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Glenn L. Martin’s vision of a plant in Middle River endured for decades

The Glenn L. Martin Co. aircraft factory in Middle River in 1940.
The Glenn L. Martin Co. aircraft factory in Middle River in 1940. (Kniesche)

Little notice was given when Glenn L. Martin moved to Baltimore and bought a house in Guilford in the middle 1920s. But his secret was out by 1929. The aviation pioneer had secretly bought up hundreds of acres of waterfront property in Middle River.

The recent news that Lockheed Martin would cease manufacturing at Middle River by the end of 2023 underscores what a long run this industry has enjoyed here. A Martin’s job meant paychecks and prosperity to thousands of Baltimore workers.

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When Martin, who was born in Iowa and had a plant in Cleveland, approached the Baltimore City Council with his concept, members of the city’s legislative body were perplexed. Some were skeptical.

A 1928 article in The Sun described how Martin had been brought to the Baltimore Country Club in Roland Park by the president of the City Council to get acquainted with civic leaders. Earlier that day, he’d brought his maps and plans to City Hall.

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“There isn’t much to talk about. All I know is airplanes and I’ve certainly talked enough about them in the past few days,” Martin said.

He made his first flight in 1908, and by the time he got to Baltimore, he had 20 years in the business.

The article described Martin as possessing “the appearance of a slightly reserved and slightly amused college professor undergoing examination after a lecture.”

He was at least 6 feet tall, with a slender figure and large horn-rimmed eyeglasses that accentuated his scholarly demeanor, the article said.

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The news of his ambitious Middle River plans came out quickly. Construction began in the spring of 1929. A group of aircraft workers brought in from Cleveland were already working in a temporary building owned by the Canton Co. on Colgate Creek.

Howard Shunk, an Essex real estate broker, assembled the farmlands needed for the plant.

The Glenn L. Martin Co. aircraft factory in Middle River in 1939.
The Glenn L. Martin Co. aircraft factory in Middle River in 1939. (KNIESCHE)

By June 1930, the first plane, a Navy-commissioned flying boat, or early seaplane, was shown at the newly completed Glenn L. Martin factory in Middle River. About 9,200 people showed up for the opening day ceremonies.

One guest that day was Anton “Anthony” Fokker, a Dutch fellow aviation pioneer who built planes for Germany during World War I. Fokker arrived by his private yacht and anchored off the plant. (The plant’s position near the Chesapeake Bay was a key consideration for Martin’s early flying boats.)

The plant proved to be in the right place at the right time.

As World War II approached, the demand for aircraft accelerated. Martin decided to double the size of his factory. In 1939 he summoned Detroit industrial architect Albert Kahn and said he needed a new plant in 11 weeks.

Kahn said, “It will be done.” The plant expansion allowed construction of the B-26 “Marauder” bomber used during World War II. That year, Maryland employed 10 percent of aviation workers in the country.

When World War II arrived, military authorities classified the Middle River plant as a potential spot for sabotage or outright enemy bombing.

The plants had a high visibility, as numerous Pennsylvania Railroad passenger trains passed it daily. Soon, thanks to creative camouflage, the plant disappeared from casual view, although anyone who lived in Baltimore likely had a friend or relative who worked there.

The Middle River plant at its peak employed 53,000, many of them women.

“At one point during WWII, the facility became the largest and most advanced aircraft manufacturing complex in the world and was central in the development of Maryland’s aircraft industry,” said a history published by the Glenn L. Martin State Aviation Museum.

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