WWII Memories of Baltimore’s Locust Point

The Locust Point of my early youth bustled with maritime commerce and social activities. During the years of World War II, (1941-45), when the Point had twenty-four taverns, it was commonplace to find tough dockworkers, gung-ho sailors and soldiers, drunken brawls, merchant seamen, floating dice games, some loose women, a fast buck and festive block parties.

It was also a time of air raid drills, blackouts, ration stamps, crowded church services, unfounded fears of foreign spies, buying coal by the bundle, church-sponsored "May Processions," "National Boh" beer on draft, shoe shine boys, patriotic parades, newspaper hawkers, cops walking their beats and electric street cars.

I was born in 1937 and grew up in Locust Point. As a child, it was a magical kind of place and a time that I didn’t think was ever going to end. It was like watching a big budget movie being made, and everyone was growing old in it, but me. The peninsula, formerly entitled, "Whetstone Point," juts out into Baltimore’s harbor, with historic Fort McHenry as its easterly point and Fort Avenue literally splitting it down the middle.

The Point’s landed boundary on the west side is Lawrence Street (where Rallo’s Restaurant is located). Within its confines could be found around 3,000 residents, then, mostly of Polish, German, Irish and English extraction. The area contained three precincts of the 24th Ward. It had Roman Catholic, German Lutheran, and Episcopalian church parishes; one funeral parlor; a gas service station; assorted industries, including a cinderblock company; and even a blacksmith. In addition, there was Our Lady of Good Counsel parochial school and P.S. 76; along with spacious Latrobe Park, with its baseball, softball, and soccer fields.

On the north side of the Point were situated the sprawling dock terminals, first opened by the B&O RaiIroad in 1849. The B&O was then one of the largest and finest private employers in the state. It also owned and operated the massive grain elevator at Andre and Beason Streets (now being converted into condos and apartments). On the Point’s southern end were the Port Covington docks, owned by the competing Western Maryland Railroad, which also included a grain elevator and ore and coal piers.

Just outside of the Point on the [Francis Scott] Key Highway, the Bethlehem Steel Corporation maintained the then largest drydock and shipyard facility in the country. That 35-acre site, plus a 14-acre facility adjacent to Fort McHenry, worked around the clock, seven days a week, on cost-plus government contracts during WWII. It built and repaired hundreds of "Victory", "LSTs" and "Liberty" ships in the massive war effort. It employed tens of thousands of workers during this hectic period, including many women in jobs formerly held by men. The long black limousines used by the company executives could be seen parked outside its Key Highway facility, with their well-groomed chauffeurs standing by at the ready.

The "Soap House" as it was called by the locals–the Procter & Gamble plant, world famous for its "Ivory" soap–was located at the foot of Haubert Street. It was also producing at its capacity during this era. The "Sugar House," its next-door neighbor, owned by the American Sugar Refinery, with the huge neon sign on top of it, was just as busy, making the famed "Domino" sugar.

At night, the banging noise of steel pipes being loaded onto ships by the longshoremen could regularly be heard. They were hired to work the oceangoing vessel, and were commonly referred to as "stevedores." After loading or discharging its cargo, a ship, accompanied by a tugboat or two, would make its way carefully out into the main shipping channel of the harbor. This would be preceded by a concert of short blasts from each vessel’s whistle, as the larger ship was towed safely away from the dock. Even to this day, the burst from a ship’s whistle is a haunting melody to me, recalling fond memories of yesteryear.

During the early morning hours, Monday through Friday, the business agent for International Longshoremen’s Association (ILA) Local 829 on Hull Street, (in the 1200 block, opposite today’s "Hull Street Blues Cafe"), could be heard barking out, over his loud speaker, the daily order for labor for longshoremen gangs. The gang carrier would then hire on the spot, what men he would need for that day’s work. This "shaping-up" process was later immortalized in the movie, "On the Waterfront," which starred the great actor Marlon Brando. There were five separate I.L.A. hiring halls located on the Point. The largest, for the stevedores, was divided into two separate locals: one for the blacks and one for the whites. The other union halls were for the grain workers, who labored on bulk grain ships; the talleykeepers, ship runners and checkers, (Checkers’ Union); and one for the receiving and delivery clerks, (Front Door Local).

