The Glenn L. Martin Aircraft Co. employed 53,000 workers at Middle River at the peak of World War II, producing thousands of aircrafts and bombers and serving as a key economic engine in the Baltimore area.
But that was another era. The company — now defense behemoth Lockheed Martin Corp. — announced Thursday it will stop manufacturing at the Middle River site next year, though 470 white-collar professionals will remain there. The move marks the end of a long-term decline for the Baltimore manufacturer that helped build the region's middle-class communities and put Middle River on the map.
"That plant was the largest aircraft manufacturer in the world during World War II," said Richard Clinch, economic development director for the Jacob France Institute at the University of Baltimore. "That was the main Martin production facility, so it's a big piece of history lost."
Bethesda-based Lockheed Martin said 60 jobs will be cut when manufacturing ceases at Middle River by the end of next year. The restructuring is the latest downsizing for the Middle River operation and part of companywide cuts, job transfers and consolidation. About 400 jobs nationwide will be eliminated beginning in the first quarter of next year. Affected workers will receive severance, the company said.
Lockheed Martin officials also emphasized: "We will continue to be part of Middle River and its community," according to a statement.
The Middle River site, which specializes in producing a missile launch system used on Navy ships, will employ 470 people after the cuts. Workers to remain include engineers, design and development employees, program managers and support staff.
Company officials said Thursday that shrinking defense budgets mean less demand for products and more competition. The company determined it was in the "best interest of the business" to end manufacturing operations in Middle River and close another facility in Minnesota because products made there could be produced at other Lockheed Martin plants.
Lockheed Martin, which announced in April it would lay off 37 workers at Middle River, said production of a missile launch system at that site had declined over the past five years while costs have risen. Next year, manufacturing of the missile launch system at Middle River will cease entirely because of a lack of Navy contracts. Work on future contracts will be carried out at other Lockheed Martin facilities.
Moreover, production of canisters for the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, weapon system will be transferred to a facility in Arkansas. Workers involved with program management and engineering for THAAD will remain in Middle River, the company said.
"We're deeply saddened by the news," said David Iannucci, Baltimore County's economic development director. He added: "We do take solace that 470 of the engineers and white-collar operations jobs are remaining in Middle River."
Mike Galiazzo, president of the Regional Manufacturing Institute of Maryland, a nonprofit group, said the Middle River operation was one of the main sources of blue-collar manufacturing jobs in the Baltimore region, along with Bethlehem Steel, the General Motors plant and the shipyards.
Such manufacturing jobs drew thousands of people to work in the Baltimore area for decades, as people from other parts of the country relocated to the area for the well-paying work, Galiazzo said.
"Those industries made middle-class America happen, at least in the eastern half of Baltimore," he said.
The history of the Glenn L. Martin Aircraft Co. began in 1928 when the namesake founder purchased land in Middle River to build and test aircraft.
After the United States entered World War II, Martin's Middle River complex grew from 3,500 workers to a peak of 53,000. The work-force boom also led to the development of housing for employees. According to the Glenn L. Martin Maryland Aviation Museum, the company produced more than 80 different types of aircraft.
After the war ended, the plant continued to employ about 14,000 workers.
The Martin company merged with American-Marietta Corp. to form Martin Marietta in 1961 and began focusing on creating missiles, space hardware, guidance systems and more. Workers in Middle River built the Titan II rocket that carried astronauts Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom and John Young into space in the 1960s.
Martin Marietta merged with Lockheed Aircraft to form Lockheed Martin in 1995.
In recent years, the Middle River plant focused on the company's Vertical Launch System, the missile-launching system used by the Navy and other countries.
Peter Skibitski, a senior aerospace and defense analyst with SunTrust Robinson Humphrey in Atlanta, said the Middle River facility hadn't scored a major government manufacturing contract for years. "You have to go back decades for a meaningful program win for manufacturing there," Skibitski said.