Explore the ‘Shadow of Industry’ Along the Key Highway Waterfront

A “whirley crane,” once employed at the Bethlehem Steel Key Highway Shipyard, now stands on the grounds of the Baltimore Museum of Industry, which occupies the former Platt & Company oyster cannery. Photo by Mary Braman.

(This article originally appeared in the February-March 2022 print edition of the South Baltimore Peninsula Post.)

A trek along Key Highway today is graced with sights of luxury homes, sailboats, a neon LOVE sign, and sleek apartment buildings. It is a place wholly transformed over a couple of generations from a waterfront packed with industry and commerce that stretched all the way from Federal Hill and the Inner Harbor into Locust Point along Key Highway East.

Much of that past is now gone. A few ghosts remain, like the green crane that towers over the Baltimore Museum of Industry. Some hardy survivors endure, still busy keeping workboats afloat and American diets sweet. But cruising along today’s Key Highway waterfront, it’s hard to imagine the industrial past that once dominated the landscape.

Last year, staff at the Baltimore Museum of Industry worked to make that past come alive with a self-guided walking tour of the area. “South Baltimore: In the Shadow of Industry” features the tour and accompanying videos from Baltimore Heritage that highlight 10 industries and historic sites along the waterfront and nearby Fort Avenue. Here we present an adaptation of selections from the walking tour with historical photos to take you back to a past that is not that long gone. – Steve Cole, Editor-in-Chief

The Bethlehem Steel Key Highway Shipyard dominated half a mile of waterfront along Key Highway for decades until it closed in 1982. Photo courtesy of Baltimore Museum of Industry Archives.

(1) Baltimore Copper Paint Company, James Distillery

The three brick buildings at the base of Federal Hill that are now home to the American Visionary Art Museum (800 Key Highway) originally served two very different Baltimore industries: paint and whiskey.

The building at the corner of Covington Street and Key Highway – the museum’s main exhibit space – was built in 1913 to house the offices of the Baltimore Copper Paint Company. Founded in 1870 by Oliver Reeder, the company was one of many paint manufacturers in the city at the time. Its namesake “copper paint” inhibited the growth of barnacles on the bottoms of boats sailing in salty waters – a must-have product in a shipbuilding town like Baltimore. The copper paint was used on all of the Liberty ships coming out of the city during World War II.

The two other buildings were completed soon after Prohibition ended in 1934 to serve as warehouses for James Distillery, Inc., which made whiskey at its plant across the street on Key Highway. The warehouses had simple brick exteriors with intricate timber frameworks inside to support the whiskey barrels, wall, and roof.

The current Sculpture Barn (with the exterior LOVE sign) held up to 6,000 barrels; the larger Jim Rouse Center building (with O SAY CAN YOU SEE sign) had a capacity of 20,000 barrels. In the 1940s, the distillery was purchased by F. V. Goldsborough Distilling Corporation, which continued operations there through the early 1950s.

At the base of Federal Hill, directly across from the shipyard, stand two former whiskey warehouses that are now part of the American Visionary Art Museum. Photo courtesy of Baltimore Museum of Industry Archives.

(2) Bethlehem Steel Key Highway Shipyards

Stretching half a mile along the waterfront from the AVAM whiskey warehouses to E. Clement Street, the Bethlehem Steel Key Highway Shipyard was part of the largest ship repair operation in the country at the time.

Shipyards in this area played a pivotal role in Baltimore’s shipbuilding industry from the 1820s until Bethlehem closed the Key Highway Shipyard in December 1982. Boat-building brothers William Skinner Jr. and Jeremiah Skinner established the Skinner Shipyard at the base of Federal Hill in the early 19th century. Their descendants carried on the family business and consolidated other small shipyards, eventually creating the 35-acre Key Highway complex.

After World War I, the company went into receivership and Bethlehem Steel acquired the yard. In 1923, Bethlehem Steel reorganized its various Baltimore locations and moved all of its shipbuilding to Sparrows Point and its repair facilities to Key Highway. Two massive floating dry docks were moved to the Key Highway shipyard.

During the Bethlehem Steel era, the Key Highway facility was known as the “upper yard” to distinguish it from the company’s “lower yard” adjacent to Fort McHenry. The Key Highway yards repaired more than 2,500 ships during World War II. 

(3) Platt Oyster Cannery, Hercules Shipbuilding, ‘Whirley Crane’

Several different businesses had roots on the site of the current Baltimore Museum of Industry complex. The oldest remaining structure is occupied by the museum itself (1415 Key Highway). The Platt & Company oyster cannery, built in the 1860s, was one of the earliest industrial sites in Locust Point. It is one of the last cannery buildings still standing out of the 80 that once operated around Baltimore’s harbor.

