Written for The Kent Island Heritage Society on the 100th anniversary of the saving of Kent Island from becoming an ordinance testing ground for the U.S. Government.
FARMS NOT BOMBS
THE SAVING OF KENT ISLAND
By Harold O. Wilson
One hundred years ago on September 17, 1917, at a little after three o’clock in the afternoon Colonel Tom Keller, veteran assistant sergeant-at-arms of the United States Senate entered the room where Maryland Senator John Walter Smith, Virginia Senator Thomas Staples Martin, and former State Senator James E. Kirwan, along with a few others from Kent Island waited.
“Unanimous,” Keller announced.
The Committee on Military Affairs of the Senate had just passed a resolution offered by Senator Kenneth McKellar of Tennessee: …that it is the sense of this committee that Kent Island, or any part thereof should not be taken by the United States government as a proving ground for the test of ordinance material. In addition, about an hour or so earlier, the House of Representatives had stricken from the Appropriations Bill $3,000,000 for the proving ground because it was assumed the money was to be used for a Kent Island facility.
And so it was over. Kent Island would not become a proving ground for the test of ordinance material as the country anticipated its entry into WWI. The Kent Island decision had taken about ten minutes.
For the residents of Kent Island, however, getting a positive result from those ten minutes of congressional time was a tense and commanding three month struggle. It began when James E. Kirwan, business man and former Senator, learned from his old friend and colleague Senator John Walter Smith (Kirwan was State Senator during Smith’s tenure as governor of Maryland), that a representative from the munitions firm Bartlett-Hayward was quietly optioning land on Kent Island for the government. The agent, W. H. Price had optioned 3,500 acres without indicating the land was for the government and was the beginning of the purchase of the entire island. When this became known along with the fact that all the residents of the island would have to leave, no more options were obtained. Senator Kirwan organized a protest when he found that the land purchases were a precursor to a War Department plan to turn Kent Island into an ordinance proving ground. The government’s intention was to purchase or take island property by eminent domain, dispossess the people (with compensation as required) and move in bombs, cannons and other ordinance for testing. According to the diary of Kent Island resident Henry A. Palmer at the time, a meeting was called on July 3, 1917 to elect a five person delegation to go to Washington and meet with Secretary of War Newton Baker to convince him not to take the island. The five were former State Senator James E. Kirwan, William E. Denny, Roland Carville, Henry A. Palmer, and Dr. John R. Benton; family names that still resonate on Kent Island. Linda Collier, curator and board member of The Kent Island Heritage Society, says that Senator Kirwan organized and chaired the meetings of the committee.
Again, according to Palmer’s diary, the committee of five traveled to Washington on July 6 and met with Secretary Baker and with Senator Smith to state their case. Palmer says it was a cordial meeting, and it must have been since Senator Smith invited them to lunch.
The five stayed in Baltimore that night and went home on the morning boat. The morning boat? Remember, this is 1917, there was no Bay Bridge. A trip to Washington was an arduous affair that took a significant commitment of time, planning, and money. One first had to cross the bay to Baltimore, and then take a short walk to Camden Station and the B&O Railroad. The Chester River Line ran a morning and evening steamboat service from Baltimore to Chestertown with stops at Kent Island, docking at Steamboat Landing at the end of Steamboat Landing Road (now Grollman Road), and just across the narrows at Jackson Creek Landing in Grasonville and at Queenstown. Other companies ran steamboats from Baltimore to Love Point on the island to connect with the railroad that took patrons to the beach. Jack Shaum, in his excellent book Lost Chester River Steamboats notes that the Chester River Line was shaky financially at that time and in one of their brochures stated that service was likely to be “uncertain.” This would require that the committee determine the current steamboat schedule and plan their trip to Washington accordingly.
Having met with Secretary Baker and having educated Senator Smith, the committee then decided it was time to bring the Governor on board. On July 11, the Kent Island Five met with Governor Harrington and checked that box. Making the most of their trip across the bay, the group then went to Washington and met with Representative Jesse Price from Salisbury who represented Kent Island and the First District. The committee found Price favorable and came back to Kent Island on the evening boat.
Continuing their round of meetings, the committee again met with Senator Smith and Governor Harrington in Baltimore on July 26. Without offering a reason, Palmer notes that there was no encouragement to be had from this meeting. In response, the committee wisely decided to ratchet up their approach. They swelled their committee of five to a group of about a hundred. All went to Washington on August 16. The following day Representative Price had the group before the House Committee on Appropriations at 2:30 to testify. The House Appropriations Committee subsequently dropped a $3,000,000 line from the appropriations bill. Most of the delegation went back to Baltimore for the night and took the boat home the next day.
