Bay Journal

Its fast ships may be gone, but Fells Point hasn’t slowed down one bit

  • By Lara Lutz on March 01, 2006
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In the 18th century, Fells Point served as the only deepwater port in the Baltimore area. Its waterfront thrived on commerce and shipbuilding. Today, it is still a thriving working-class neighborhood drawing throngs of visitors to its historic sites, shops and restaurants.

A worker peels back a thin brick facade at 1738 Thames Street to reveal the brick beneath, which dates to approximately 1765. The building has spent many of its years as a watering hole, and this renovation will carry on the tradition.  (Lara Lutz) A cluster of brick chimneys hint at the layers of history that still exist in Fells Point buildings. (Lara Lutz) Thames Street is one of many colorful neighborhood streets that celebrate the energy and history of Fells Point. (Lara Lutz) The Fells Point Maritime Museum’s building was once a warehouse for horse-drawn trolleys. The horses were housed on a second floor stable. 

 (Maryland Historical Society) A bold green door beckons visitors to the interior courtyard of the Fells Point Visitors Center. (Lara Lutz)

On the corner of Thames Street, in Baltimore’s Fells Point neighborhood, 18th-century brick was seeing the light of day once more.

A worker covered in gray dust was removing a thin façade of false brick from the trim, two-story building. First with a long metal pry bar, and then with gloved hands, he peeled back large patches to reveal the original underlying brick—smaller, darker, varied in shade, and showing small fissures in its face. Across the cobblestone street, morning light bounced from waters in the harbor to warm the old walls.

Number 1738 Thames St. is being refurbished from its most recent life as a bar and restaurant to become, well, another bar and restaurant.

The property echoes much of Fells Point history. In 1765, a young merchant named Robert Long was among the first wave of waterfront businessmen to buy newly available land from the Fell family. Ann Bond Fell, whose husband Edward had inherited “Fell’s Prospect” from his father, had big plans. In 1763, she had the land surveyed with an eye toward development. By 1765, eager merchants and shipbuilders were snapping up 99-year leases for prime locations along the deepwater port. Long was one of them. As part of the lease, Long agreed to put a building on the land within two years. He did.

Like many Fells Point buildings, 1738 Thames St. has spent more than 200 years providing food and fun for visitors and residents. The early throngs of sailors, merchants and shipbuilders made for lively streets both day and night.

“There were many bars and taverns here, because in those days you couldn’t go much farther than the sound of your captain’s voice,” explained Ellen Von Karajan, executive director of the Fells Point Visitors Center.

Modern crowds include an eclectic mix of young singles, businesspeople, artists and local residents. But the historic atmosphere survives, thanks in part to what Von Karajan describes as “benign neglect.” Because the neighborhood remained so heavily working class, business interests that may have otherwise leveled its most valued—and marketable—features passed it by. Today, the heart of Fells Point is both a National Historic District and a member of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network.

“We still have a village here with intense mixed use. That has never changed,” Von Karajan said.

On the other hand, the busy wharves and shipyards that drove Fells Point have vanished. Today, their stories resound through the efforts of the Fells Point Maritime Museum, also a member of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network.

This small museum speaks with a loud voice. Fells Point is important, according to director Shawn Gladden, because the United States’ early exploits were greatly shaped by its ship designs—which in turn were shaped by conditions on the Bay.

“Fells Point was completely driven by shipbuilding,” Gladden said. “From 1790–1840, Fells Point was regarded as one of the nation’s busiest shipbuilding ports, accounting for about one-tenth of the nation’s ships.”

The boom at Fells Point grew from geography. Fells Point juts into the Patapsco River from the north. Its reaches across the river to both narrow and protect the approach to Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. In the 18th century, that harbor had limited use for cargo ships.

“Back then, the Inner Harbor was marshy and swamplike because of silt deposited from the Jones Falls,” Gladden explained. “Fells Point was the only deepwater port in the vicinity. Goods were ferried to Fells Point, then sent off on British ships for trade.”

The services and pastimes of a flourishing maritime center followed. Skilled tradesmen and laborers flocked to the shipyards for work, many bringing skills they learned from living on the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries. It was a unique setting, where African Americans, both enslaved and free, worked next to white men.

Frederick Douglass, the famous orator and abolitionist, was an enslaved African American who was hired out to Fells Point shipyards by his owner. It was a common practice.

“This was a merchant setting. There was a large community of people that couldn’t afford to own slaves, but could afford to hire them,” Gladden said. “Frederick Douglass worked side by side with white men and with free African Americans. He escaped slavery using papers from a free black seaman that he met in Fells Point.”

By 1830, one out of every six workers in Fells Point shipyards was African American. Many were caulkers, and this valuable skill sometimes earned them wages that matched or surpassed those of the white caulkers. Freed men were able to form the Association of Black Caulkers there in 1838. To enforce the agreement, black caulkers would go on strike and sabotage boats.

In 1868, Isaac Myers began the nation’s first African American-owned maritime railway in Fells Point. The Living Classrooms Foundation, in cooperation with the city of Baltimore, will celebrate the African-American heritage at Fells Point by opening the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park on one of its historic wharf sites in 2006.

Ships built at Fells Point had a reputation for speed. The infamous Baltimore schooner emerged by the end of the American Revolution. The ship was an outgrowth of sloops and pinnacles built for the shallow waters of the Chesapeake Bay.

