A Factory For The War Effort Booming Naval And Aircraft Industries Changed The City

December 02, 1991|By James Bock

The machinery of war was rolling off Baltimore's assembly lines and down the ways of its shipyards in December 1941. The city and its environs were enveloped in an industrial boom of staggering dimensions. The Depression was fast receding into history.

The Baltimore and Ohio railroad reported the heaviest freight movement of any November in a decade. The port's coal piers, grain elevators and repair yards were dishing up U.S. cargoes and ships to carry them to a ravaged Old World. A new municipal airport had opened, and thousands gathered just to watch Eastern Air Line's "Great Silver Fleet" take off and touch down.

The Glenn L. Martin Co.'s Middle River aircraft factory, a giant erector set of a complex, had expanded hugely -- from 3,500 workers to nearly 40,000 in only a couple of years. The Bethlehem-Fairfield shipyards, maker of Liberty ships, had gone from 1,350 to nearly 30,000 workers. Later in the war, the two plants would provide 100,000 jobs.

Defense workers, still overwhelmingly white men in 1941, descended on the Baltimore area. Builders and bureaucrats scrambled to house them. Defense housing projects, boxy units short on style but long on shelter, were being slapped together in Fairfield, Brooklyn and Westport for shipyard workers and on Erdman Avenue for aircraft workers.

"Baltimore, in fact, is now changing so rapidly that it is difficult for the plain citizen, following his own restricted routine of life, to comprehend the magnitude of the changes," the Evening Sun noted in an editorial.

Still, there weren't nearly enough houses. Federal officials, who controlled the flow of construction materials under the state of emergency decreed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, told Baltimore builders that 3,000 homes were needed in Middle River for Martin's bomber makers. Until those were constructed, building supplies would go only to Middle River. The builders, who had money tied up in land elsewhere, angrily protested federal high-handedness.

... READING THE ADS (culled from The Sun and other Maryland newspapers):

LOST $10 bill; vicinity of Calvert and Fayette streets and Court Square Building. Liberal reward.

Stir Up Your Lazy Liver Bile to Help Relieve Constipation. Dr. Edwards Olive Tablets.

Maryland Welding Institute -- 54 Welding Students Passed Shipyard Test in Past Two Weeks from Our Schools -- Get Your Training Now, Pay for It Later!

... OLD-LINE BALTIMOREANS feared that their genteel way of life was threatened by the rough-hewn country folk pouring into trailer camps and row houses. The City Council considered a bill to restrict trailer camps to industrial sections.

Baltimore's sudden growth was "a bad thing," the Evening Sun said, adding: "Producers, in their search for personnel, must get down far below the cream, into the skimmed milk." The Linthicum Heights PTA invited Anne Arundel's health officer to speak on "How to Keep Our Standards of Health With the Influx of Defense Workers."

From Congress to City Hall, politicians slammed union leaders for fomenting strikes in defense industries. Middle-class Marylanders lent a sympathetic ear.

Defense workers didn't often speak for themselves in the newspapers of the time. Yet steep rent increases proposed at the Armistead Gardens housing project prompted one worker's wife to complain in an anonymous letter to the editor: "We hear the cry, 'No strikes!' Yet, higher rents and living conditions are the main reasons. If we aren't given some consideration, many of us will have to go back home and leave the defense work to the housing authorities."

... SITUATION WANTED -- Male. BOY (colored), 17, just from South, big & strong, desires work.

Help Wanted -- Household. SETTLED (white) woman, general housework, who prefers good home to high wages.

Food waste is sabotage. Food preservation is patriotism. Save with ice . . . lease an ice refrigerator. C. Hoffberger Co.

... FORD'S THEATER, Baltimore's venerable Fayette Street playhouse, staged one of the most ill-timed productions in its long history the first week of December. It was Lowell Barrington's "The Admiral Had a Wife," a totally inconsequential farce directed by Jose Ferrer -- inconsequential except that it was a spoof of Navy life set in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii.

The Sun's drama critic, Donald Kirkley, was offended and skewered playwright Barrington in his Dec. 2 review: "Unfortunately for him, and for the play, this is hardly the time to poke fun at the foibles of Navy officers and their wives, particularly those who are assigned to such a crucial place as Pearl Harbor."

But the Evening Sun's Gilbert Kanour refused to wrap himself in the flag. He advised readers to "take with a grain of salt the contention that the farce's irreverence may throw a monkey wrench into the national defense. It's too patently absurd . . . for anything like that."

Only at Ford's Theater in Baltimore was Pearl Harbor at center stage.

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