The resuscitation of Baltimore's port


Back Story


By the early 1950s, with Baltimore's aging port facilities worn down from heavy use during World War II and with the neglect of the all-powerful railroads, it was clear that something had to be done.

Maryland Gov. Theodore Roosevelt McKeldin, who had been critical of the lack of modern port development, was joined in this sentiment by Baltimore Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr.

At the time, the port was largely a bulk handler of coal, grain and ore, and it was in danger of losing its competitive edge.

"The B&O controlled Locust Point, the Pennsy controlled Canton, while the Western Maryland Railway controlled Port Covington," Helen Delich Bentley, a former congresswoman and chairman of the Federal Maritime Commission, said yesterday.

"The railroads wouldn't put up any money, and it was clear they had no money to modernize. The trucking industry was growing with the birth of the interstate highway system, and containers were invented. All these elements were suddenly coming together," said Bentley, who was then maritime editor of The Sun and covered the birth of the port authority.

"The B&O's port facilities were built in 1900 and never improved. The Pennsy's piers at Clinton and Newkirk streets were run-down and they had no interest in putting any money in their port facilities here. Only the Western Maryland piers were more modern, having been built in the late 1920s," Bentley said.

"The railroads didn't want trucks on the piers and didn't care what other ports elsewhere were doing," she said. "At the time, The Sun was very generous and sent me around the country so I could see what other ports were doing. There was the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, the Delaware River Port Authority and even one in Norfolk, but we had nothing."

On March 26, 1956, McKeldin signed into law the bill that created the Maryland Port Authority and its five-member commission.

"The railroads fought the legislation, along with Baltimore Gas and Electric and the Baltimore Association of Commerce, but McKeldin was very strong on it," she said.

"The authority, to start operations June 1, will supervise port activities, acquire property including piers now owned by the city of Baltimore and expand cargo facilities to attract more commerce to Maryland," reported The Sun.

In a letter to The Sun, McKeldin wrote: "We now have the firm foundation for the establishment of an effective Maryland State Port Authority. It is my desire, as I am sure it is yours, to make this a strong, capable authority to carry out the intent of this progressive legislation by acting as necessary to modernize and promote our port and to maintain the top rating we enjoy among American foreign tonnage ports." He added: "Like all official bodies, of course, this authority will be only as strong as those of whom it is composed."

"If we hadn't gotten it done," Bentley said, "Baltimore would have become a port smaller than Crisfield."

Robert W. Williams, a Baltimore admiralty lawyer and former member of the Federal Maritime Board, was named chairman of the Maryland Port Authority. He was joined on the commission by D. Luke Hopkins, a Baltimore banker; R. Paul Smith, a Western Maryland utilities president; Avery W. Hall, an insurance and shipping executive from the Eastern Shore; and Edward S. Cochran, a civil engineer and trucking company executive from Southern Maryland.

In September, the port authority named Joseph L. Stanton, former director of public relations for the B&O, as its executive director, with a salary of $25,000.

Stanton had been a maritime reporter for The Evening Sun before World War II. A former Coast Guard officer during the war, he was named director of the Baltimore Association of Commerce Export and Import Bureau.

In 1953, he joined the B&O where he wrote and directed the motion picture Baltimore -- World Port.

"We reached out all over the country, but no one would come because the salary was lower than most other port authorities and no one was sure what would happen. It wasn't an established agency," recalled Bentley.

"I recommended Joe. He was a PR guy at the B&O, and he did a great job for the port authority. He was a good communicator, a great salesman and very well-organized. He had to be," she said.

Speaking of his new job, Stanton said in a 1956 interview with The Sun, "It's a challenge to me because this port is on its way up, not down. It's a going concern."

Stanton took on the port's problems with a staff of five people at a time when it was threatened with competition from the soon-to-be-operating St. Lawrence Seaway. Other issues he grappled with included fighting to retain Baltimore's freight-rate advantage and the need for increased, modern cargo facilities.

During his 21-year tenure, Stanton spent a quarter-billion dollars that resulted in the building of Dundalk and South Locust Point marine terminals and the World Trade Center. An international marketing program carried the word worldwide of the advantages of Baltimore's port.

Thirty-five years ago today, the Maryland Port Authority ceased to exist when it became the Maryland Port Administration, an agency of the state Department of Transportation.

And by the time Stanton stepped down in 1977, his staff had grown to 500.

W. Gregory Halpin, who became director of communications for the Maryland Port Authority in 1959 and succeeded Stanton as administrator of the Maryland Port Administration, credited his boss with "rebuilding the port that built the state."

In a letter to The Sun after Stanton's death in 1988, Halpin wrote that because of his hard work, Baltimore had regained its position as a center of international trade.

"It was indeed, a grand and glorious thing Joe Stanton did. May his soul rest in the knowledge of having done so much for the port he loved," he wrote.

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