The state-of-the-art oyster cannery continued packing oysters until the early 1900s. Platt added fruits and vegetables to his product line, and the company’s hermetically sealed cans were sold all over the world. By the 1970s, the cannery had closed. The vacant building was purchased by Baltimore city government and reopened as the BMI in November 1981.

The Hercules Shipbuilding Company owned the neighboring three-and-a-half story, 20th century Colonial Revival brick office building (1425 Key Highway). The company was an active player in Baltimore’s maritime industry, building vessels for commercial and leisure use and conducting wartime naval construction and repair.

Hercules specialized in repairing and retrofitting cargo holds. One of the tools that workers used was a drop forge to shape heavy steel. The company’s drop forge stands on the BMI’s outdoor campus across the parking lot from the office building next to the “Working Point” sculpture.

The tallest historical structure on the BMI campus – the 1942 Clyde “whirley crane” – is a relative newcomer to the site but no stranger to the Key Highway waterfront. The crane, named for how the boom on top could rotate 360 degrees, worked in the Bethlehem Steel Key Highway Shipyard starting in World War II and remained active until the shipyard closed in 1982.

The whirley crane once stood on Pier 3 in the shipyard, approximately where HarborView Towers (100 HarborView Drive) stands today.

General Ship Repair has been fixing working boats at its Key Highway location since 1929. Photo by Mary Braman.

(4) General Ship Repair

General Ship Repair (1449 Key Highway) maintains the rich shipbuilding tradition long associated with this part of South Baltimore. Charles “Buck” Lynch founded the company in 1924, moved to this location in 1929, lost the company during the Great Depression, and managed to buy it back at auction. Today, Ryan Lynch, the fourth generation of the family, operates the company.

The business repairs a variety of vessels, from schooners and steamships to paddle wheelers and even Mr. Trash Wheel. Workers perform maintenance work on ships in two 1,000-ton floating docks.

General Ship Repair serves as the tug and barge repair facility for the Port of Baltimore. The machine shop on-site allows General Ship crews to weld and fabricate steel parts there.

The American Sugar Refining plant next to Procter & Gamble has been producing Domino Sugar products since April 1922. Photo courtesy of Baltimore Museum of Industry Archives.

(5) American Sugar Refining, Inc.

This Domino Sugar refinery on Key Highway East is one of the last major working industries along Baltimore’s harbor. Raw sugar from Florida and tropical and subtropical countries arrives at the plant by ship and barge. Granulated sugar is the refinery’s main output, but its dozens of production lines also make confectioners, light and dark brown, liquid, and pharmaceutical grade sugars as well as several types of molasses. About 70% of this sweetness goes to commercial bakers and other food producers.

The 30-acre campus was constructed in 1921 and began producing sugar in April 1922. When the refinery opened, it had 1,500 employees and produced up to 2.2 million pounds a day. Now the Baltimore refinery produces nearly triple what it did a century ago with one-third the workforce. About a dozen of Domino’s 510 employees live on the peninsula. Baltimore was once home to six different sugar refineries. This industry boomed between 1865 and 1873 when Baltimore’s rail system and shipping channels attracted six manufacturers to the area. The industry fell apart in the 1870s when a major importer of sugar and molasses declared bankruptcy.

Procter & Gamble opened its Baltimore soap manufacturing plant in 1930 and churned out Tide, Ivory Snow, Cascade, Spic and Span, and more until it closed in 1995. Photo courtesy of Baltimore Museum of Industry Archives.

(6) Procter & Gamble

Procter & Gamble selected the Locust Point site on Key Highway East in 1928 to build a soap manufacturing plant because of its proximity to cargo shipping routes and the city’s transportation infrastructure along the Atlantic seaboard.

The plant, which opened in 1930 with 220 employees, churned out a variety of soap products until it closed in September 1995. At its height, the P&G Baltimore plant employed 550 people making products like Camay, Tide, Cascade, Spic and Span, Ivory Snow, and Cheer. At one point, the plant produced 28% of all Ivory soap (115 million floating white bars).

In 1999, the plant was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. “The size of the Procter & Gamble Plant and the timing of its opening in the early years of the Depression made the plant an important local source of employment and economic stability,” states the registration report.

The site was transformed into the Tide Point office park and is now home to Under Armour’s world headquarters.

Thanks to the Baltimore Museum of Industry for permission to adapt the “South Baltimore: In the Shadow of Industry” walking tour for this article. To dive deeper into Baltimore’s industrial past, visit the BMI website.

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