The commissioning of Patuxent River Naval Air Station on April 1, 1943, touched every aspect of life in St. Mary’s and brought the rural county into the modern age.
The population, stagnant for generations, doubled from 14,626 people to 29,111 between 1940 and 1950. Instead of losing the rural county’s labor force to opportunities in the cities, the construction of Patuxent River Naval Air Station brought in a deluge of 7,000 new people within a single year.
There weren’t enough houses or hotels in the county to support them. Trailer camps sprang up outside of the base’s fence and the federal government quickly built temporary barracks on and off the grounds.
“After 200 years the benefits of modern industrial civilization finally have come to once quiet, old-fashioned self-contained St. Mary’s County, the mother county of the state,” reported The (Baltimore) Sun on Nov. 6, 1942.
But modern civilization also meant displacing hundreds of families who lived in the land the Navy confiscated to build the base.
Some residents of Cedar Point said they first saw surveyors in the area in 1939. The St. Mary’s Beacon newspaper gave notice of an “air and naval base proposed on Patuxent” on Oct. 11, 1940. The Navy initially condemned 6,412 acres at Cedar Point for $712,282, according to several sources.
The farm owners and the many sharecropping families had less than a month to vacate. Some 230 families had to move by March 1, 1942.
President Franklin D. Roosevelt asked Congress for $6,323,000 for construction of a new base at Cedar Point. A memorandum to Roosevelt dated Jan. 17, 1942, explained the advantages of a base at Cedar Point: “That there will be concentration and better control of [aviation] testing efforts; that test flights will be removed from the densely populated areas where they now take place; that there will be better security of tests involving confidential matters.”
Construction began on runways, barracks, garages, airplane hangars, marina basins, a sewage treatment plant and other necessities for a naval air base on April 4, 1942.
Getting the 600,000 tons of material to Cedar Point was a challenge. The Maryland Roads Commission reconstructed the ancient Three Notch Road from the Charles County line to Lexington Park, then called Jarboesville, in 1943 for the length of 26 miles, creating new stretches of highway bypassing Charlotte Hall and Mechanicsville.
An old railroad line, which for decades had been envisioned by different companies to extend down to Point Lookout, had tracks as far as Mechanicsville. The federal government built the remaining 21 miles to bring in heavy materials to the base. “Soon the Cedar Point Special will roar and smoke its way through our peaceful hills and dales and cement the era of life in St. Mary’s County,” the Beacon wrote on July 17, 1942.
Farm laborers who never made more than $1.50 a day made 87½ cents an hour working to build the base, The Sun reported on Aug. 23, 1942 in a Navy-approved article.
With an influx of 7,000 new people within nine months of the base’s construction, the need for public facilities was acute.
“Unable to obtain either transportation from Leonardtown, where they arrive by bus, to Cedar Point or sleeping accommodations, workmen headed for the construction project spend the nights in parked cars along the main street of the county seat,” The Sun reported in November 1942.
The federal government built two neighborhoods outside of the fence — Lexington Park for whites and Carver Heights for blacks in 1943. While both neighborhoods are gone, the Lexington Park neighborhood, named after the USS Lexington, provided the name for the new town.
The U.S. Federal Works Agency renovated Great Mills High School and built a new elementary school, first called Patuxent River Elementary School, then named Frank Knox Elementary School. That building is still outside of Gate 2 of the base and is used for Pax River employee training and meetings.
The federal government paid for a new $68,600 jail behind the courthouse in Leonardtown, and turned it over to the county in September 1945. The old jail, in front of the circuit courthouse today, had already been condemned by local officials. It dated back to 1876.
Patuxent River Naval Air Station got its official name on June 4, 1942, because Cedar Point was too similar to Cherry Point, a Marine installation in North Carolina. Today, Pax River accounts for 22,400 jobs and about 80 percent of the St. Mary’s County economy.