December 4, 2023

SlackWater: Cedar Point Erased to Make Way for Base

Cedar Point

The SlackWater Center at St. Mary’s College of Maryland is a consortium of students, faculty, and community members documenting and interpreting the region’s changing landscapes. Oral histories are at the core of the center, which encourages students to explore the region through historical documents, images, literature, and scientific and environmental evidence. Some of this work has been published in the print journal SlackWater, some of which is online and some published here. The work below was first published in spring 1999 in SlackWater Volume II: Cedar Point 1942.

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“This Happened Here” Part 2

World War II ended meager times for many Americans hit hard by the Depression of the 1930s, and during the war the federal government became increasingly instrumental in shaping national identity. 

SlackWater attempts to suggest how Southern Maryland, in particular St. Mary’s County, was transformed from an isolated agricultural community to a newly shaped culture, one that reflected the social and economic changes of a larger nation.

Days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, residents recall, government officials, surveyors and contractors began the process of condemning the land; that is, the process of appropriating private lands for public use under the right of eminent domain. Aerial photographs were used to determine the number of homes on the land. Land-based photographs were taken of all manmade structures, which were then evaluated and appraised. In late December, a packet of eviction papers was posted with twenty-penny nails to fences and front doors across the peninsula. Residents had until March 1, 1942, to empty there houses and leave their farms and waterways forever.

For years rumors had circulated of the military’s interest in this peninsula with its deep-water port. Nor was this an unheard of eviction. During the Civil War, the peninsula twenty miles south of Cedar Point was condemned as well. This area, known as Point Lookout, was the site of a military hospital and infamous wartime prison camp for confederate sympathizers. Its brief history was plagued with stories of overcrowded jails, insufficient supplies, and unsanitary living conditions.

The U.S. Government of 1942 paid the inhabitants of Cedar Point for their land and dwellings. The appraisals, carried out by Home Owners Loan Corporation of Washington, D.C., claimed to pay full exchange or market value: “the price an intelligent, well informed purchaser, acting without necessity, is warranted in paying for a property, and a price which an intelligent, well informed seller, acting without necessity is warranted in accepting for a property.” Estimates were arrived at by comparing Cedar Point properties with similar county properties recently sold or listed for sale. Properties were assessed at their replacement value, “less depreciation, plus estimated value of land.”

It was the method of appraisal that many residents still recall with bitterness. Appraisals were done in the bleak winter cold, when buildings looked their worst. Garages, cowsheds, poultry houses, spring houses, horse and feeder barns, corncribs, water tanks, meat houses and dwellings: all were inventoried and quantified. But some resident will say, you can’t put a price on a home a man has built for his family, and you can’t quantify the value of land that has been in the family for generations, and you can’t say you “bought” land that wasn’t for sale to begin with. And there were other troubles with the assessment. Many of Cedar Point’s inhabitants were tenant farmers and sharecroppers, who often had no land to be evaluated. …

With Cedar Point condemned and its tenants evicted, the construction of the Naval Air Station was set to begin. Long-time residents recall a military gate erected in January. Construction contracts were awarded in February of 1942, and ground was broken on April 4. The base was to be erected as quickly as possible in order to aid in the overseas war effort. Of course, projects of the magnitude the Navy had in mind needed massive amounts of construction material and wage labor, the movement of which was helped along when the government resurrected earlier efforts at connecting the region to cities by rail. As long ago as 1868 the newly incorporated Southern Railroad Company had intended creating a railway from Point Lookout to Washington, D.C., a distance of 77.01 miles. But construction halted after thirteen years, $500,000, and only 45.8 miles of track. Over the next sixty years, several other organizations tried to complete the problematic track. They all failed. In 1942 the government took over the job, extended rail service to the base, and used it to ship supplies.

Within nine months of breaking ground, over 7,000 workers had migrated to the naval air base. Stories of that time tell of an immense dust cloud over the peninsula as buildings were bulldozed, runways laid, and creeks filled. They tell, too, of torrential rains during summer months, when workers trudged through mud several feet deep. Except for a few houses and barns turned into naval facilities, the landscape was systematically erased.

Even the landscape of the dead underwent erasure. Estimates for disinterring the remains of those buried in Methodist and Catholic cemeteries are among the eerier features of naval assessment records. Opening and closing graves in both old and new graveyards, estimates indicated, would run $6 each; new boxes would cost $8 each; transportation and permit costs ran to $10 each with an additional $10 if a vault had been used. Removing and resetting monuments would cost $15. In the Methodist graveyard, approximately one hundred graves were disinterred and moved to Ebenezer Graveyard on Chancellor’s Run Road. …

Next: By November 1942, there were some 3,500 to 4,000 laborers making their way to St. Mary’s County. They were drawn by the “short-term, high-pay opportunity” building the Navy base created. By all accounts, these were the “boomtown” years.

The first installment of “This Happened Here” [“SlackWater: World War II Transforms So. Md.”] can be read here.

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