Jacques Kelly: Plumbing Woodberry's atomic secret

What is now Woodberry Kitchen and the adjacent complex of homes, offices and workplaces along Clipper Park Road was once a busy industrial site.

During World War II, more than 900 workers labored there, some on a mission kept a secret until years after the hostilities ended.

Because there has not been much information published about this footnote of Baltimore history, persons who have evidence of this activity remain curious.

Among them is Sister Maura Prendergast, a nun who taught French for 50 years at Trinity College in Northeast Washington. Her mother, Hanora Prendergast, was one of 79 women employed at the foundry during the war.

“During the second World War, my mother … worked as a secretary in the office. When the war ended, she was startled to receive a letter from the U.S. government commending her for her contribution to the making of the atomic bomb that brought the war to a close,” said Sister Prendergast, who now lives at the Notre Dame de Namur Sisters’ home in Stevenson.

She recalled that her mother, who lived with her family in Howard Park near Gwynn Oak Park, worked for the Balmar Corp. in Woodberry.

“She took the No. 32 streetcar down Liberty Heights Avenue and then caught a bus. She got off at the 41st Street bridge and walked down the hill to work,” Sister Maura said.

Hanorah Prendergast was a secretary in the Balmar office, which was a subsidiary of Franklin Railway Supply Co. The plant was known earlier as the Poole & Hunt Foundry — a notable industry here during the 19th century.

According to a 1951 book, “Maryland in World War II,” published by the Maryland Historical Society’s War Records Division: “All Balmar employees received a certificate of appreciation from the War Department for participating in work essential to the production of the atomic bomb.”

The workers got their congratulatory documents — but were not told the particulars of their labors.

According to the Maryland War Records account, Balmar Corp. was “a peacetime specialist in research engineering and machine work relative to railroad locomotives... [and] undertook numerous specific war tasks.”

There’s no doubt it was a busy place. In 1940, with its huge industrial forges, Balmar Corp. had a work force of about 350 men. Its main customer was the American steam railroad industry that bought parts from the Woodberry firm.

For the war effort, we know its forges were making Liberty Ship components and its line of valves, cylinders and cam boxes, and steam grate shakers for the coal-burning steam locomotives. There were two shifts, a 10-hour and a 12-hour work day. Balmar also made war materials for England and France.

The foundry took on other tasks related to the war.

“For the Glenn L. Martin B-26 Marauder aircraft, Balmar built the majority of the fuselage fixtures as well as the dies and gauges … for plants making the planes in Baltimore, Omaha, Akron, and Canada,” states the 1951 Maryland Historical Society book. “Workers also made power gun mounts for aircraft and small naval vessels.

“On subcontract to various shipbuilders, the company forged quantities of Liberty Ship components, including ... heavy anchor and chain shackles,” the book states. “It made radar mounts for the Army and Navy and also made machine and antiaircraft gun parts for both services.”

While details of its atomic bomb work are slight, the Maryland Historical Society book does devote a single sentence to what the Balmar workers were doing: “Under a subcontract to the E. I. du Pont de Nemours Co., Wilmington Del., Balmar contributed to the Manhattan District Project by manufacturing certain equipment used in the final processing of elements employed in the atomic bomb.”

This bit of information is what is known about the Manhattan Project in Baltimore.

Sister Maura’s mother later left Balmar, then became a secretary at the Enoch Pratt Free Library. She died in 2007 at age 99.

“My mother was startled to know [about Balmar’s work related to the Manhattan Project], proud to be recognized by the U.S. government and horrified to learn that she had anything to do with the atomic bomb,” said her daughter.

“Eventually she burned the letter,” he daughter recalled. “It was a kind of little Hiroshima memorial of her own.”

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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