Hercules Company

Working along the waterfront

The Hercules Shipbuilding Company, housed in this brick building, was an active player in Baltimore’s maritime industry, building vessels for commercial and leisure use as well as wartime naval construction and repair. Jonathan and Eleanor LaVeck owned the firm. Workers at Hercules specialized in ship repairs, cargo hold renovations, and battening (the tool in the phrase "batten down the hatches").

The building is representative of the industry and how the harbor, as well as a sizable labor force, hastened the growth of the city’s economic development. The Hercules building is a 3.5 story, 20th-century, Colonial Revival brick office building, approximately 7,200 square feet. It is a National Register-eligible structure. The company used this building from 1941, though the BMI has been unable to determine the construction start date. The building remained in use and unchanged until the Baltimore Museum of Industry purchased it in the early 1990s and began restoration and renovation work, including the addition of an elevator tower and fire stair.

One of the tools Hercules workers used for shipbuilding is a drop forge, to shape heavy steel. The Hercules drop forge remains on the Baltimore Museum of Industry’s outdoor campus next to the large outdoor sculpture by David Hess, “Working Point.” Hess created Working Point, comprised of 90 tons of obsolete machinery, in 1997.

Before the Hercules chapter of this site’s history, 1425 Key Highway was home to the Louis Grebb Packing Plant, an oyster and fruit cannery with waterfront access. Owners of the Hercules Co. sold the property in 1975. The Superior Concrete Company operated a cement plant on this site in the late 1980s.

The submerged iron hull of the steamship Governor R.M. McLane is also visible from the waterfront at this location—along with at least six other abandoned vessels. One of two steamboats built by the Philadelphia firm Neafie and Levy in the early 1880s, this flagship of the “Oyster Navy” enforced conservation laws designed to protect the depleted oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay. The General Assembly established Maryland’s Oyster Police Force in 1868 in order to protect one of the state’s precious natural resources—oysters—which had been overharvested and also suffered from disease. Canneries, such as Platt & Company (now home to the Baltimore Museum of Industry, on this site), helped fuel Marylanders’ appetite for oysters from the Bay. Relations between oyster “pirates” or “poachers” and the state officials dedicated to conserving the bivalves sometimes became violent, leading to the “Oyster Wars” of the late 19th century.

The McLane remained an integral part of the Maryland State Oyster Police Force until 1932, before being sold in 1948 and used to tow barges for the next six years. After all is said and done, industry is actually about people—workers, consumers, entrepreneurs, and investors—who invest time, money, and labor into work. Whether building ships or canning oysters, Baltimoreans were hard at work at this site. Imagine what it was like to work here 100 years ago. What has changed? What has remained the same?


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1425 Key Highway, Baltimore, MD 21230 ~ The BMI campus is generally open to visitors during the daytime. Use caution when approaching the waterfront.