Gabrielle Diggs, left, and twins Braylon and Amare Nelson, right, play tug-of-war during Turner Station’s Juneteenth Party at Turner Station Park. Behind them lies Peach Orchard Cove. (Photo by Ethan Weston/Chesapeake Bay Program)
by Ethan Weston
August 26, 2021
Once a thriving steel town, Turner Station now faces the same uncertain future as many other post-industrial towns across the United States. Turner Station is unique, though. It is a historically Black community in Baltimore County—one of the few remaining of the forty or so Black communities founded in the county after the end of the Civil War and during segregation. As manufacturing declined, and desegregation allowed young people to seek life outside of the town, Turner Station began to shrink. When the steel mill finally shut down, it left behind a huge industrial brownfield site and a nearby creek that was so badly polluted the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) may declare it a federal Superfund site. Now, lifelong residents as well as transplants who fell in love with the town’s familial community are working to help the town navigate the future while preserving the things which make Turner Station unique.
Founded sometime in the late 19th century, Turner Station grew out of a need for Black mill workers to have a place to live while the country remained segregated.
“[During the Great Migration] people came this way to get jobs at Bethlehem Steel … It kind of started it all here,” said Mary Coleman, a town historian.
Coleman describes how the first Black people to live in what is now Turner Station lived in “lean-tos,” but it quickly developed into a town.
“The people were very forward looking,” Coleman said. “They weren’t just about staying in their lane.”
The community that grew up in Turner Station was a strong one, and largely insular because of segregation, according to Coleman.
Courtney Speed, a local advocate for the town, moved to Turner Station in the 1960s.
“When I came here [with my husband] everybody was mom, pop, aunt, uncle or cousin, not biologically, but spiritually,” Speed said.
That feeling of togetherness carries over to today. Community events, like this year's first ever Juneteenth Party, are well attended and well loved by residents. And former residents return to Turner Station all the time—for church, for celebrations or to help out former neighbors and friends.
“If you put out the call, people that used to live here will show up,” Coleman said. “That heart and soul is still here.”
A group of women dance at Turner Station’s Juneteenth Party on June 19, 2021 in Turner Station Park. “We wanted to tell people to put your guns down and love one another,” said Chanetta Reed, one of the event organizers (not pictured). “That’s why we did this, so we could love on one another. … This is my community.” (Photo by Ethan Weston/Chesapeake Bay Program)
Erick Portillo, left, his father Angel Romero, center, and his sister Kayri Portillo fish in Bear Creek under the Francis Scott Key Bridge on July 16, 2021 at Fleming Park in Turner Station, Md. The family has lived in Turner Station for three years. “This is something we like to do as a family,” Kayri Portillo said. “It’s peaceful and quiet and really pretty.” (Photo by Ethan Weston/Chesapeake Bay Program)
Everyone in Turner Station knows Courtney Speed. Speed moved to Turner Station with her husband in the 1960s and fell in love with the familial atmosphere of the town. “When I came here everybody was mom, pop, aunt, uncle or cousin, not biologically, but spiritually,” Speed said. Speed is a major advocate for Turner Station and works to revitalize the town through many outlets, including promoting some of Turner Station’s famous former residents such as Henrietta Lacks. (Photo By Ethan Weston/Chesapeake Bay Program)
Jeremiah Dixon, 10, rides a horse down Main Street on August 7, 2021 in Turner Station, Md. The horse was there as part of the community's annual homecoming day event which saw residents past and present gather at the old Veterans of Foreign Wars building to swap stories about Turner Station of old, and talk about their hopes for the community’s future. (Photo by Ethan Weston/Chesapeake Bay Program)
LuAnn Dillard raises her hands in praise during outdoor church service on July 11, 2021 at the Greater St. John’s Baptist Church in Turner Station, Md. “I’ve been here well over 50 years,” Dillard said. “I moved away but still keep coming down here for church.” This was Dillard’s family church so she keeps coming back. (Photo by Ethan Weston/Chesapeake Bay Program)
For years the Bethlehem Steel mill at Sparrows Point provided livelihoods for many in Turner Station. The steel mill was located just across Bear Creek from Turner Station on Sparrows Point, and at one point was the largest iron, steel and tin producer in the world.
“We could hear the making of steel,” Larry Bannerman, a life-long Turner Station resident, said. “Whistles going off … it was all day, everyday noise.”
While the mill provided work for town residents, it also caused problems. Bannerman remembers people having to rewash clothes because soot from the mill would dirty them when hung out to dry. Worse, he remembers the way it affected the health of his father who worked there.
