Photo: National Park Service

WWII Liberty Ship to Lose Baltimore Berth

Of the more than 2,700 Liberty ships built during World War II, only two are operational today. One of them, the S.S. John W. Brown, is docked near the Port of Baltimore, preserved as a museum run by volunteers. But this piece of maritime history could be without a home berth in just two months.

The 440-foot Brown is tied up at Pier C on Clinton Street in Southeast Baltimore. For years, its pier was owned by the state of Maryland, and the Brown stayed for free. When the pier was sold, the new owner offered a year-long extension, but as of January 1st, 2020, the lease agreement expires.

Project Liberty Ship, the nonprofit organization that operates the Brown (made up entirely by volunteers) can’t afford the cost of paying to stay. The group says it’s been trying to find the ship another home in Baltimore, with deep water and public access, to no avail.

The group says fewer than a dozen available commercial piers in Baltimore are large enough to accommodate the Brown, and many of those are leased to the federal government. Security restrictions wouldn’t allow the ship’s tourist activities to take place. To buy its own pier, Project Liberty Ship says, would require lengthy—and costly—construction work.

The last resort is to move the museum ship to another port, away from its heritage and away from the homes of most ship volunteers. More than 30 years ago, Project Liberty Ship and other advocates brought the Brown back to Baltimore, where she was first built at Bethlehem Steel’s Fairfield Shipyard in 1942.

The World War II Liberty ships were built in an emergency shipbuilding program to carry troops and cargo. John W. Brown made 13 missions before and during the war.

According to a petition to “Help the SS JOHN W BROWN find a berth,” Project Liberty Ship’s mission is to “educate people of all ages about the vital role of the wartime American Merchant Marine, Naval Armed Guard and shipbuilders, three largely unheralded groups that were instrumental in the Allied victory in World War II,” and honor the legacy of all American veterans.

The petition, which had over 1,500 e-signatures as of Tuesday evening, asks for assistance from politicians to help keep the ship in Baltimore.

Some signers of the petition expressed the personal importance of the Brown staying in town. One writes:

“My grandfather worked on this ship and he has since passed. It was his passion and I feel like part of him is still here with us as long as that ship stays in the port.”

Another comments, “I volunteer on the ship and I am also a United States Navy veteran…. and it would break my heart to see the ship go; I have sailed on her quite a few times and it needs to stay here at Baltimore.”

To secure a home for the John W. Brown, Project Liberty Ship is seeking contacts.

The group’s message to supporters:

“If you happen to know someone who has pull (politicians, businesses, and owners of land with deep water ports) please help us by advocating and sending us contact info.” To find out more, click here.

-Meg Walburn Viviano