My father, the late Richard Patrick Hughes, Sr., worked on the waterfront for over 40 years as a ship runner, (mostly for the Alcoa Steamship Company), out of I.L.A. Local 953 (Checkers’ Union). His job was to supervise the loading and discharging of cargo onto the vessels. This was long before containerization transformed the industry. In those days, the lot of the longshoremen was a hard one indeed. Most of the cargo had to be moved by hand. The work was very difficult, took special skills, and was extremely dangerous, with long and erratic work hours. Fatal accidents were not uncommon.

Cargo with live ammunition was loaded at the Hawkins Point Terminal, located further out in the harbor, on the southern shore of the Patapsco River. A general cargo ship would be loaded with military goods, equipment, and troops, to capacity, if the freight was available. Some of the vessels never made it to their final destination, falling victim to German "U-boats" in the treacherous waters of the North Atlantic. The stowage for these vessels had to be exact for safety reasons.

Longshoremen, with their ubiquitous hooks in the back of their pants, worked tirelessly to maintain the ship’s tight schedule. Many of them also drank, fought, and played hard at the same level of intensity. A good slugfest outside of one of the neighborhood bars on a Friday evening (pay day) between the longshoremen wasn’t out of the ordinary. In fact, during the "dog days of summer," and before the invention of television, it was actually expected.

Usually, the "Marquess of Queensberry" rules automatically applied, and no one was taken unfair advantage of by the combatants, or their unofficial seconds. The last man standing was normally declared the winner, and if the fight was going too bad for one of the participants, some wiser head normally intervened and declared the match over. After the battle, everyone, including the two principal fighters, would return arm-in-arm to the bar for yet another round of drinks.

There was a terrible war going on in Europe and in the Pacific. But to me as a youngster, those places might well have been on the planet Mars. That reality, for the most part, only came through when I went to the "Deluxe" movie house on Fort Avenue (at Lowman St.) on Saturday afternoon. Just before the feature, and the eagerly-awaited "Serial," the Deluxe ran a news-of-the-world segment. It was only then that I heard about celebrated incidents, like the "Normandy Invasion," the "Battle of the Bulge," and the "Fall of Berlin;" and about our military heroes, such as: Generals George Patton, Douglas MacArthur, and Dwight Eisenhower.

I remember seeing German prisoners-of-war laboring down at the "Lumber Yard," opposite Latrobe Park (at Andre St.) This was just before the conflict ended. Some of my neighbors gave them water to drink, which they gratefully accepted. In retrospect, they appeared relieved to be alive and out of the fighting. In front of the B&O’s Riverside "Round House," (on Fort Ave., near Lawrence St.), there were stored thousands of huge life rafts, stacked twenty high. They said it was surplus war goods.

There is one other memory of the war still sketched in my psyche. I recall vividly, seeing a photograph, or a drawing, in our Sunday morning newspaper, on the cover of the magazine section. It showed a beleaguered soldier, either U.S. or one of our allies, kneeling, with his hands tied behind his back, and his head lowered onto a block. An angry-looking Japanese soldier towered menacingly above him with his sword raised high preparing to do the foul deed on his helpless victim. For war propaganda and morale purposes, the picture worked, charging up feelings of intense hatred towards the Japanese. It definitely belonged in the classic category.

We lived then at 1237 Haubert Street, close to the harbor. Several times a week, only a half block away, the B&O Railroad would bring a train, loaded with raw materials, through Marriott Street and into the Procter & Gamble plant and warehouse. Then, it would carry out finished products from an earlier shipment. I would sit on the curb, usually with one of my siblings, after dinner, and watch the train go into the plant, and wait patiently for it to come out. The engineer always rewarded us with a blast or two of his whistle as he went by our sidewalk position. It also helped that there was a tavern directly across the street, (Hudson’s Bar), that just happened to be one of the train crew’s favorite watering holes.

From our front stoop, the faces and sounds of merchant seamen from all over the world could be seen and heard. The seamen from India and the Orient had the habit of walking down the street in a single file, usually with their hands folded behind their backs. The Europeans preferred to travel in packs of three or more, and normally walked abreast of one another.

The typical icons in most of the small row houses on the Point consisted of portraits of then-President Franklin D. Roosevelt and/or Pope Pius XII. Some of the taverns also carried a picture on their wall of the great labor leader, John L. Lewis. Lewis, the indefatigable boss of the United Mine Workers of America, actually called a strike during World War II! Needless to say, the Point was a bastion of strength for trade unionism. Its residents took deep pride in their work, solidarity and in their union membership.

