Rare World War II Liberty ship needs a new home
By COLIN CAMPBELL | The Baltimore Sun | Published: November 14, 2019
BALTIMORE (Tribune News Service) — Capt. Alaina Basciano calls the SS John W. Brown “Baltimore’s best-kept secret.”
The 440-foot, gray-hulled Liberty ship was one of hundreds launched from the city’s Bethlehem Steel Fairfield Shipyard amid a frenzied American shipbuilding effort that dispatched thousands of the vessels carrying supplies then troops to Europe and Asia during World War II. Now a floating museum and historic cruise vessel, it is one of only two fully operational Liberty ships left in the country.
But its time in its home port might be coming to an end.
The ship’s lease agreement for free mooring in Canton, which Rukert Terminals Corp. has extended since purchasing the pier from the state for $2 million in 2014, expires at the end of the year.
Rukert allowed the John W. Brown to move from Pier 1 near Clinton Street, where it had been docked for about 30 years, to nearby Pier C last year to give officials more time to find a permanent home.
"We really want to get the word out in hopes that a contact we didn’t think of comes out of the woods.”
But the ship will have to leave the city in January if one cannot be found, Basciano said.
The private port operator has been flexible with its 77-year-old tenant, but its desire to put its property to other use is “totally understandable,” Basciano said.
Rukert Terminals did not respond to a request for comment.
Project Liberty Ship, the nonprofit organization that restored and maintains the ship, has spent the past few years looking for alternatives that would keep it in Baltimore, the captain said. But the city has fewer than a dozen commercial piers large enough to accommodate it.
“Is this it? We sure hope not,” Basciano said. “Our ultimate goal is to stay in Baltimore."
Buying a pier could cost millions and leasing one could cost up to $15,000 a month, officials estimated last year. Neither option is off the table, but the captain doesn’t have an exact fundraising goal. She’s holding out hope that someone will offer the ship a deal or a political connection.
“Maybe somebody can work something out with us," Basciano said. “We really want to get the word out in hopes that a contact we didn’t think of comes out of the woods.”
Named for a union leader, the John W. Brown was built in less than two months and launched on Sept. 7, 1942. After more than a dozen wartime voyages, the ship served as a maritime high school in New York City from 1946 until 1982.
It returned to Baltimore in 1988 after a few years dormant in New York and Virginia, and volunteers spent the next two years renovating it to make it seaworthy once more.
The Liberty ships, often known as the workhorses of the war, could carry up to 500 soldiers and 9,000 tons of cargo. During dockside visits and cruises in the Chesapeake Bay, the John W. Brown now educates the public about the vital role of the wartime American Merchant Marine, Naval Armed Guard and shipbuilders, which were all unheralded yet key contributors to the Allies’ victory.
The ship is “is an important live artifact,” said Alan Walden, a board member of Historic Ships in Baltimore, a group with stewardship of the Coast Guard cutter Taney, the USS Constellation and the USS Torsk submarine.
“The loss of that kind of an artifact is truly a dreadful idea, as far as I’m concerned,” Walden said. “We have to maintain our connection to the past or we really have no idea what our future is going to be.”
Tom Watson, president of the Propeller Club of Baltimore, one of Project Liberty Ship’s top sponsors, said he had not heard about the upcoming expiration of the ship’s berthing lease but planned to bring it to the club’s board, which includes members who work in and around the port.
“We do our best to help whenever we can,” he said.
The John W. Brown is among the final remnants of Baltimore’s contributions to the nation’s World War II effort, said Joseph Abel, research historian at the Baltimore Museum of Industry, which stands now on the site of the Fairfield Shipyard.
The crane that stands over the museum’s building was used to build hundreds of Liberty ships.
“That’s all that’s left,” Abel said. “These are literally the vessels that supplied the war effort in Europe and Asia. This is a tangible piece of Baltimore’s World War II history.”
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