“He would have to take a break halfway up [the stairs] to catch his breath,” Bannerman said.
Bannerman said that seeing his father’s declining health is one of the reasons he didn’t go to work for Bethlehem Steel when he got old enough.
For over 80 years, Bethlehem Steel operated the Sparrows Point Steel Mill just across Bear Creek from Turner Station. The mill produced iron, steel and built ships. “There was 24/7 noise,” said Larry Bannerman. “We could hear them making the steel. Whistles going off … It was all day, everyday noise.” (Photo from Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Farm Security Administration Office of War Information Black-and-White Negatives)
Where there was once the Bethlehem Steel Mill there are now warehouses. TradePoint Atlantic bought Sparrows Point back in 2014 and has been leasing out land to different companies since. According to Aaron Tomarchio, Trade Point Atlantic’s vice president of corporate affairs, each new development site is studied and, if remediation is necessary, cleaned up before development begins. (Photo by Ethan Weston/Chesapeake Bay Program)
Addie Smith worked at Bethlehem Steel for about 30 years and was one of the first Black women to work there. “Black women got the dirtiest jobs,” Smith said. “I left the library to work at Bethlehem Steel. I gave up high heels for steel toed boots but after that first paycheck I was hooked.” (Photo by Ethan Weston/Chesapeake Bay Program)
TPA, EPA and Bear Creek
The issues didn’t stop with the air. The water of Bear Creek became contaminated as well. There was a public beach near what is now the Fleming Senior Center at the south end of Turner Station. Bannerman said the beach had to be shut down just a year after opening because kids were getting sick from swimming in the polluted water.
The EPA and the state of Maryland found toxic metals such as arsenic and chromium in samples from the creek as well as chemicals used in the production of the iron and steel at the mill.
While not many are likely to take a dip in Bear Creek these days, the toxicity is still cause for concern. Turner Station Park has a popular boat ramp that fishers and crabbers use to launch into the water daily, despite fish consumption warnings for Bear Creek and the Patapsco River.
Luckily, Bear Creek is on the verge of getting the clean-up it desperately needs. In June, the EPA announced it wants to use the federal Superfund program to fund a clean-up of 60 acres of the contaminated river bed near where Bear Creek flows into the Patapsco River.
Sparrows Point needs cleaning too. The Steel Mill shut down in 2012 leaving behind a legacy of environmental contamination. The land was bought by Redwood Capital Investments in 2014 and Tradepoint Atlantic began redeveloping the old site to be used as a shipping and logistics hub. Environmental agreements signed in 2014 between Tradepoint Atlantic, Maryland Department of the Environment and EPA established a private source of funding and process for cleaning up the onsite contamination. According to Aaron Tomarchio, the executive vice president for Trade Point Atlantic, an environmental assessment and a remedial action plan needs to be developed for each new parcel that is being re-developed.
"We can’t just develop out the good parcels,'' Tomarchio said. “We also have to work to remediate all of Sparrows Point”.
Earlier this year, the company finished up remediation work on Tin Mill Canal, which was a conveyance for industrial waste from the steel production process. The canal, which also carried stormwater had direct discharge into Bear Creek.
The community of Turner Station, Md. is surrounded by water. To the south and east is Bear Creek, and to the west is the Patapsco River. Just across Bear Creek is Sparrow’s Point, the former site of the Bethlehem Steel Mill. (Photo by Ethan Weston/Chesapeake Bay Program)
Signs warn people against eating some fish out of Bear Creek in Watersedge, a community near Turner Station in Dundalk, Md. Across the water of Bear Creek was Greys Landfill which was once used to dispose of everything from wastewater to blast furnace waste to asbestos-bearing waste. “The asbestos bags used to pop and blow in the wind,” Larry Bannerman, a member of the Turner Station Conservation Teams, said. (Photo by Ethan Weston/Chesapeake Bay Program)
Anthony Gough, left, looks into Peach Orchard Cove while his cousin Nathan Gough readies a fishing rod on July 4, 2021 in Turner Station Park. Despite fish consumption warnings, many people fish out of Turner Station Park or use its boat ramp to launch crabbing and fishing boats. The cove connects to Bear Creek which itself flows into the Patapsco River. (Photo by Ethan Weston/Chesapeake Bay Program)
A crabbing boat floats along Bear Creek at sunset on August 5, 2021. The Environmental Protection Agency hopes to list parts of Bear Creek as a national Superfund site due to extensive contamination from years of toxic run-off from the former Bethlehem Steel Mill which was located along the creek on Sparrows Point. (Photo by Ethan Weston/Chesapeake Bay Program)
An egret stands next to a drain pipe in the waters of the Tin Mill Canal on August 5, 2021 at Sparrows Point, Md. The canal was one of many heavily polluted sites on Sparrows Point. It used to carry water loaded with pollutants and wastewater from Bethlehem Steel to a treatment plant and into Bear Creek from there. TradePoint Atlantic, which bought the land in 2014, pumped out contaminated water, dredged the canal and relined and capped it. (Photo by Ethan Weston/Chesapeake Bay Program)
Into the Future
Tradepoint Atlantic is also interested in investing in Turner Station.
