Japan and China. But for now, you can hear and see it all amongst the historic buildings of the Moravian section and the crumbling, some revitalized buildings, of Bethlehem Steel. Be ready for a blast. In some places, the Platzes are tucked into corners, in other under tents, on streets, in movie theaters inside ArtsQuest, and beneath the Steelstacks. Take a ride some early August day and take advantage of the largest free musical festival in the country. Pretty sure you'll be glad you did.
Image above: Image above: Drawing of the town of Bethlehem in 1832, 1839, Karl Bodner. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons. Below: Photo of Bethlehem Steel on south side of Lehigh River, 1896, William Henry Rau. Courtesy Wikipedia Commons.
Where Is It
There are a variety of ways to get to Musikfest with outlying parking lots that will shuttle you into town, some parking garages on the north end of the North Side, i.e. North Street Parking Garage. It's best to check with their website for just where you can park. For Wind Creek Steel Stage performances, a parking lot nearby can be used on the South Side. There is also some free off street parking nearby, but you have to get there early or get lucky to get one of those spots. For those going to the South Side, you can put in ArtsQuest as your destination. It's in the center of the site. 101 Founders Way, Bethlehem, PA 18015. For those going to the North Side, Hotel Bethlehem is center stage; 437 Main Street, Bethlehem, PA. 18018.
Minute Walk in History
Musikfest 40th Anniversary
Take in the sights and sounds of the largest free music festival in the United States, Musikfest during its 40th anniversary season in the historic town of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania and its sister site, the ruins of Bethlehem Steel, now turned into an arts, music, and museum center. Here upcoming artists like Kendal Conrad, Grammy nominated musicians in the band Rumble, featuring Chief Joseph Boudreaux, Jr., from New Orleans, and nearly five hundred acts over the 10 days of the festival. In 2022, over 1.24 million people attended. Each night, in the 5,000 seat stadium, one of the music industry's top acts perform ($ charged), this year featuring Maren Morris, Dan and Shay, Train, Walk the Moon, and the Goo Goo Dolls.
What is There Now
In 2022, Musikfest hit their highest attendance, 1,240,000 people. There are about a dozen music venues each year, and they are packed by nightfall, although there is always another venue to get to. The North Side, which takes over Main Street from the top of the hill past the Bethlehem Hotel, as well as the valley where the historic Moravian and Hugeonut structures remain, holds venues within the nooks and cranies of town. Canvas tents cover the lower area, and there's lots of vendors selling food, amusement, and beer. Lots of beer. The north side is essentially a straight flat boulevard which weaves among the refurbished buildings of Bethlehem Steel, as well the Greek inspired ruins of buildings not yet revived. Above all sits those hulking stacks of steel. The main night stage is here, 5,000 seats, the Levitt Pavilion, an outdoors grassy venue that holds up to one thousand, two air conditioned theaters, and a couple more.
When Open and How Much
Ten days at the beginning of August each year, Musikfest takes over these historic areas. Cost is free. Remember, largest free music festival in the nation. There are fees for the shuttle transfer between each side, $6 in 2023, and the major concerts by acts such as Train, Maren Morris, Dan and Shay, and the Goo Goo Dolls are standard concert prices. But you can even stand outside the gates and listen to them for free.
Fees and hours are subject to change.
Bethlehem Visitor Center
There are a ton of smaller, but very interesting sites to visit, particularly the on-site Smithsonian backed, Museum of Industrial History, in one of the former Bethlehem Steel buildings, as well as the Philadelphia area national parks.
National Historic Park
Delaware Water Gap
of Industrial History
America on Wheels
Photos, History, and More Spotlights
Musikfest was founded in 1984 by Jeff Parks, who was inspired by the Oktoberfests he had seen in Europe, and while working for the Bethlehem Tourism Committee was attempting to revitalize a downturned city core. The idea almost failed; city council at first voted no, but eventually relented. They had to do something with Bethlehem Steel bankrupt. And from the days of that first, smaller, festival, held solely downtown, it thrived, although thriving saw an attendance of 182,000 in 1984. Favorite performer at the festivals of the founder; Ray Charles.
