A service of Salisbury University and University of Maryland Eastern Shore
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

A huge crane with a CIA history helps with the Baltimore bridge cleanup


Cleanup efforts are continuing after last week's fatal collapse of the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore. At the center of the wreckage removal is a decades-old massive crane - the largest on the East Coast.


Now, this crane is called the Chesapeake 1000, named for the thousand tons it can lift. Its nickname is Chessie. And because of its sheer size, it has held many prominent jobs over the decades, including a secret CIA mission during the Cold War.

SHAPIRO: Here's the story. In 1968, U.S. intelligence discovered a sunken Soviet submarine in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. To recover the sub without the Soviets knowing, the U.S. needed a new deep-sea ship. To build that ship, they needed a huge crane.

KELLY: Todd Bennett is a history professor at East Carolina University and an expert on that CIA mission from the early 1970s.

TODD BENNETT: It was thought that there was at least one nuclear weapon aboard the sub. And even more importantly, the portion of the sub that the CIA targeted contained a code room, a working code machine and then materials, it was thought, that explained how that device worked.

SHAPIRO: Bennett says the recovery ship had to hide in plain sight.

BENNETT: The cover story was really essential, and the agency went through a number of options but finally settled on having the reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes pose as the owner of this ship. His firm was privately owned. There were no SEC reports to file, and so Hughes' organization was thought to be the perfect black box.

KELLY: The mission was partially successful after two recovery attempts. Then, its cover was blown after an unauthorized leak. The CIA did not officially confirm the mission until 2010 through a redacted report.

SHAPIRO: Bennett says the fact that the crane is in the news again is a testament to the technical complexity of that early intelligence operation.

BENNETT: My initial reaction was that this incredible piece of technology and the things that helped build it - that they also were of such a large scope, such an incredible scale, that they continue to have use today in helping to clear the tragic Baltimore Bridge collapse.

(SOUNDBITE OF J. COLE SONG, "FORBIDDEN FRUIT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Kathryn Fink
Kathryn Fink is a producer with NPR's All Things Considered.
Justine Kenin
Justine Kenin is an editor on All Things Considered. She joined NPR in 1999 as an intern. Nothing makes her happier than getting a book in the right reader's hands – most especially her own.