Echoes of Sparrows Point

The Baltimore Sun

There's something of a literary renaissance going on in southeastern Baltimore County.

Earlier this year, Bob Staab's Growing Up In Dundalk: Precious Memories, an illustrated oral history of the community that recalled life there in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, was published.

Staab's book was followed by Mary Jacqueline "Jackie" Nickel's Essex, which is part of Arcadia Publishing's "Image of America" series.

Nickel, an Essex newspaper columnist and author, whose earlier book, Memories of 'Old' Middle River: A Loving Look Back at the Town and its People, was published in 2002, died last week.

Three years ago, poet W.W. Stevens, a former Dundalkian who now lives in Jarrettsville, published Dundalk Proud: Poems and Slices of Life.

And now comes along Elmer J. Hall, a retired Baltimore County public school educator and former Sparrows Point native, who has published Shipbuilding at the Sparrows Point Yard: A Century of Pride and Tradition.

From 1892 until Bethlehem sold the shipyard to Baltimore Marine Industries in 1996, hundreds of naval vessel, freighters and passenger ships rolled down its ways into the cool waters of the Patapsco River.

Maritime historians and buffs will find they owe a debt of gratitude to Hall, who has included a complete roster of all ships constructed there from 1892 to 1999, when BMI delivered a tank barge.

The shipyard book is the second in a projected series of four documenting life and work in Sparrows Point.

"Book three will be on the railroads that served Sparrows Point, and the final volume will be on the steel mill," Hall said.

Hall, 65, who retired in 1999, was born and raised in the Bungalows, the now-demolished Sparrows Point neighborhood that derived its name from the architectural style of homes constructed there in the early 1920s by Bethlehem Steel Corp. to house workers.

This was the last residential section added by Bethlehem to its company town, and it was bounded on the east by J Street and Penwood Road on the west. Main streets through the neighborhood were Forrest, Haddaway and Beechwood, where Hall grew up at 1215.

Three years ago, Hall's first book, Diary of a Mill Town: Recollections of the Bungalows and Sparrows Point, Maryland, was published.

Hall was helped in the preparation of his lavishly illustrated oral history of Sparrows Point by former residents who graciously shared their memories of life there.

Charlotte Cager Harvey, who lived in Northside, the African-American neighborhood clustered around I, J and K streets, told Hall that her "best remembrances of life on Sparrows Point was just the actual living there."

"The people were wonderful. Everyone had plenty of food, nice clothes to wear, good morals, not a lot of drinking; lots of fun, especially at the dance hall on 9th Street near H Street," said Harvey.

"It was a large building called Central Hall. There were numerous stores downstairs, like a Jewish market, a clothing store, the A&P; Market; upstairs was the pool room and dance hall. The pool room was run by E.B. Watkins, an African-American. Mr. Watkins also operated the lunch counter," she said.

"It really was a multicultural mix and I found that both blacks and whites had a reverence for the place. They talk about life in Sparrows Point as if they still lived there," Hall said.

Hall and five buddies from the Sparrows Point High School Class of 1960 meet several times a year and spend a weekend reminiscing.

"We've been doing it for 14 years," he said.

Hall's father came to Sparrows Point from rural Virginia during the Great Depression to work in the shipyard as a chipper.

The backbreaking work chippers were called upon to do involved using heavy air hammers to clean up welds and bevel edges on steel plates in preparation for the welders.

"My father died in 1950. He went to work one day and never came home. I was 7," Hall said.

"To live in Sparrows Point, you had to be employed there or have a husband who worked in the shipyard or steel mill. So my mother went into the nail mill, where she worked as a sorter, picking out bad nails by eyesight. She retired in the late 1960s," he said.

It was necessary, Hall said, in order to remain living in the 500-square-foot bungalow where the rent was $22.50 a month.

"The rent never went up. That was the rent they paid when they first moved in during the 1930s, and it was still the rent in the early 1970s," he said.

An endless industrial cacophony was a constant companion for residents of Sparrows Point.

"There was a huge railroad yard behind our house and long trains clanged and banged both day and night while the sound of locomotive whistles filled the air. There always seemed to be a pile driver somewhere pounding away 24 hours a day for years," Hall said.

"When they dumped slag, the ground shook and there were great explosions as hot slag hit the water. Hissing steam was everywhere, as were rumbling trucks, but you got used to it. You just didn't really hear it after a while," he said.

"When I was a little boy and would spend summers at my grandfather's farm in Virginia, I couldn't sleep at night. I needed the roar of a blast furnace so I could sleep. I used to wish that someone would start throwing pots and pans on the kitchen floor," he said with a laugh.

Hall recalls D Street, the commercial heart of Sparrows Point, which had all the commercial amenities of a small town, and the No. 26 Baltimore Transit Co. streetcar that connected the industrial peninsula's inhabitants to the outside world. Other spur lines went to Fort Howard and the long-gone Bay Shore amusement park and beach.

"The streetcar line came into town, passed the steel mill, and came down Fourth and D streets. It was as busy as Hollywood and Vine," he said.

"We rode the Red Rockets, as they were called, and later the PCCs. There was the big Shipyard Loop, where the cars turned and headed back to Baltimore. It was removed and later reinstalled at the Baltimore Streetcar Museum," he said.

The other day, Hall was taking a tour of the steel mill when he discovered a stretch of old streetcar truckage. BTC buses replaced the streetcars in 1958.

"I stood on it. I just had to. It connected me to another time," he said.

Beginning in 1956, Bethlehem Steel began dismantling the town, mainly to expand its facilities, and by 1973, with its last residents gone, the wrecking ball made its way down abandoned streets, removing all evidence that a thriving and bustling town so filled with human activity once stood there.

"I always think of life in Sparrows Point as being like that in Mayberry," said Hall. "During summers, we crabbed, fished, played baseball and explored the steel mill - which we weren't supposed to do."

Hall planned two reunions of former residents that were held at North Point State Park.

"We had hundreds and hundreds of people who came from 15 states," he said.

Hall, who worked in the roll shop at Sparrows Point for five years in the early 1960s, later earned a bachelor's degree from Towson University, and a master's degree from the Johns Hopkins University. He was an educator for 30 years.

"When I was at Sparrows Point High School, no one ever talked about us going to college. The subject never came up. It was expected that we would go into the mill and work like our fathers and grandfathers," he said.

Hall and his wife, the former Clara Edenton, also a Sparrows Point High School graduate and retired office worker who worked for Bethlehem for 42 years, will celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary tomorrow.

"We were the class couple for the Class of 1960," he said.

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