“The vessels built here were practical incarnations of the conditions of the Chesapeake Bay—shallow waters with windy, twisting tributaries,” Gladden said.

The Baltimore schooner featured a shallow draft and a v-shaped hull with steeply sloped sides. Two tall, raked masts supported a cloud of sail. The hull depth at the front of the ship, from bow to keel, was noticeably shorter than that at the stern, which allowed the ship to slice through the water quickly. Being top heavy and narrow, the Baltimore schooner required a skilled crew. Sailed well, it was fast and maneuverable.

Baltimore schooners hit full stride in the years after the American Revolution. They were critical in trade routes, especially for carrying grain to the West Indies. By the War of 1812, they were a force to reckon with. Baltimore alone registered 122 ships that were commissioned for privateering. Together, they captured more than 500 ships and reaped millions of dollars in seized cargo.

A Baltimore schooner cost about $40,000, but spoils from privateering could generate as much as $200,000. These efficient schooners made privateering a smart investment, and girded many of Baltimore’s prominent families with wealth.

“Baltimore schooners caused so much damage to British ships that British insurance rates tripled,” Gladden said. “Britain claimed our vessels were the devil’s work.”

After burning Washington, D.C. in 1814, the British turned toward Baltimore and intended to destroy Fells Point, which they called a “nest of pirates.”

The British were stopped at Fort McHenry, in a battle that inspired Francis Scott Key to pen the national anthem.

The modern-day flagship, Pride of Baltimore II, has its roots in a Baltimore schooner named the Chausseur and the notorious privateer who captained her.

“Thomas Boyle was probably the most notorious privateer of them all,” Gladden said. In 1814, Boyle had already captured numerous British ships and seized their cargo. But he also had a sense of honor, and he was offended when the British declared the United States to be under blockade without having the naval power to back up the claim.

Boyle sailed the Chausseur to Britain and dallied around the Irish coast, seizing more cargo. He then ordered the captain of one captured ship to deliver a personal letter to Lloyd’s of London, hotbed of the shipping and insurance industry. In the letter, Boyle declared that all of Britain was under “rigorous blockade” by his lone ship.

“They were incensed. It was a real slap in the face to the British—the nerve of this one man,” Gladden said.

Ships flocked to capture him, but Boyle fled in flamboyant style. He captured and boarded a few of the ships that were pursuing him, before sailing home to a hero’s welcome. The public was buzzing with news of his exploits. Unknown to Boyle, they had given the Chasseur a new nickname, the Pride of Baltimore.

After the war, the speed of Baltimore schooners was applied to commerce, with shipments of grain, fruit and coffee. They also moved illegal cargo for opium dealers and the foreign slave trade, which was illegal in the United States by 1808.

The design of the Baltimore schooner evolved into the classic Baltimore clipper ship, which maintained speed but increased the amount of sail and cargo space. The name honored the origin of the design, rather than the place where the ships were built—Baltimore clipper ships were produced at shipyards throughout the Atlantic seaboard.

As steam ships replaced sail, Fells Point became a popular home for newly arrived immigrants. Later in the 20th century, artists found community and inspiration in its neighborhoods. For several years, the television series “Homicide” was filmed along its waterfront.

Today, modern energy mixes well with a historic setting, where visitors can stop at long-time watering holes, tour the Robert Long House, shop in unique stores, explore the life of Frederick Douglass and learn how Fells Point shipyards once influenced fast ships throughout the North Atlantic.

Fell’s or Fells?

It all depends on where you look or who you ask. Because this feature’s intent is to focus on a member of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, we have used what appears on its literature, Fells Point.

Fells Point Maritime Museum and Fells Point Historic District

The Fells Point Maritime Museum, located at 1724 Thames Street, Baltimore MD 21231, is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Thursday.Admission is $4/adults; $3/ages 13–17 years, students with ID and seniors; and free for members of the Maryland Historical Society and children 12 and younger.

For information, visit www.mdhs.org.

Walking Tours

Fells Point Historic District

  • Robert Long House & Garden: 1 & 2 p.m. daily. Visit Baltimore’s oldest surviving urban residence (ca. 1765) and 18th century garden. Admission $3.
  • Secrets of the Seaport: Noon on Saturdays, April through November. Learn about the homes, businesses and lives of sea captains, ship builders, seamen and immigrants in the 18th century maritime community.
  • Immigration Tour: Noon on Saturdays, April through November. Baltimore was second only to Ellis Island as a port of immigration. Explore immigration sites and hear stories of exodus and assimilation into a new culture and country.
  • Ghost Walk: 7 p.m. Saturdays, April though November. Spirits abound in Fells Point and so do ghostly tours led by living history characters drawn from more than 250 years of a colorful past. Reservations are strongly suggested.
  • Annual Historic Harbor House Tour: Annually on Mother’s Day. Tour the interiors of homes and historic sites in this eclectic neighborhood.

All tours begin at the Fells Point Visitor Center, 808 S. Ann St. For reservations, call 410-675-6750.

For general Fells Point information, visit www.fellspoint.us. For information about other sites in the Gateways Network, visit www.baygateways.net

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About Lara Lutz

Lara Lutz is a writer and editor who specializes in the environment, heritage, and outdoors enjoyment of the Chesapeake region. .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

Read more articles by Lara Lutz

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