On September 9, the Kent Island Five traveled back to Washington and passed the week meeting with members of Congress. According to the Centreville Observer of September 22, 1917, things were coming to a head when Secretary of War Baker announced on Thursday, September 13, that he was willing to hear both sides of the Kent Island issue at a hearing of the Senate Committee on Military Affairs. The hearing was set for 10:00 am Saturday morning September 15. With this news in hand, Dr. Benton and Senator Kirwan conferred with Senator Smith and Representative Price. All decided that it was imperative to have a delegation present for the hearing. The call went out and more than 500 Kent Island and Queen Anne’s County citizens made their way to Baltimore, probably by chartered steamboat, and at 7:00 o’clock Saturday morning boarded a chartered B&O train, the Kent Island Special, for Washington.
Lined up two-by-two the group marched from Union Station to the Capital. The line was so long that as the leaders entered the Capital building those at the end of the procession were just leaving the station. The Centreville Observer says that the crowd at the hearing itself was so large it had to be moved from Senator Smiths’s office to a large reception room on the lower floor. It’s ironic that the room selected to debate the fate of over 3,000 Kent Island citizens was the same room where a few months earlier draft numbers had been drawn and the fate of their sons placed in the balance.
Secretary Baker opened the hearing with a statement that many sites had been investigated and that Kent Island appeared to be the only available place suitable for the proving grounds. He added, however, that he would abide by the Committee’s decision in the matter.
Munitions officers and others then testified that Kent Island was the only place in America where the ammunition and guns could be properly tested. After further testimony to that effect Senator Smith asked if the War Department had a second choice. It was then admitted that there was a site at Gunpowder Point that might serve. Senator Smith continued to ask questions until finally the officers admitted that they had not given other sites careful study. In fact, Maryland Senator Joseph I. France stated that there were three other sites in Maryland that were suitable. He then read a letter he received from General William Crozier, Chief of Ordinance, refusing to investigate a site in Southern Maryland offered by the senator. Following this discussion, the fact that 3,500 acres had been willingly optioned by Kent Island residents was offered as an indication that the islanders were prepared to give up their property for a price. This was debunked by Senator Smith who said that 98 percent of the residents of Kent Island were unwilling to go and that those who optioned their property did so under misapprehension or under duress.
Senator Smith spoke eloquently on behalf of Kent Island. His words, recorded in the Centreville Observer, are worth repeating here:
I believe that I can say safely that I am second to no man in this country in my loyalty to my native land or in my eagerness to do all that is in my power to push this war to a successful conclusion. And I Know I can say the same for the loyalty and readiness to sacrifice of these people of Kent Island who are before you today appealing to you to save their homes. In this very room their sons were drafted and their sons have responded willingly to the call of their country, for not one has claimed exemption. And if it were necessary that they give up their homes, as they have already given up their sons, they would make that sacrifice also, but it is not necessary. There are plenty of other places in Maryland, and there are hundreds of other places throughout the country for ordinance proving grounds.
Then it was Governor Harrington, the Observer reports, who offered a very practical economic reason for not taking the island. He reminded the committee that he had traveled from one end of the state to the other with the administration’s admonition that people conserve their food products and increase the production of all foodstuffs. It seemed to him a cruel irony, he said, that at the very time everyone in Maryland was being called on by the government to conserve food and increase production, the government itself was undertaking to destroy the greatest food-producing community in the state.
The hearing ended with the statement that a decision would probably be made on Monday.
That was Saturday. On Monday, September 17, at 3:00 o’clock, the Senate Committee on Military Affairs did their ten minutes on Kent Island. Emotions ran high in the room when Tom Keller entered and announced the results of the vote: Senator Kirwan threw his arms around Senator Smith, and the venerable Dr. Benton wept.
James E. Kirwan became known as the Grand Old Man of Kent Island. Under his leadership, the Kent Island Five had done everything right: they met with the right people at the right time, told a compelling story, and demonstrated great resolve through their persistence. And on short notice they turned out 500 residents to overwhelm the halls of Congress. They were not going to see the homes of 3,000 fellow citizens taken unnecessarily for an ordinance proving ground. The people of Harford County were not as fortunate. The decision was later taken to establish the proving ground in Aberdeen.
Today, because of the skill, commitment, and persistence of the citizens of Kent Island, the island remains the heartbeat of the land of pleasant living.