Baltimore Liberty Ship to Find Home at Former Beth Steel Shipyard

Just seven weeks after the owners of the WWII Liberty ship SS John W. Brown announced it was losing its berth at the Port of Baltimore, there’s a new plan to put the historic ship at the site of the former Bethlehem Steel Fairfield Shipyard.

On Monday, Project Liberty Ship Inc. and Baltimore shipbuilder Maritime Applied Physics Corp (MAPC) announced a $18 million plan to revitalize a portion of the Bethlehem Steel site. It would provide a home base for the ship’s education and cruise activities and give MAPC room to grow its shipbuilding and maritime technology operations. (The company is also responsible for Baltimore’s slick new water taxis.)

John W. Brown is one of two remaining operational World War II Liberty Ships out of 2,710 built in an emergency shipbuilding program to carry troops and cargo. More than 350 were mass-produced, to save on materials, at the Bethlehem-Fairfield shipyard– where the Brown’s new pier at MAPC will be.

The 440-foot John W. Brown has been docked (for free) for years at Pier C on Clinton Street in Southeast Baltimore. But when the pier was sold by the state of Maryland to a private company, the volunteer-run Project Liberty Ship Inc. couldn’t afford to stay. After a one-year extension given by the new owners, the ship’s lease is up.

Bay Bulletin and other news outlets reported on the ship’s plight back in November, and since then, MAPC has come through.

Rendering of one possible pier design by MAPC.

The $18 million proposal would take federal and state funding, along with corporate and individual donations, to rebuild a historic WWII fitting-out pier for the Brown. The ship itself launched from the Bethlehem-Fairfield Shipyard on Labor Day 1942, bringing the story full circle.

Mark Rice, President of MAPC noted,  “The photographs on the walls of our present building remind us daily of the thousands of shipyard workers, men and women of all races and ethnicities, who did more than their part to win WWII. Our vision is that our Bethlehem Fairfield site will host rapidly growing numbers of skilled Baltimore workers and that the presence of the JOHN W. BROWN will remind our community and the citizens of Maryland of those who worked so hard to build the ships that saved the world.”     

The proposal is still at the conceptual design stage, Project Liberty Ship’s Michael Barnes tells Bay Bulletin. Once a final design is chosen, permitting, demolition and construction must take place. The permitting process involves the U.S. Army Corp of Engineers, the Maryland Port Administration, Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Maryland Historical Trust, U.S. Fish and Wildlife, U.S. Coast Guard, and others, but Barnes is optimistic that things will go smoothly because the project calls for replacing an existing pier, and because no dredging is required.

With an estimated completion goal of about two years, Project Liberty Ship is still working on a solution for interim docking. The ship will be in drydock in Norfolk for the next five weeks.

After that, the Brown will need a place to stay that allows the public access to its floating museum, says Barnes, who is the chairman of Project Liberty Ship pier committee and a ship volunteer.

“We are still looking for short term places to keep the ship and would very much like those to be in Baltimore,” he says.

-Meg Walburn Viviano