Boom Time

Some 60 years ago, Baltimore was transformed economically by a flood of new workers brought here to help fight World War II. Now, another transformation appears imminent as thousands head for Maryland to staff an ambitious federal defense research effort.

August 12, 2007|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Sun Reporter

During World War II people flocked to Baltimore to fill thousands of new, defense-related jobs. Downtown streets bustled with people looking to spend their newly earned wages. Commuters were stuck in traffic for hours. Housing was in such short supply that people lined up to live in trailers, and even to share beds in rooming houses and dormitories.

The war altered Maryland's economy, population and landscape in ways still visible today, from the continued prominence of defense contractors to the spread of car-dependent suburbs. The work that opened up for African-Americans boosted the city's black population, historians note, and helped set the stage for the civil rights movement.

Now, the region appears poised for another military metamorphosis likely to alter the course of our economy and our culture.

Up to 60,000 new workers - scientists, engineers, researchers and bureaucrats - are scheduled to arrive in Maryland in the next several years to staff an expansive array of defense research facilities centered here by the Pentagon's national base realignment plan. An army of contractors and other support enterprises appears likely to follow.

FOR THE RECORD - An article about World War II's impact on the Baltimore area in Sunday's Ideas section understated the current number of employees and the size of the campus at Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Laboratory. A staff of 4,100 works on the 399-acre campus in Howard County.
The Sun regrets the error.

Though much smaller in scope than the migrations triggered by World War II, this new buildup could have similarly lasting impact, experts say. With that in mind, it might be useful to look back at those scenes from World War II for a sense of how a such change might transform central Maryland - for better and worse.

Richard Clinch, director of economic research at the University of Baltimore, says the buildup around Aberdeen Proving Ground could be "transformational" for Harford County, in part because of the numbers of jobs - upwards of 35,000, some local officials predict - and the type of work concentrated in a county that has gone from largely rural to suburban in recent decades.

Clinch says Harford will "become a high-tech center solely because of" the base realignment. Mostly rural Cecil also will see big changes, he says.

"You're going to amplify the development of northern [Interstate] 95," he adds, predicting the base moves will "do in five years what would have taken 20 years."

The growth spurt could also worsen the region's already notorious traffic, school crowding and housing shortages. Much depends on how state and local officials and businesses respond. One advantage local leaders will have this time around is that it is not expected to be played out to the frantic tempo of a global conflict, so there should be more time to build the roads and schools and housing that will be needed to avoid significant social disruption.

The world war brought change seemingly overnight, quickly lifting Baltimore and the nation out of the Depression. Hundreds of thousands found work in and around the city building Liberty cargo ships, bombers, electronic gear and and other war materiel. The port teemed with ships loading supplies for troops in Europe.

Millions of soldiers and sailors, meanwhile, were trained at area bases, notably Fort George G. Meade in Anne Arundel County, Aberdeen Proving Ground in Harford and Bainbridge Naval Station in Cecil County.

As job-seekers migrated here from Pennsylvania, West Virginia and elsewhere in the mid-Atlantic and South, the city's population soared from 859,000 in 1940 to more than 1 million by 1942, by unofficial counts.

"For a lot of people, this was the first good job they'd had in years, so they came and lined up," notes John Breihan, a history professor at Loyola College who has researched the war's local impact.

Harry Mettee was one of those who landed work. Freshly graduated from Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, Mettee became employee No. 10,003 in 1940 at the Glenn L. Martin Aircraft Co. in Middle River. He was 18 and living in Hampden with his parents.

"They were hiring like mad at the time," recalls Mettee, now 85 and retired after 48 years with the aircraft company, now known as Lockheed Martin. "I was one of the youngest foremen there." He qualified for the plum job by going to school on Saturdays in his senior year in high school to learn how to read blueprints.

Incomes that had been stifled by the Depression more than doubled during the war. "Pay Checks Again - It's Grand!" exclaimed a headline in The Evening Sun.

The pay at Martin was $19 a week, Mettee recalls. "I gave my mother $15 and kept $4," he says, and celebrated his new-found affluence by buying an Emerson record player.

Baltimore's boom started before Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941. France, alarmed by the growing aggressiveness of Nazi Germany even before war broke out, contracted with Martin to build bombers starting in 1939. Britain became Martin's next customer after Germany invaded France in 1940.

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