The 1100 block of Haubert Street was supposedly known as "Fairy Alley," since so many Irish had lived there. The other theory is, probably more accurate, that is was called "Ferry Alley." This is because the harbor ferry left from the foot of Haubert St. to travel twice a day across to "Broadway" over in Fells Point. (See, "Locust Point Wards," Vol. 1, Plate L, G. M. Hopkins, Librarian of the Congress, at Washington, D.C., entered according to the Acts of Congress, 1876.) The Toolan family was raised there, and one of their sons became the Roman Catholic Bishop of Mobile, Alabama.

The Woodall and Stevenson Street area, on the Point, was called "Leadtown," since it had been the site of the "Maryland White Lead Works." Reynolds Street was referred to as "Garrett Park." It had formerly been part of an estate owned by the distinguished John Eager Howard family of Baltimore and environs.

Sam Meisel, who was Jewish, owned a very successful ship chandler’s business at Fort Ave. and Towson St., which had been started by his father. He lived on the Point, (on Fort Ave., opposite Latrobe Park), and died there at a late age. When asked why he hadn’t moved out to the suburbs, he answered: "Why should I? I know you, knew your father and his father before him. And, when I walk down the street in Locust Point, I am always addressed as ‘Mr. Meisel’. In Pikesville, I would be just another old man."

Everybody who worked on the docks in those days appeared to have a nickname of some sort. Colorful monikers, like: "Horse Collar," "Half-Dead," "Iggy," "Gassy," "Snake-Eyes," "The Ox," "Hacky," "Stumper," and "The Senator" were bantered about.

In the summer months, an elderly man, who fixed umbrellas while you waited, would make his rounds, walking around the neighborhood. He was very proud of his craft and took great pleasure in watching the wonderment of us "street kids" at his magic-like achievements. The "Ay-Rabs," vendors who sold vegetables and fruits from the back of a horse-drawn wagon, could also be seen, and especially heard, hawking their wares in the back alleys and streets into the early evening hours.

The political boss of the Point was the late, beloved Ed "Judge" Daugherty. He lived in the 1100 block of Hull St. and was a checker on the waterfront. He had also served as a "Sitting Magistrate". Judge Daugherty was associated with the then dominant Stonewall Democratic Club, which has longed played a key role, mostly positive, in the life of the community. He was highly respected as an honest and good man, who had helped many constituents with their problems.

There was also a nurse (Ms. Finneyfrock) from Baltimore City’s Health Department who made periodic visits to the neighborhood, especially to homes with expectant mothers. Our family physician, Dr. Aaron Sollod, made house calls as a matter of course.

During WWII, one of the military parades that I particularly remember had Mayor Theodore R. McKeldin in it. There were the usual marching bands, soldier units, and flags in it, too. But I especially recall seeing the Mayor seated on the back of a jeep as the parade went down Fort Avenue (at the intersection of Hull St.) towards Fort McHenry. He was waving to the crowd and enjoying himself immensely. Somebody was complaining bitterly: "He’s a Republican!" But, I remember my father saying to the man that it didn’t matter, because McKeldin was an "alright guy."

President Roosevelt, who was deeply loved by the people, died on April 12, 1945. The Point mourned his loss, as did the nation. Germany and Japan both surrendered later that year. The great war was finally over. The halcyon days of the Point as a place of mass employment had also come to an end. Its people and industries had met the difficult war challenges.

The changing global economy and "Modern Times," however, have regretfully taken their toll on my old neighborhood. The legendary Bethlehem Steel shipyard on Key Highway is gone forever, ready to be converted into an apartment/condominium complex. I.L.A. Local 829 is now part of the folklore of Labor History. Its replacement union, ILA Local 333, has moved to East Baltimore. The B&O Railroad and Port Convington docks have been taken over by the Maryland Port Administration, and soon, the Baltimore Sun’s modernized printing plant will be added to the Port Covington area.

The Point will probably never be the same place again, and maybe some will say: "That’s a blessing!" But, my memory of those grand and glorious WWII days, and Locust Point’s part in it, will remain with me forever.


This article was originally published in the "Baltimore Chronicle" on March 7, 1990.