The festival has grown, now held over ten days during the first weeks of August, and includes the South side where the remnants of Bethlehem Steel remain in various states of ruin and revitalization. It is a German oriented festival, thus the name of the venues are Platzes. Some of the famous folks who have graced the stages of Musikfest; Blood, Sweat, and Tears, Joan Baez, Ray Charles, Marshall Tucker Band, Three Dog Night, the Temptations, Marie Osmond, REO Speedwagon, The Commodores, The Guess Who, Patti LaBelle, Little Richard, Hall and Oates, Tom Jones, Kenny Rogers, Hootie and the Blowfish, Tony Bennett, Duran Duran, Chicago, Kansas, the Beach Boys, Alice Cooper, Keith Urban, Donna Summer, Carrie Underwood, B.B. King, Stone Temple Pilots, Pat Benatar, Blondie, Selena Gomez, Norah Jones, Adam Lambert, Steely Dan, Maroon 5, Darius Rucker, Jerry Seinfeld, Lady A, Toby Keith, Daughtry, Brad Paisley, and Kelsea Ballerini, among many others.
In 2023, the lineup included AJR, Walk the Moon, G-Eazy, Dan + Shay, Walker Hayes, Keith Sweat & Monica, Goo Goo Dolls, Gabriel Iglesias & Faux Friends, El Gran Combo, Maren Morris, and Train.
Photo above: Musikfest photo 2023 of exterior of entrance to 5,000 seat Wind Creek Steel Stage where main acts perform. Rusting stacks of Bethlehem Steel in the distance. Courtesy Americasbesthistory.com.
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On April 2, 1741, William Allen sold those five hundred acres to the Moravian Church, who had been looking for good land to start their settlement. At the confluence of the Lehigh River and Monocacy Creek is where they chose. The land above them was hilly, but by Christmas Eve, 1741, it was christened Bethlehem in a stable with a hymn sung by the Moravians, "Not Jerusalem, Lowly Bethlehem." It would not stay lowly for long. They felled large white oak trees and built their workshops on the land along the creek and river. Their homes were built along Church Street. While the first structure built is gone, the Gemeinhaus, the second structure also built in 1741, housed many of the eighty members of the community for years, and still exists and can be toured as the Moravian Museum of Bethlehem.
The town was always steeped in music. One of the first orchestras in the colonies was founded in the community in 1744, and its tradition continues. Their role in the American Revolution as pacifists in nature was to care for the wounded. Five hundred soldiers would perish in the community. By the late 1820's, a canal ran along the river. By the 1850's, the railroad arrived and the south side of the Lehigh River and Bethlehem became home to the growing industries of the Industrial Revolution.
Image above: Drawing of Bethlehem, the Moravian settlement, in 1761, 1761, Paul Sandby. Courtesy Library of Congress.
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Bethlehem Steel History
One of those industries was steel. The predecessor of Bethlehem Steel, the Saucona Iron Company, was founded in 1857, later became the Bethlehem Iron Works, and succeeded under the tutelege of John Fritz for thirty years. Bethlehem Steel Company was officially incorporated in December 1904 upon the purchase by Charles Schwab. It would grow to encompass one thousand eight hundred acres, become the second biggest steel company in the world, and the largest ship builder. Shipbuilding was at its forefront during the two World Wars; during World War Two itself, 1,127 ships were built by them, more than any other company. They would go on to provide steel for the Golden Gate Bridge, the Empire State Building, and Madison Square Garden. Thirty-three thousand people were employed in this one plant alone; three hundred thousand by the company worldwide.
As the 1970's approached, competition from around the world, many dumping steel into the United States at under value pricing, began to cost Bethlehem Steel its customer base. Its generous pension plans also drained their cash reserves. In 1982, the company lost $1.5 billion alone. By 2001, the Bethlehem Steel Company had filed for bankruptcy. In 2003, it had closed for good, with assets sold at the time to the International Steel Group. Cleveland-Cliffs Company is now its sole successor.
Photo above: Interior of Rail Mill, then Iron Foundry, 1988, Jet Lowe, Historic American Buildings Survey. Courtesy Library of Congress.
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