Sparrows Point: From Steelmaking to Distribution Center Hub

By Donna K. Keesling

In the mid to late 1800s, the railroad industry was laying new tracks and spurring industrial growth in the United States. The Bessemer process (furnace), invented in 1856, fueled the railroad growth by enabling the mass production of steel used to build the rails. Pennsylvania Steel, a steel supplier for the railroads, was searching for a location to build another steel mill. Agents went to Baltimore County, Maryland and found the perfect location on the Patapsco River – a peninsula known as Sparrows Point. On this location rose what would become the world’s largest steel plant. But 125 years later, the steel mill was silent. What happened on Sparrows Point over those 125 years? And what is the future of this site on the Patapsco River?

Agents from the Pennsylvania Steel Company toured the marshy farmland of Sparrows Point in 1887 in search of a location to build a new steel mill. They determined that the land along the Patapsco River would be an ideal location for a steel mill because it provided easy access to deep water for shipping and close proximity to rail lines for importing steel’s key ingredients of iron ore and coal. Pennsylvania Steel purchased 400 acres of farmland from the Fitzell family. The company established a subsidiary named the Maryland Steel Company to build and operate the steel mill and shipyard.

By 1889, the mill’s blast furnaces were producing pig iron for the steelmaking process. The Bessemer furnaces at Sparrows Point began producing steel in 1891. In the same year, the steel was used to produce rails for the railroad industry, one of the driving forces for creation of steel mills. The first ship was launched from the Sparrows Point shipyard in 1892.

The mill employed 2000 workers who came from urban areas in the North and the rural South. Because Sparrows Point was an isolated location at the time, the company built a town for its workers. In 1900, Sparrows Point was the second largest community in Baltimore County.

In 1916, Bethlehem Steel acquired the mill and shipyard. Bethlehem Steel, including the newly acquired mill at Sparrows Point, was supplying steel and ships for the military during World War I. During this time, the footprint of the mill expanded as surrounding land was filled in and purchased.

After World War I, the mill continued to make steel for varying uses including construction of skyscrapers. By 1929, 18,000 people were employed by Bethlehem Steel at Sparrows Point. However, during the Great Depression in the 1930s, there were mass layoffs in the steel industry.

Due to its strategic location along the East coast, the US government financed an expansion of the mill to support the war effort during World War II. The plant produced steel plate used in aircraft, ships, and munitions. Bethlehem Steel opened another shipyard across the harbor under the government’s emergency shipbuilding program. This shipyard, named Fairfield, built 384 Liberty naval cargo ships. Tankers were built at the Sparrows Point shipyard.

Bethlehem steel mill. Sparrows Point, Maryland

Bethlehem steel mill. Sparrows Point, Maryland, 1940
Courtesy of Library of Congress (


After World War II, four out of five manufactured products contained steel. And as America went on a buying spree, Sparrows Point grew to meet the demand. By 1957, the Sparrows Point plant was the world’s largest steel plant. Approximately 30,000 people worked at the complex which spanned five square miles. The shipyard employed another 4000 people.

Bethlehem Steel, like other steel companies, missed signs during the 1970s and 1980s that the industry was in trouble. Alternatives to steel, such as aluminum and plastic began to gain market share. There was domestic and foreign competition from steel manufacturers who were building newer, more efficient steel mills. A recession during the 1980s greatly impacted the demand for steel. Bethlehem Steel was slow to respond to these growing pressures, impacting the company’s ability to compete on the global stage. By 1999 the workforce at Sparrows Point had been reduced to 3,000 employees. In Roots of Steel, author Deborah Rudacille states that “forced retirements in the eighties and nineties, combined with sloppy bookkeeping” and the fact that “an ever-shrinking number of active employees were responsible for generating profits sufficient to support an ever-expanding number of retirees” were contributing factors to the demise of Bethlehem Steel.[1]

In 2001, Bethlehem Steel declared bankruptcy. The Sparrows Point plant was purchased in 2003 by a venture capitalist named Wilbur Ross. His company operated the mill for two years and then sold it. From 2001 through 2011, the plant had five different owners – all continuing to make steel on Sparrows Point.

The mill’s final owner, RG Steel, was unable to succeed on Sparrows Point. The property was sold at auction in August of 2012 and production stopped. In December of that year, the owner announced that the plant would be razed so that the land could be put to other uses. The site was acquired by Tradepoint Atlantic in 2014 and is being transformed from a manufacturing site into a global distribution hub.

Sparrows Point is now home to two Amazon fulfillment warehouses that total almost two million square feet. Another 30 or so companies, including BMW, FedEx, Home Depot, and Under Armor have built distribution centers on the former steel mill site. In addition to the warehouses, Gotham Greens, a company that grows hydroponic lettuce, opened a 100,000 square foot greenhouse on Sparrows Point in 2020.[2]

In August of this year, the United Steelworkers union, Tradepoint Atlantic, and US Wind (a Baltimore-based subsidiary of Italian renewable energy company Renexia SpA) announced their partnership on a project to build a manufacturing facility on Sparrows Point that will support offshore wind energy.[3]

In a PBS NewsHour interview in July 2021, Aaron Tormachio of Tradepoint Atlantic said “What happened here in Baltimore in Sparrows Point is very emblematic of what’s happened across our nation, and what happened to the American industrial economy. People want those older economy jobs back. And, you know, I don’t have the ability to bring them back. I have the ability to respond to the market and be able to provide the best opportunities for job creation in the market that we’re in.”[4] There may never be 30,000 people working on Sparrows Point again, but the distribution centers and other ventures are bringing employment back to this site along the Patapsco River.

The Baltimore Museum of Industry has undertaken a multi-year community engagement and preservation initiative to document the 125-year history of the Baltimore steelmaking giant. The initiative is preserving the stories of workers by recording oral histories, collecting artifacts, and developing community programs. The project includes Sparrows Point: An American Steel Story, a six-part podcast series produced by Aaron Henkin in partnership with WYPR and Fire & Shadow: The Rise and Fall of Bethlehem Steel, an exhibit that tells the story of Baltimore’s Sparrows Point steel mill, once the world’s largest producer of the world’s most important product. Visit for more information.


[1] Deborah, Rudacille, Roots of Steel: Boom and Bust in an American Mill Town (New York: Pantheon Books, 2010), 205.

[2] Karla Murthy and Sam Weber, “This former steel mill used to employ thousands—how the site is adapting and creating jobs now.” PBS NewsHour, July 10, 2021,

[3] Kristen Toussaint, “This was once the largest steel mill in the world. Now it’s going to build clean energy infrastructure.” Fast Company Inc, August 4, 2021,

[4] Karla Murthy and Sam Weber, “This former steel mill used to employ thousands—how the site is adapting and creating jobs now.” PBS NewsHour, July 10, 2021,