Ben R. Womer, chronicled history of Dundalk-Patapsco Neck area

May 19, 1994|By Fred Rasmussen | Fred Rasmussen,Sun Staff Writer

Ben R. Womer, a retired steel worker who was inspired to collect and preserve the history of Patapsco Neck because, he said, he grew tired of hearing Dundalk teen-agers complain that "nothing ever happened around here," died Tuesday of pneumonia at Good Samaritan Hospital. He was 83.

He also was inspired by older residents' stories of life in Pataps-a-co Neck, as it is pronounced by locals, and pictures of such vanished or faded landmarks as Logan Field, Bay Shore Park, Riverview Park at Point Breeze and the fabled Dundalk Rockets, the swaying red cars of the No. 26 streetcar line.

He was proud of the Neck's legacy as the birthplace of Commodore Joshua Barney, who fought in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812, and the location of the Battle of North Point in 1812, when American soldiers stopped the advance of British troops.

Mr. Womer was excited by the fact that the boat from which Francis Scott Key watched the bombardment of Fort McHenry during the War of 1812 was anchored not off the fort, as had been believed for years, but rather Sollers Point Flats on the Neck side of the Patapsco River. The bombardment inspired Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner," the national anthem. Mr. Womer successfully lobbied state officials and the Coast Guard to have a red, white and blue buoy placed at the site from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

Mr. Womer wrote books, made tapes, collected artifacts, gave lectures and led the campaign to have the Outer Bridge Crossing, which opened in 1977, named after Key. He was told by former Gov. Harry R. Hughes, then secretary of the Maryland Department of Transportation, that the bridge would be so named and to please stop writing him letters on the subject.

When the old company town of Sparrows Point was being torn down to make way for a new blast furnace, Mr. Womer took his tape recorder and taped the last services at the Episcopal, Baptist and Methodist churches that were soon to be destroyed.

hTC "I can lay Sparrows Point out on this floor, just the way it was," he said in an interview at his home that appeared in The Sun in 1978.

"One day back in 1970, I decided something ought to be done about finding out the history of the area. I just got involved in the damn thing, and I couldn't stop," he said in the interview.

Mr. Womer founded the Dundalk-Patapsco Neck Historical Society in 1970 and was the group's first president.

He succeeded in getting the old building that housed the Dundalk Company, which built emergency housing during World War I to house steel workers, and later a Baltimore County Library branch, donated as the society's headquarters. The emergency housing became Original Dundalk.

David W. Womer, a son who lives in New Windsor, said: "When they ripped down Sparrows Point, he became concerned because he wanted his grandchildren to know where he grew up and to leave a record of where he had been. That's why he wrote three books on the area -- to save its history."

Charles H. Echols Jr., a Dundalk photographer who had known Mr. Womer for years, said: "He was a diamond in the rough. He wasn't educated and worked in the steel mills all of his life. He never had a license or learned to drive a car -- yet he was willing to learn all he could about the area.

"He was an unusual person who made sense when he talked and people liked to hear him talk about old Dundalk. It was quite a shock when people found out that he had died. They just couldn't believe it."

Mr. Womer was born in Lewistown, Pa. After leaving high school in 1928, he followed in his father's footsteps and went to work in the open hearth furnace at Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s Sparrows Point plant. He retired in 1973.

As a young man he played semi-pro baseball during the 1920s with the Colgate Athletic Club and during World War II served as an air raid warden.

For more than 25 years, he was active with Sea Explorers Ship No. 370, a Sea Scouts group he co-founded. He allowed the group to use his waterfront Fairgreen Road property as a base.

In 1935, he married Kathryn Casserly of Brooklyn, N.Y.

"He courted her by train after meeting her at her aunt's house in Dundalk," David Womer said. "He pursued her by going to Brooklyn every weekend until she agreed to marry him. Like I said, he was a very determined man."

Mrs. Womer died in 1974.

Services are to be held at 1:30 p.m. tomorrow at the Duda-Ruck Funeral Home, 7922 Wise Ave. Dundalk, with interment in Meadowridge Cemetery.

Survivors include another son, James R. Womer of Atlantic Beach, N.C.; two daughters, Gloria M. Thorne of Mount Airy and Patricia A. Bergen of Redding, Calif.; seven grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Memorial donations may be made to the American Cancer Society, P.O. Box 43025, Baltimore 21236; or the Kidney Foundation of Maryland, 2526 N. Charles St., Baltimore 21218.

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