100 Years: Baltimore Becomes a Company Town

Part of our "100 Years: The Twelve Events That Shaped Baltimore" series

Picture this: It's World War II. Approximately 900,000 people live in Baltimore City. The Bethlehem Steel yard in Sparrows Point is pumping out 10,000 tons of steel per day. Across the harbor, shipyards manned by 47,000 workers are using much of that steel to build ships, many of them the gray Liberty cargo ships that ferry supplies to the war in Europe and the Pacific.

A few miles up Eastern Avenue, Glen L. Martin's aircraft plant is churning out B-26 Marauder bombers every day, a total of 5,157 during the war. That massive plant in Middle River employs 53,000 people—35 percent of whom are women who have been enlisted into factory service by the shortage of able-bodied men. The raw materials for this giant industrial complex roll in on the B&O Railroad. They ship out of Baltimore's booming port.

Fast forward to the 1950's, in the midst of the post-war boom: Baltimore remains a behemoth of heavy industry, drawing job-hungry transplants from thousands of miles—30,000 at Bethlehem Steel alone—and boosting the city's population to nearly a million.

Oh, how things have changed.

Fifty years later, the city of smoke-stacks is largely unrecognizable. The ship-yards have closed; the remaining ships were turned into scrap and recycled at the steel yards years ago. Sparrows Point, now owned by a European company, generates perhaps about half of its 3.9-million-tons-a-year capacity and employs just about 2,000 people. The warehouses, manufacturing outlets, and industrial centers have been torn down or are converted into high-end condos or office space. With the industrial base virtually gone—replaced by services, tourism, healthcare, and bio-tech—the number of residents in Baltimore City has fallen to 600,000.

For most of its history, Baltimore was a city of industry, beginning in the 1800's when the powerful waters of the Jones Falls propelled mills that made everything from flour to cloth. Baltimore's location on the Chesapeake Bay had long established its stature as a city where things were made and traded: The port allowed raw materials to come directly into the city for processing, and because the port was farther west than others on the East Coast, it was easier and less expensive to move goods from Baltimore to points west, which would otherwise require a long and expensive journey over rutted roads.

As the city evolved into a railroad hub, goods were even more efficiently moved in and out of the city. Large warehouses grew to accommodate Baltimore's growing manufacturing interests such as foundries and glassmaking operations. Baltimore emerged as a leader in textile products, too, making cloth for sails and haberdashery and umbrellas, and was home to Stieff Silver, one of the leading silversmiths in the country.

But it was steel that put the city on the map. For nearly a century, steelmaking was the largest manufacturing concern in Maryland.

At the turn of the 19th century, the Pennsylvania Steel Company had become so prosperous, it was quickly running out of raw materials to make its steel. The company's mining engineer, Frederick Wood, found in Cuba the ore stores so essential to steelmaking. To process the ore into steel, a plant was built in Baltimore, an optimal location because of its deep-water port, easy access to raw materials, and connective railroads to the rest of the U.S. Under the direction of Wood and his brother Rufus, the company developed one of the grandest fully integrated steelmaking plants ever seen. And they chose to put it on a piece of nearly deserted marshland in Baltimore called Sparrows Point.

Mark Reutter, former Baltimore Sun reporter and author of Making Steel: Sparrows Point and the Rise and Ruin of American Industrial Might, describes how the construction of Sparrows Point was more than the building of a steel plant—it was about making a way of life.

"Pennsylvania Steel wanted to build a state-of-the-art mill that would control the men, build a company town," he explains. "They wanted to build a new type of worker that would be completely loyal to this company." The company controlled everything at Sparrows Point—they managed liquor restrictions and had a private police force. The company built the schools and the principal lived in a company house. Workers lived in neat homes segregated by rank and race. "They had what a U.S. Labor Bureau report later said was the most compre-hensive company town in the East," notes Reutter.

