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Liberty ship John W. Brown has a place to moor in Baltimore. It just needs (at least) $10 million

The Liberty ship John W. Brown, a floating museum, about to set sail on one of its periodic trips down the Chesapeake Bay
The Liberty ship John W. Brown, a floating museum, about to set sail on one of its periodic trips down the Chesapeake Bay(Chris Kaltenbach, The Baltimore Sun)

There’s a plan that would allow the John W. Brown to keep calling Baltimore home.

It just needs $10 million to $18 million.

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The restored Liberty ship, a World War II-era relic that has been operating as a museum, tour boat and floating classroom out of Baltimore for decades, had faced the loss of its mooring privileges at a Canton dock and an uncertain future. But plans unveiled Monday would enable the ship to moor at a revitalized pier on the site of the former Bethlehem Steel Fairfield Shipyard — the same facility from which it launched in 1942.

“It’s an exciting opportunity for us,” said Michael Barnes of Project Liberty Ship Inc., the all-volunteer group that owns and operates the John W. Brown. The ship, which carries passengers on bay excursions that include period entertainment and other invocations of what it was like to serve on it during World War II, has spent the past three decades in Baltimore.

Under the plan, the 80-year-old pier, located southeast of the Baltimore Harbor Tunnel at the end of Frankfurst Avenue, would be rebuilt and serve as home base for the John W. Brown. It would also host shipbuilding and marine technology operations for the Maritime Applied Physics Corp. MAPC, which designs and builds advanced technology systems and water vessels, including Baltimore’s new water taxis, owns the land where the Fairfield shipyard was located. It has a 50-year lease, with an option to purchase, the 780-foot pier.

Barnes chaired a committee that spent the past year looking for a place the John W. Brown could call home.

He estimated the cost of the project at $10 million to $11 million for installation of a floating pier, which would have to be augmented to be strong enough to hold the John W. Brown, or $18 million to replace the structure with a “heavy-duty commercial pier” that could accommodate both the Brown and MAPC’s operations.

No funding is in place for the project, Barnes said. His group hopes federal and state grants will cover some 60% to 70% of the cost, with the rest coming from corporate and private donations.

He said group leaders have met with federal and state officials, including state Sen. Johnny Ray Salling, a Republican who represents southeast Baltimore County. Salling did not immediately respond Monday to a request for comment from The Baltimore Sun.

The completed pier would be owned and operated by a nonprofit, possibly Project Liberty Ship, which would issue MAPC a long-term lease for its use.

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The 441-foot-long gray John W. Brown is one of only two fully operational Liberty ships remaining, and the only one sailing regularly out of the port city where it was built. It’s currently berthed at Pier C in Canton, on property owned by Rukert Terminals Corp. But a five-year agreement to provide a free home for the John W. Brown — which Rukert agreed to when it paid the state $2 million for the pier in 2014 — expired in September. Although Rukert allowed the ship to stay, company officials made it clear they had other plans for the pier.

“Our vision is that our Bethlehem Fairfield site will host rapidly growing numbers of skilled Baltimore workers and that the presence of the John W. Brown will remind our community and the citizens of Maryland of those who worked so hard to build the ships that saved the world,” Mark Rice, president of MAPC, said in a release announcing the plan. “The photographs on the walls of our present building remind us daily of the thousands of shipyard workers, men and women of all races and ethnicities, who did more than their part to win WWII."

Construction of the Liberty ships began in September 1941. Initially, they were marked for sale to the British; the U.S. didn’t enter the war until the attack on Pearl Harbor the following December. By war’s end in 1945, some 2,700 Liberty ships had been built, more than 380 at the Fairfield shipyard. As the workhorses of the American war effort, they transported two-thirds of all cargo that left the U.S. during the war. The John W. Brown, named for an American labor-union leader, could carry as much as 9,000 tons of cargo and as many as 500 soldiers.

Following the war, the John W. Brown was loaned to New York City, where it served as a maritime high school until 1982. After floating dormant in New York and, later, Norfolk, Virginia, the ship arrived in Baltimore in August 1988. Following extensive renovations, almost all accomplished with volunteer labor, it was back sailing under its own power in August 1991.

Barnes estimated it will take “a couple years” for the pier project to be completed, and said the group is “optimistic” the necessary funding will be found. “It’s going to be a long, slow slog,” he predicted.

The John W. Brown is scheduled to leave for Norfolk, Virginia, on Saturday, where it will go into drydock for inspections and repairs; it’s scheduled to be back in Baltimore on or around Feb. 10, Barnes said. Project Liberty Ship is working on finding locations the ship can call home temporarily while the pier project is under way, he said — locations that would enable it to remain open and operating in the interim.

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More than 500,000 people have taken pierside tours or sailed on the John W. Brown since it returned to Baltimore in 1988, according to Project Liberty Ship.

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