Harbor factory's demise erases hazard and charm

JACQUES KELLY

December 02, 1992|By JACQUES KELLY

There were few mourners present when one of the harbor' oldest landmarks dropped out of sight this fall.

The Block Street chemical works of Allied Chemical was a relic of an industrial Baltimore ruled by factory whistles calling people to work at 7 a.m.

The huge metal-sided plant, once the center of a thriving chrome trade, was taken apart beam by beam, wall by wall. Nearly 150 years of chrome discharges had made the place an environmental hazard. The demolition was executed very carefully so that aged chrome dust was not sent across the harbor.

The plant was clearly out of step with Baltimore's redevelopment of the Inner Harbor and Fells Point. Nowadays, there is no place for relics of the Industrial Revolution just down the waterfront from aquariums and high-priced condominiums.

There was nevertheless a certain honest, industrial beauty about the old shed-like arrangement of the Allied buildings. On a cold December morning in the 1970s, when the plant was still employing a full shift of workers, its vents emitted plumes of white steam. Tugboats, barges and freighters still passed alongside the plant that jutted into the harbor and seemed to almost touch the base of Federal Hill. It was a landmark in a smoky industrial city.

It was a twist of fate that brought Baltimore its chrome industry. Grain merchant Isaac Tyson Jr. was shipwrecked off the coast of France in the early 19th century. He survived and stayed in France to study geology and mineralogy.

A few years later, while at his father's Bare Hills summer house (just above Mount Washington) he discovered chromite, a black mineral.

He found more chromite at Soldiers Delight in the western part of Baltimore County and also at Jarrettsville in Harford County.

Chromite was discovered near veins of serpentine, a greenish mineral (magnesium silicate) that is occasionally used as a building material. The exterior walls of Baltimore's Mount Vernon Place Methodist Church contain serpentine.

Tyson initially sent his ore to England, but in 1845, he established the Baltimore Chrome Works at the far western tip of Fells Point. There along the harbor's edge, his huge furnaces roasted the ore into oxides.

The chemical factory produced the pigments that made the yellow and green parts of the spectrum. His chrome was much more effective in tanning leather than was oak bark. If the operation was not glamorous, it was profitable. Tyson died a rich man.

The chemical operation remained on Block Street for decades. In later years, larger chromite deposits were discovered in Turkey and the ore began to be imported here.

By World War II, the old Tyson works was a part of the Mutual Chemical Co. of America, a firm that claimed to be the largest operation of its kind in the world. At peak production, about 375 people worked there.

The company's employees put in three shifts a day during World War II. The chrome was used to tan leather for soldiers' footwear and gloves and paratroopers' jackets. Chrome mordants were added to dyes used for dark wool coats for the Army and Navy. The piston rings in aircraft engines were chrome-plated; so were rifle barrels.

In 1951, the plant was completely rebuilt. Its chromium compounds went into colored paints and pigments, particularly bright yellows. Yellow lines down the middle of highways got their start in Fells Point. Even red fire engines and hydrants once got coated with Block Street's best pigments.

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