The Tribune Democrat, Johnstown, PA

Local News

January 25, 2013

History quest: Retired steelworker scrambles to preserve bits of Bethlehem

JOHNSTOWN — A former Bethlehem Steel Corp. employee is on a mission to preserve artifacts related to the heyday of steelmaking in Johns­town.

Tom Leslie of Richland Township plans to retrieve as many artifacts as possible from other retirees or their families in order to preserve the last remnants of steel production at the local mill.

He is a third-generation steelworker who spent 18 years with Bethlehem before ending his career as an overhead crane operator on the final day of production: July 31, 1992.

“I asked myself if anyone is saving anything from the plant,” Leslie said.

“Nothing has been preserved to show future generations how this backbreaking work by previous generations of workers endured to help build this country.”

Leslie is looking for all types of artifacts, including furnace tests, steel samples, mementos, awards and signs, to name a few.

“I have furnace tests from the last steel made here,” Leslie said. “The test bars are stamped with individual heat numbers.”

He suspects there are many such artifacts stored away in garages or basements throughout the region.

“As the last of the former steelworkers pass away, I’m worried families will just back up a Dumpster and throw everything away, not knowing that these things are a part of history,” Leslie said.

His goal is to integrate local steelmaking history into one location.

Once the collection has been gathered, Leslie is working with Johnstown Area Heritage Association in Cambria City to catalog the items and eventually put many on display.

Items may be displayed in the vestibule near JAHA’s theater that runs the documentary “Mystery of Steel.”

Richard Burkert, president and CEO of Johnstown Area Heritage Association, said a collection of artifacts would enhance archived items in the Iron and Steel Gallery.

“The movie tells the story of steelmaking in Johnstown and how it was a technological innovator in the industry,” Burkert said.

“In the late 1800s, Johnstown was the Silicon Valley of its time as far as developing cutting-edge techniques to produce steel.”

Burkert said the heritage center possesses a lot of paper documentation associated with Johnstown’s steel industry.

“We have a large collection of photographs, maps, technical drawings and such, but we would like to obtain items from the workplace,” Burkert said.

“We are hoping that by his time next winter, we will have something tangible to display in our spiral gallery.”

Leslie said anyone with materials can call him at 242-0138 to arrange for pickup.

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