Feb 14, 2024

Wood reclaimed from South Baltimore’s Locke Insulators plant helps breathe fresh life into historic ship

When the Mildred Belle, an educational ship owned by the Baltimore nonprofit Living Classrooms, takes its next voyage on the Patapsco River, it will carry on board a piece of South Baltimore’s industrial history.

Old-growth wooden beams from the now-closed Locke Insulators plant, which is being demolished so the land can be redeveloped in Port Covington, will gird the Belle’s hull, replacing rotting wood that dates to its construction in 1948.

An authentic Chesapeake Bay “buyboat,” the Belle once served as a middleman for fishing boats on the water, carting crabs and oysters from harvesters to market. The Belle also was a fishing boat in its own right, and later a charter boat for bay cruises.

Now, the wooden powerboat is one of three vessels operated by Living Classrooms that host dozens of children and adults every year for instructional field trips on the bay, teaching navigational skills, ecology and history.

In June, when the Belle was pulled from the water for an annual checkup, Living Classrooms fleet captain Peter Bolster noticed its horn timber — the backbone of its stern — was rotting. He knew then that there was a big job ahead in the winter, once the Belle finished her voyages for the season.

Living Classrooms' Mildred Belle, a 1948 Chesapeake Bay "buyboat", is undergoing repairs to its stern section. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun)

“She’s 75 years old and she’s made of wood, so she periodically needs TLC,” Bolster said. “Well, she constantly needs TLC. But she periodically needs big TLC.”

Accessing the boat’s horn timber requires considerable dismantling, and along the way, Bolster and his crew of co-workers discovered more rot needing replacement. What he thought would be a monthlong job quickly morphed into a 10- to 12-week job.

Finding the best wood to rebuild an old boat bottom is more difficult than one might think, Bolster said. Most of the wood sold in the U.S. is from trees cultivated to grow rapidly. Back in the early 20th century, it was harvested from old-growth forests, and was therefore far denser and much more resistant to rot. These days, this quality of wood is perhaps most easily sourced from old buildings.

“They don’t grow wood like this anymore,” Bolster said. “If you go to Home Depot and you buy yellow pine, it’s the same species. But it’s a whole different beast.”

Initially, Bolster drove all the way to Massachusetts to purchase reclaimed lumber for the Mildred Belle. But Bolster’s rented van couldn’t quite fit enough beams to restore the vessel’s wooden bottom.

Living Classrooms' Mildred Belle, a 1948 Chesapeake Bay "buyboat," is undergoing repairs to its stern section.Feb. 15, 2023. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun)

To get the remainder of the lumber, Bolster wouldn’t have to travel quite so far. In fact, his Massachusetts wood vendor, Arnie Jarmak, had just traveled to Baltimore and purchased beams from the 1920s-era Locke Insulators building, located just around the bend of the Patapsco River on the Middle Branch.

And so, the sunset of a once-booming industry along South Baltimore’s waterfront will contribute in a small way to a new generation’s experiences on the Chesapeake Bay.

“There’s a nice magic about that,” Bolster said.

The plant, which once made ceramic insulators for electrical utility equipment, closed in 2017, laying off just over 100 workers. Last September, a developer called 28 Walker purchased the property, and announced plans to build a community with town homes and an apartment building, in addition to walking trails and a swimming pool.

The complex, to be named Locke Landing, will add even more homes to the Baltimore Peninsula development at Port Covington, amid the area’s transformation from a port-adjacent industry hub to a residential area with office space, stores and a new global headquarters for athletic apparel company Under Armour.

First, the Locke complex must be demolished, a process that’s underway with an eye toward reusing the materials and equipment left behind, said Scott Slosson, chief operating officer at 28 Walker.

The company has a history of transforming Baltimore’s industrial properties into bustling shopping centers. Its portfolio includes McHenry Row in Locust Point, just across Interstate 95 from Locke, on the former site of paper recycler Chesapeake Paperboard Co. It also includes the Canton Crossing shopping center, on the site of a former oil refinery.

Arnie Jarmak is salvaging these old growth pine lumbers from the demolition of the Locke Insulator plant in Port Covington. The old lumbers and other materials are being recycled and repurposed by 28 Walker Development. Living Classrooms is using reclaimed wood from the former Locke insulator plant to restore the Mildred Belle, a 1948 Chesapeake Bay '"buyboat."Feb. 15, 2023. (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun)

“As they’ve fallen by the wayside, we’ve looked to figure out how to reposition the property and put it back into beneficial reuse,” Slosson said. “The same is true with the demolition process.”