In the early years, steelmaking in Baltimore focused on creating rails for railroads and materials for bridges and equipment. When Bethlehem Steel, under the leadership of Charles Schwab, bought the mill in 1916, it took steelmaking in another direction, toward the manufacturing of consumer goods for an international market. The phenomenon of the automobile was driving steelmaking into a new realm and there was a new ability to can foods, which changed the way American families shopped. By the 1920's, Reutter points out, Sparrows Point was one of the largest makers of tin plate in the country, supplying tin cans for companies including Campbell's Soup. That, in turn, spawned a whole new cannery industry on Baltimore's East Side.

To keep up with the growth of its company, Bethlehem Steel poured molten slag into the harbor to literally build out the perimeter of its property—something environmentally unimaginable today. During World War I, production grew and company expansion changed Dundalk from farmland to worker housing for Bethlehem Steel.

All over the country, steel was build-ing America. In 1947, four out of five manufactured items contained steel, and 40 percent of wage earners were involved in the steel industry. In Baltimore, World War II marked an unprecedented boom for steelmaking. Between 1941 and 1945, Sparrows Point made 17 million tons of steel.

"[The industry] exploded," says Tom Liebel, author of Industrial Baltimore. "Everything went to the war effort." While workers on one side of the harbor were creating steel, on the other side there were 47,000 workers at the Fairfield Shipyards creating Liberty Ships to move supplies across the Atlantic.

For the times, the wages were good, and workers came from the American South, from Appalachia, and from Europe, unfazed by the harsh conditions and extreme heat of the job. Those workers went on to create whole new towns, including Dundalk, Highlandtown, Hampden, and Glen Burnie.

But it couldn't last: By the 1960's there were subtle economic changes, then drastic ones in the 1970's.

Jobs started to move south, where there were fewer unions, then moved overseas where labor was cheaper and environmental laws are less stringent. The growth of the aluminum industry also undermined the economics of steelmaking. Clothing manufacturing moved overseas, the GM plant and Western Electric plants closed. Even the railroad headquarters moved away when the historic B&O joined with the Florida-based C&O to form CSX. Then the city lost more corporate headquarters to mergers and acquisitions, including companies like Stieff, Bendix, USF&G, and Procter and Gamble.

"Cincinnati has Procter and Gamble and they're still making soap out there because it's their world headquarters," says Leibel. "Tide Point was shuttered because it wasn't part of the mothership." (The former Procter and Gamble Tide Point plant, named after the detergent, is now an office complex.)

With the loss of jobs came a drop in population. Some people moved to the counties; others simply left the area. Gone was the time when a Baltimorean could graduate from high school and go to Bethlehem Steel or GM and get a decent paying union job, a job that could support a home, a family, a vacation to Ocean City—and provide a pension. Factories that once lit up the night sky were closed. Some have been revived by urban renewal; many remain grimy relics of a bygone era. By the 80's and 90's, much of what remained of Baltimore's industrial past was a messy environmental cleanup.

"Literally, the physical form of the city was dictated by industry that no longer exists," says Liebel. Roads like Key Highway were built wide to accommodate industrial traffic. The shape of the shoreline recalls the many old piers, while large tracts of warehousing on roads like Eastern Avenue indicate the bustling work that was once there. In places like Hampden, Canton, and Dundalk, worker rowhouses were built in clusters around the industry that supported the neighborhood. "The very form of the city was dictated by industry and those that supported them," Liebel continues.

Only a couple of generations later, Baltimore is suddenly about information technology, healthcare services, and tourism. Although 2,000 workers are still employed at Sparrows Point, Johns Hopkins Hospital long ago surpassed Bethlehem Steel as the area's largest employer (the various Hopkins institutions now employ 40,000). But the area will always be marked by its industrial past, even if it is only remembered vaguely by those eating tapas at Pazo (formerly a marine and industrial equipment repair shop) or working out at the Meadow Mill Athletic Club (once a textile mill). 

Issue date: March, 2007
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