“We are linked from our past [at Sparrows Point] and there is a link to be made into the future,” Tomarchio said.
Tradepoint Atlantic is working with the community to bring business to Sparrows Point and, in turn, jobs to Turner Station. The company has been trying to find a way to benefit from Turner Station’s status as an opportunity zone: a special status that rewards investors with tax breaks for investing in a low-income area. Efforts have been underway to combine the Turner Station Census tract with the Sparrows Point Census Tract to extend the opportunity zone designation to the former steel mill. If successful in obtaining the designation, Trade Point Atlantic has pledged $3 million dollars for direct investment into Turner Station.
Others inside the community are looking for ways to revitalize Turner Station as well.
Courtney Speed hopes to draw people back to the community through its more famous residents such as Henrietta Lacks, Kevin Clash — long-time Elmo puppeteer — and astronaut Robert Curbeam. Speed wants to create tourist sites and community oriented businesses such as boat tours and a restaurant/event center.
Turner Station’s conservation teams are working to encourage the community's youth and newer residents to take an interest in Turner Station’s unique history. They are also working with places like Tradepoint Atlantic to encourage growth in the community.
It’s not clear what will and what won’t work. What is clear is that the people of Turner Station are determined to move into the future together while preserving the sense of community and home which so many people hold dear.
Rows of family photos line one of the Turner Station historic societies presentation board. The board is in memory of the people who make Turner Station Turner Station. (Photo By Ethan Weston/Chesapeake Bay Program)
Left: A children's book on Black history lays on the couch of Mary Coleman. The book is part of the Turner Station Historical Society's collection and was illustrated by a Turner Station resident. Center: Mary Coleman is the Turner Station historian and collects important relics from the community's past. Much of what she collects stays at her house. Right: In the summer of 1974, Turner Station’s slow pitch softball team The Untouchables was invited to participate in the World Softball Tournament. (Photo by Ethan Weston/Chesapeake Bay Program)
Part of a poem by Amanda Gorman lays on a desk of a student participating in the Dunbar Brooks Youth Empowerment Camp on August 10, 2021 at Turner Sollers Point Multipurpose Center. The camp is hosted every summer for kids from Turner Station. This year the group was reading poetry by Gorman and interpreting it in their own way. At the end of the week, they would present their own work based on Gorman’s. (Photo by Ethan Weston/Chesapeake Bay Program)
Members of the Turner Station community bow their heads in prayer during the closing ceremony of the 23rd annual Turner Station Heritage Praise Day “Cell-A-Bration” on August 7, 2021. (Photo by Ethan Weston/Chesapeake Bay Program)
Cheryl Brooks stands in front of the Dunbar Brooks Empowerment Camp during a lesson on Amanda Gorman’s poetry on August 10, 2021 in Turner Station. (Photo by Ethan Weston/Chesapeake Bay Program)
Brianna Dent reaches up to touch a taxidermied barred owl on August 11, 2021 in Turner Station Park. The owl was brought by the Patterson Park Audubon Center as a teaching aide for the kids of the Dunbar Brooks Empowerment Camp. Dent was originally afraid to touch the owl but asked for it to be brought back so she could touch it after a few minutes. (Photo by Ethan Weston/Chesapeake Bay Program)
Devonte Wilkins stands next to boxes of food during Turner Station’s monthly food drive on August 10, 2021. Turner Station residents filled up the parking lot of the Sollers Point Multipurpose Center waiting to get boxed up meals, corn, cantaloup and watermelon. “I’ve been [in Turner Station] since I was five,” Wilkins said. “I like giving back to the community.” (Photo by Ethan Weston/Chesapeake Bay Program)
Sade Camper lowers the Maryland flag into place ahead of the 23rd annual Turner Station Heritage Praise Day “Cell-A-Bration.” Camper is a Boy Scout with troop 270 in Turner Station. The troop helped guide the audience in saying the Boy Scout of America motto and the pledge of allegiance. (Photo by Ethan Weston/Chesapeake Bay Program)