Station helped remake Southern Md.

IN FULL FLIGHT AT 50

July 18, 1993|By Arthur Hirsch | Arthur Hirsch,Staff Writer

LEXINGTON PARK -- The Patuxent River Naval Air Station rose 50 years ago from clouds of dust and streams of mud on a fertile point of land in Southern Maryland. Thirteen months passed between the first turning of earth in the old plantations and the first turning of propellers on the runways. A village vanished, people lost homes, but there was a war on.

Construction workers came by the hundreds to St. Mary's County. Hotels were filled and the workers kept coming. They slept in parks, scrounged lodging with local families and built their own tar-paper barracks. In months, they made an army 6,000 strong.

"There were men who came here like a gold rush," said Larry Millison, a real estate developer and former county commissioner whose family was ousted when the Navy moved in. "It was just like a boom town in a Wild West movie."

Men who had earned 50 cents or a dollar a day as Depression farm laborers could make $200 a week or more with overtime pay building the base. They worked day and night. They drove giant earthmovers down narrow country roads onto Cedar Point, waterfront home of some of the best farmland in Southern Maryland. They laid runways over rich topsoil and built hangars taller than a silo, big enough to swallow a dozen tobacco barns.

The hamlet of Pearson -- homes, a gas station, general store, bar, car dealer and Methodist church -- disappeared almost overnight. So did much of the provincial life of St. Mary's County.

Fifty years ago, the gates were swung open. In marched crackerjack pilots and technicians, men with degrees in engineering and aeronautics from schools far away. With the world at war, they came to test airplanes and send them into battle. St. Mary's County, once home chiefly to farmers and watermen, became proving ground for the best aviation technology the country knew.

"A great responsibility is put into your hands," Rear Adm. John S. McCain, chief of the Bureau of Aeronautics, said at the commissioning ceremony on April 1, 1943. "For growth and change is still the very life of any air service which hopes to survive."

Growth and change have been the story of the station, located at the confluence of the Patuxent River and the Chesapeake Bay, about 90 miles south of Baltimore.

Today, as military bases close or diminish around it, Patuxent River is poised to gain jobs and shoulder new missions. This county of 80,000 people, where the population has grown more than fivefold since the base opened, may be in for another surge.

Split about evenly among military and civilian employees and contractors, the base employs 10,000 people, nearly a third of the jobs in the county. Pax River, as it is known in local lingo, pays nearly half of all county wages, or about $403 million in 1991, said Susan Wilkinson, a county economic development specialist.

In 1996, the first of about 2,000 jobs are to be transferred from a Navy research and development center in Warminster, Pa., and a station in Trenton, N.J. Another 3,000 jobs may be sent to St. Mary's as the result of the Base Closure and Realignment Commission's recent recommendation that Pax River absorb air command positions from Crystal City, Va.

The impact on the county will be tempered by employee cuts through attrition over the last two years. Also, the base closure commission has recommended that 1,100 jobs move from the Navy base in St. Inigoes -- about six miles south of Pax River -- to Charleston, S.C.

Charting the changes

County Planning Director Jon Grimm said the influx from Warminster and Trenton will not boost the county population more than the 1988 master plan anticipated. But he said planners haven't had time to study in detail the potential impact of the Crystal City move on local schools and roads. Generally, Mr. Grimm said, schools are tight on space, and as part of a six-year expansion plan, an elementary school is opening next month in Hollywood, north of Lexington Park.

Road improvements also are expected, including widening the 4 1/2 -mile stretch of state Route 235 from state Route 4 to the main base gate in Lexington Park.

Inside the gate lies a 6,500-acre complex of runways, hangars, computerized aircraft observation posts, offices, flight simulators and apartment buildings. This year, the Navy will spend nearly $1 million a day to run the place. The government figures the base buildings and property are worth $1.3 billion.

From the street, it doesn't look like much. Sailors in white keep watch at the gate house. Next door, a few old jet fighters and helicopters are displayed in front of the Naval Air Test & Evaluation Museum. So is the cupola of the old Cedar Point Lighthouse.

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