Baltimore Harbor: Oh, For Those Golden Days of Yesteryear

Harbor Water at the Foot of Hull Street (Photo By Bill Hughes)

“Get ready, I’m coming in,” I shouted.

“You sure are,” a voice behind me snapped loudly, as he grabbed me forcibly by the back of my white-colored jockey shorts and lifted me high up and over and into the cold waters of Baltimore Harbor. It landed me at least three feet out from a pier, at the foot of Hull Street, which hadn’t been used for years to dock ships.

WAM! Before I knew it, my body, then all of about a hundred pounds, was splitting the water like a tomahawk missile and heading feet-first down into the deep. I was shocked to say the least. I must have descended about two or three feet before I stopped.

Then, I started climbing quickly back up towards the top. I could see the light from the morning sun. The water was dirty there, really dirty, since the polluting Proctor & Gamble Plant, (P&G ) was located only 300 feet away in the 1000 block of Haubert St.

Back in those days, P&G was operating 24/7 making soap, like “Ivory.” It also had a habit of dumping its chemicals and waste materials into the waters of Baltimore’s harbor. This was long before there were any federal, state or municipal environmental protection laws.

There was hardly a kid in Locust Point who had swum in the harbor who didn’t have problems with his ears. I say “his” because the girls never went swimming in the harbor. Don’t ask me why, it just didn’t happen in my era.

I pushed the water down frantically with my hands by my side as I began my ascent. I was scared shitless! I couldn’t swim a lick! I realized  – I could die!

I was bluffing about wanting to go into the water with my neighborhood buddies from Locust Point in South Baltimore, only about a mile or so from historic Fort McHenry. At least, four of them were already in the water, urging me to come in and join them: “Spanky” Ridgeway, “Duke” Brown, Billy “Porky” Bloom and Georg Kelly.

(Spanky was the biggest character of the lot. He loved to do the Tarzan yell from the movies of that period. You could tell he was coming to join up with you on any outing by listening for that voice of his screaming out that tune. Some of the neighbors thought he was whacky.)

The water at the foot of Hull Street was about 30 feet deep. In fact, I had run that “I’m coming in” act plenty of times on them before, without going into the water to enjoy the fun. It was part of my routine of coming down to the harbor to go swimming with the local gang. But, I was always too frightened to actually join into the “swimming” part.

I must have been about ten years old. It was just after WWII. This time, fate intervened in the process, via the arms of one of the older guys from my neighborhood – Eddie Mitchell.

Mitchell also liked to hang out at the water’s edge. In this situation, I think he simply got tired of watching me pulling my fake act on everybody. He decided for me! Lucky for me, Mitchell was also an excellent swimmer and an all-around athlete, ready to come to my rescue, if necessary.

Mitchell, who was Polish, lived in the 1300 block of Haubert St. – only one block from my home.

Mitchell’s name had been anglicized from Michalski. He was built on the small side, always wore a crew cut and was fairly athletic. His dad was a popular stevedore boss on the docks for the Terminal Stevedoring Company. His mom loved to play poker with the ladies at the Locust Point Social Club. She was a sweetheart.

Years later, Mitchell joined the U.S. Air Force and was involved in the Vietnam War. On a bombing flight from Guam to Vietnam, his plane exploded on take off. Everybody on board was killed. They said that Mitchell was soon ready to be discharged from the service when the tragedy occurred. I was stunned when I heard that news, as were all Locust Pointers who knew and loved Eddie Mitchell. Damn that Vietnam War!

Back to our watering hole at the foot of Hull Street. When I got to the top of the water, I could hear and see everyone up on the dock was cheering for me.

I doggy-paddled my way towards the pier, taking short but quick strokes. When I got close, Mitchell got me to extend my right hand up and he lifted me out of the water in one motion. More cheers! I had done it! I had swum in the harbor!

Yeah! I was ecstatic. This was like how I would feel later, in 1954, after scoring the winning goal against Poly when I was playing soccer for Calvert Hall High School. We beat them at Clifton Park by a 1-0 score. I can’t ride pass that Clifton Park field even now, without remembering that moment. The same goes for my first swim in the harbor.

After our swim, it was time to celebrate with another ritual. We all got dressed and headed back up Hull Street to Jake’s confectionary store. I think it was probably July or August. As for our wet jockey shorts, we just rolled them up into our towels. Nobody owned a swimming suit.

Jake’s store was located two blocks from the harbor on Hull Street and only a stone’s throw from the ILA local 829’s hiring hall. (This was the place where the longshoremen went in the morning to get hired for work on the freight-carrying ocean vessels.)

Tide Point – the former site of the Proctor & Gamble Plant. (Photo by Bill Hughes)

Jake was Russian. He had an Asian look to him though as if he had come from the most eastern part of that huge country. Locust Point back in my day was made up of folks mostly of Polish, German, English, and Irish stock.

I got my usual at Jake’s: a bottle of Pepsi and a pretzel. I think it cost about 15 cents.

The gang of four was with me. We all then headed across Marriott street to Weil Brothers, a ship chandler outfit, to feast on our snacks in the shade of that building.

I recounted to them again, in heroic terms, of course, my initial swim in the harbor. When the gang got tired of hearing it, I was told, politely, “Give it a break!”

After that first swim, I couldn’t wait to repeat that moment. Often during the summer months, I headed down to the foot of Hull St. with the usual gang in tow for another go at it. We liked to go swimming at dusk, too. It was cooler then.

Plus – after sunset, an excursion boat, the “Moonlight Cruise,” would leave its berth in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and head out into the bay for a ride that lasted about three hours. The boat would sail right by our swimming hole at the foot of Hull Street.

Young couples loved that cruise, since there was dancing and music available. When the boat got opposite where we were standing, our gang would wave frantically, jump up and down, and shout to the folks on the boat. They would wave and shout back.

Then, quickly, we would all turn around and drop our jockey shorts! It was time to “moon the Moonlighters!”

We could hear them gasping, cursing, and then roaring with laughter as the ship made its way down towards Fort McHenry and out into the harbor.

It was a show we liked to put on. I suspected the captain of the vessel probably looked forward to it, too, after many repeat nightly performances by us. I could imagine him announcing to the passengers, “Let’s say ‘Hi’ to those nice little boys from Locust Point!”

All of the above, leave me with this thought: oh, for those golden days of yesteryear.