Reclaimed materials from demolished properties, which easily could end up in landfills, remain a popular commodity for Baltimore businesses and nonprofits. Companies such as Sandtown Furniture Co. have used such materials to build furniture. And South Baltimore’s Second Chance, a nonprofit group, accepts building materials in good condition for resale, and even takes donations of entire homes for deconstruction. The proceeds fund job training efforts for those in need.

If a demolition in Baltimore yields more than 5 tons of waste, 30% of the material is to be dropped off at a licensed recycling facility, according to city law. Democratic City Councilwoman Odette Ramos is drafting a bill that would steadily increase that percentage. It would also create a requirement that new construction use a small but increasing percentage of recycled materials. She said she’s aiming to introduce it this summer.

For developers, it’s a balancing act, Slosson said: trying to profit from the building materials without slowing the demolition too much. But there’s potential to make money, especially given the cost of sending the materials to a landfill. The company aims to resell about a million bricks and 40 to 50 tractor-trailer loads of wood from the Locke site.

28 Walker also is trying to settle on a way to pay homage to the Locke plant within the new community, perhaps in a clubhouse space using some of the items recovered from the site.

But in the meantime, plenty of objects and raw materials have been sold, including the timbers for the Mildred Belle.

When crews first made their way inside the old factory, it seemed as though the interior had been left untouched since its 2017 closure, said Chad Elam, an owner of Ohio-based Susa International, which is helping with the salvage effort.

“There were coffee cups still on the desk,” he joked.

Chad Elam, of SUSA International, is in charge of recycling materials from the demolition of the Locke Insulators plant in Port Covington for 28 Walker Development. Living Classrooms is using reclaimed wood from the former plant to restore the Mildred Belle, a 1948 Chesapeake Bay "buyboat." (Kenneth K. Lam/Baltimore Sun)

Inside, workers found a bevy of machine parts and electrical equipment that they plan to resell, some of it replacement parts and motors that were never used. Crews also harvested older, used machinery and electrical equipment for resale.

On a recent afternoon, thick, black wires were carefully spooled in giant circles inside the old factory, chopped from the building, their copper ends gleaming.

Even the building’s loading docks were sold to another Baltimore business, Elam said. Some of its electrical equipment, used for testing the insulators, is bound for a nonprofit with the intention to feature it in a museum, Elam added.

The Baltimore Museum of Industry couldn’t take any of the electrical equipment due to its size — and its already sizable insulator collection, said collections manager Curtis J. Durham. But the museum did take about a pallet’s worth of blueprints and other archival materials after connecting with Elam and visiting the site, Durham said.

Outside the building, in the sunlight of an unseasonably warm winter day, piles of bricks and wooden beams were being prepared for sale. The bricks, many of them still stuck together in large clumps, will be hammered apart manually, cleaned and resold. In their second lives, they could become pavers for a front yard, or a decorative facade for a fireplace.

But, if you ask Jarmak — whose company Jarmak Co. handles reclaimed wood — the wooden structural support beams removed from the Locke factory steal the show.

The pine planks, some of them 20 feet long, are stacked like Jenga blocks on the Locke site, within eyeshot of Under Armour’s new headquarters and sports field. Take a look at their ends, Jarmak said, and you’ll see tightly packed growth rings, indicating their advanced age.

Of course, reusing the old lumber has its drawbacks, said Bolster, as he worked on the Mildred Belle’s new horn timber outside his workshop in Fells Point.

The first step was to run a metal detector over top of each beam to hunt down all of the nails inside, Bolster said. In a handful of places, Bolster and his crew needed to glue in a wood insert, often called a “dutchman,” to repair or fortify the original timber.

“Every foot you’re dealing with something, whether that’s an old nail hole or a split,” Bolster said.

It’s a veritable pain in the neck. But Bolster likened it to the difference between eating free-range versus factory-farmed chicken. To him, it’s worth the effort.

Just outside the workshop at the foot of Thames Street sits the Mildred Belle, propped up on wood blocks atop the metal structure that lifted her from the water, called a marine railway. Long ago, when shipyards dotted the Inner Harbor, teams of oxen might pull vessels onto railways for repairs. This one, though, is hydraulically powered.

The Belle was covered in white tarp, and there was a small doorway leading to its hull, where workers crouched beneath an opening that leads directly into the engine room. They were preparing the Belle for her next wooden upgrade, a new horseshoe-shaped transom — the flat surface of a boat’s stern.

Bolster can point out the first piece of Baltimore wood that made its way onto the Mildred Belle, right at the back, below the nameplate.

When all is said and done, ideally in mid-March, the boat’s new bottom will be repainted red, and it will slide back into the waters of the Patapsco, perhaps even more uniquely Baltimore than it was just a few short months ago.

Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.