George J. Acton’s Book on Locust Point: An Enjoyable Trip Down Memory Lane

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I grew up on Locust Point as “The Great Depression” was coming, mercifully, to an end, and the horror story known as WWII was just beginning. We lived first on Haubert Street, before moving over to the 1200 block of Hull Street, just one block away.

ILA Local 829 was just across the street from our new home. I became a member in 1955, at age 18.

Its business agent, Pete Rossback, on his loudspeaker, would bark out the work orders for the stevedore gangs on Monday morning. It would sound something like this: “Brokus and 20 men, pier 9 Canton, 8 am; Burdinski and 16 men, pier 6 Locust Point, 8 am; and on and on.

George J. Acton captured scenes like the above, and many more, and in vivid detail, too, in his very entertaining book: “Locust Point: Of Thee I Sing.” The author is about four years older than me, and more a contemporary of my older brother, Richard, now deceased. Acton hailed from the 1400 block of Andre Street, just off East Fort Avenue. He now lives in Ocean City, Maryland.

In his opening chapters, Acton does a very nice job of describing Locust Point’s history and its early shipping and railroad – think B&O R/R – connections. It sits on a peninsula in South Baltimore with historic Fort McHenry at its head and surrounded on all sides by the waters of the Patapsco. Acton marked the Key Highway (Lawrence St.) and East Fort Avenue as the boundary “for our little hamlet.”

Acton continued: “There are eleven main streets that intersect with about five side streets…primarily made up of two and three story row houses.” Fort Avenue literally splits the peninsula, once known as “Whetstone Point,” in half.

The book is accompanied by some vintage photos of the area from the early 40s and 50s. They show kids at play, the three churches on the Point, dry dock workers, Stevens Funeral Home, and yes, the Deluxe Movie at East Fort Ave. and Lowman St.

What make Acton’s book also a blessing in disguise is that Locust Point is currently going through some radical changes. It’s called “gentrification” and/or the “Invasion of the Millenials.”

Let me put it this way: houses on the Point now rent for about $1,800 a month! The median sale price for a home is $394,000. Back when I was growing up on Haubert St., you could have bought the whole block for that staggering amount.

The Point is also no longer a bastion of the working class and a Democratic Party stronghold. Those days, along with the reign of the Stonewall Democratic Club under beloved State Senator Harry J. “Softshoes” McGuirk, are long gone.

Some vestiges of the Point’s rich labor heritage remain, but not anywhere near what it used to be. The Labor beat, the pulse – is gone. Plus, the waterfront has also dramatically changed with the emergence of the massive-sized container traffic. The stevedores’ “hook” is a thing of the past, too.

Here’s another example of change. Acton’s dad worked for the Bethlehem Steel Company at its shipyard on the Key Highway. He could walk to work, which was good since few Locust Pointers had cars back then. That facility is gone, replaced by a hi-rise condo and expensive townhouses. In fact,  Bethlehem Steel, which once operated the largest dry dock in the world at its Sparrows Point plant, is also history. It’s all kind of painful to assimilate. You win WWII and you lose your manufacturing base. Talk about a “stab in the back!”

The author skillfully recreated the culture of the folks residing on the Point. He talked about their European ethnic heritages, grocery and confectionary stores, their 21 taverns, the one pharmacy store, two shoemaker shops, their holiday celebrations, and their family doctors. Incidentally, there are only about six bars left out of that 21 number.

Arron Sollod is one of the doctors mentioned by Acton. He was our family physician. His office was on East Fort Avenue. He recently died at the age of ninety-nine and is credited with bringing over 3,000 babies into the world. My twin brother Jim and I were part of that number. We were born at the now defunct South Baltimore General Hospital on Light at West Streets in the year – 1937. Dr. Sollod was a very special human being. Bless his memory.

As Acton underscored: when you were broke you put the money owed on a “ticket.” This was especially so at the local grocery store and elsewhere.  And you paid when “your ship came in.” This is what my Irish-born mom did with Dr. Sollod, too, and everything worked out just fine.

Acton talked about some of the local tough guys. There were a few. My experience, however, was a little different from his. I was told to ignore those mouthy types in the watering hole and keep an eye out on that quiet guy down at the end of the bar.

For example, Acton referred to Charley Sledge, who owns a tavern at Andre and Clement Streets. He was also a gang carrier on the waterfront. In fact, Sledge’s Gang was one of the best at his craft when I was working out of ILA Local 829.

One morning as the gangs were shaping up for work, Sledge, who was on the small, chunky size, got into a heated discussion with a tractor driver, whose nickname was “Count-No Count.” This all happened on Hull Street. I was across the street and witnessed it. The “Count” made an aggressive move on Sledge, who responded by hitting him with a right to the chin. The “Count” went down hard and loud and out cold. One hit that was it. Discussion over!

Of course, Latrobe Park gets a big play in Acton’s tome. Locust Point was known for its soccer players, especially, and Latrobe was our home base. Thanks to my soccer days under coach Melvin “Unk” Jones, and capturing the state championship sandlot title, with the “Jules Morstein” team, I went on to play for winning teams at Calvert Hall College High School and the U. of Baltimore.

My brother Richard recalled one soccer game at Latrobe Park where one of the teams was made up of Italian-Americans. The referee was my neighbor, Bob Clarke, a cop and former boxer. His nickname was “Rock.” He had sort of an effeminate way about him which could be misleading.

When Clarke was coming off the field at half time, one of the Italian team’s fans shouted at him, “Here comes that fag referee.” Big mistake! Richard added: Clarke decked him with a left hook and then turned to one of his cronies and asked: “What are you going to do about it?” The answer: “I’m going to pick him up if you let me.”

(P.S. As Acton underscored, my brother Ricard went on to become the eighth president of the International Longshoremen’s Association, AFL-CIO, 2007-2011. It’s a shame our father, Richard P. Hughes, Sr., an ILA member, wasn’t around to enjoy that moment. He would have been so proud of his oldest son.)

Sledge and Clarke are just two of the kinds of Locust Pointers that Acton was referring to in his book when he wrote: “The Point has some real fighters over the years…ready to fight at the drop of a hat…if you were looking for trouble, you got it in spades.”

There are a host of other topics that Acton covers in his splendid book, such as “nicknames” of the residents, seasonal events, gambling habits and the engine house #17 at Fort and Haubert Streets.

I’m giving Acton’s book, “Locust Point: Of Thee I Sing,” which can be found on Amazon, five stars. It’s a treasure chest of fond memories of a bygone era, now lovingly preserved.