Just outside the limits of Baltimore City, on a piece of land jutting out into the Patapsco River, Maryland’s first steel plants were built. In 1887, the Maryland Steel Company purchased an area of agricultural marshland called Sparrows Point. Four years later in 1891, the steel mill opened and made the first steel ever produced in Maryland. While the mill manufactured steel for many different purposes, its main focus was on making steel for shipbuilding. One of the most important ships ever built at the Sparrows Point shipyard was the SS Ancon. The Ancon, built between 1901 and 1902, was one of “two of the first cargo steamers of a large size ever constructed in this country,” according to the January 1902 edition of Marine Engineering. It was also the first ship to officially pass through the Panama Canal in 1914, which was a massive turning point in world trade.
In 1916, Bethlehem Steel bought the steel plant. During Bethlehem Steel’s ownership, Sparrows Point would become a pivotal steel manufacturer. In the 1930s and ‘50s, the plant produced steel beams used in the Empire State Building, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Chesapeake Bay Bridge. During World War II, Bethlehem Steel plants produced about one fifth of the entire Navy at the time. Sparrows Point, along with the nearby Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard, helped build “Liberty” cargo ships for the United States’s Emergency Shipbuilding program during the war. The Sparrows Point and Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyards built two of the first 14 Liberty ships ever launched. At its height in the 1950s, the complex at Sparrows Point was the largest steel plant in the world and employed 33,000 workers.
The plant also had a lot of influence in the history of civil and workers’ rights in Baltimore. In 1890, 84 Hungarian and African American workers at the mill unsuccessfully went on strike due to poor work conditions. For years, workers at the plant called for unionization and better treatment. Eventually, Bethlehem Steel set up the Employee Representation Plan (ERP) at Sparrows Point. However, the ERP did not actually help the workers much, and acted more as a way to stop them from forming labor organizations. This struggle continued until 1941, when Bethlehem Steel allowed its workers to form their own union. Even with unionization, they continued to face workers’ issues until the steel plant closed down in 2012.
Alongside the problems with labor rights, African American workers also encountered racism at Sparrows Point. While the plants were not segregated, the workers and their families were placed in totally separate communities based on their race. African American housing was often of lower quality than the white housing. One exception to this was the thriving African American enclave of Turner Station. Among the most notable people who lived in Turner Station was Henrietta Lacks, whose cancer cells were the source of the first immortal human cell line. Lacks moved to Turner Station in 1941 so that her husband, Day Lacks, could work at Sparrows Point. In 1941, Executive Order 8802 was passed, banning racial discrimination in defense industries, which included Sparrows Point. Later on, the Consent Decree in 1974 was signed. This helped to ensure equal pay and opportunity for the plant’s non-white workers. In 2001, after a long period of financial downfall, Bethlehem Steel declared bankruptcy. After this, Sparrows Point would be owned by four different steel companies before it was liquidated in 2012.
Today, the area is still a large industrial hub, hosting distribution centers for companies like Under Armour and Amazon. However, most of what remained of the huge steel plant has been demolished. Though its importance in American history is often overlooked, the people who worked and lived near the plant still carry on its monumental memory.