The Key Highway Yards along the southern side of the Inner Harbor played a pivotal role in Baltimore’s shipbuilding industry from the 1820s until 1982. Passersby today see almost no traces of this industrial history at the upscale Ritz Carlton and HarborView communities. One of the only remnants of shipbuilding along this stretch of Baltimore’s waterfront lies underneath the 30-story HarborView Towers, completed in 1992: the dry docks used for ship repair were converted to become a parking garage.
Boatbuilding brothers William Skinner Jr. and Jeremiah Skinner moved from Dorchester County to Baltimore in the 1820s to establish the Skinner yard at the base of Federal Hill. William later sold his share of the company to his brother and purchased his own shipyard on Cross Street specializing in sailing ships and steamboats. The Skinners contributed greatly to the city’s prominence in American shipbuilding, with William remembered as having built the first Baltimore clipper ship. The National Register of Historic Places nomination form for this site describes the Skinner yard as “the largest and most important of the period.”
William’s descendants carried on the family business and consolidated other small shipyards, eventually creating a 35-acre complex at Key Highway. Business boomed during the Civil War and continued through the turn of the century. Although World War I brought another wave of activity to these shipbuilding operations, the company went into receivership and Bethlehem Steel Company acquired this yard in 1921.
During the Bethlehem era, this was known as the “upper yard.” The “lower yard” referred to the shipyard adjacent to Fort McHenry, which is still in operation today. Workers at Bethlehem’s shipyards at Locust Point as well as Sparrows Point and Fairfield—together the largest ship repair operation in the United States—participated in the U.S. Maritime Commission’s World War II Emergency Shipbuilding Program. Baltimore shipyards churned out a record-setting number of Liberty and Victory Ships between 1941-1945. The Key Highway yards repaired over 2,500 ships during WWII.
Enjoying a stroll along the harbor today, one could almost miss the fact that this place was once a hub of heavy industry, lined with massive equipment and bustling with workers. Although the shipyards are no longer visible at this location, you can experience this chapter of history at the Baltimore Museum of Industry. The 1942 Clyde Model 17 DE 90 whirley crane outside the museum, restored and painted bright green in 2019, worked on Pier 3 between the 1940s-1980s. Can you imagine the sense of awe one would have experienced seeing a whole fleet of these massive cranes hard at work along the shipyard?