Geography & History
Although most of the city lies north of its Inner Harbor, several of its most attractive areas to visit curl around this harbor area, making water the fastest route between many points.
Encircling the city is the Baltimore Beltway, I-695, and major streets intersect it to converge on the center. Much of the central city is laid out in a grid street pattern, with streets running almost due north from the harbor, intersected by east-west streets.
A Distribution Port
The natural harbor on the Patapsco, and its easy access to Chesapeake Bay, made Baltimore a logical distribution port as early as the 1720s, when grain and tobacco growers brought their crops to load on ships bound for other eastern cities and for Europe. Mills to grind the grains into flour soon sprang up along the smaller rivers that converged here. Led by the Carroll family – of whom you will hear more – Baltimore officially became a town and customs port in 1729.
In the days before good roads and rails connected the eastern seaboard, nearly all transport was by ship, so the city grew quickly as a commercial hub. Merchants whose ships carried the flour and tobacco
to far-flung corners of the British Empire built homes close to the harbour, followed by the more modest homes of ships’ carpenters and others in the great network that built, outfitted and manned the ships.
The first threat to this booming maritime economy came with British attempts to regulate commerce in the emerging colonies, but the Revolution soon restored the thriving trade. Baltimore ships were quick
to seize the opportunity to help their fledgling country – and themselves – by becoming privateers. The goods they seized from British ships not only failed to supply the British forces they were often intended for, but brought nice profits to the privateers.
This fine Baltimore tradition was not forgotten by the British, however, and the War of 1812 brought military action right to the city. Bombarded from the water by the British fleet, Baltimore was successfully defended by the well-placed Fort McHenry, the city’s prime historical attraction today. You won’t be in Baltimore long without hearing the story of how the sight of Mary Pickersgill’s giant American flag still flying over the fort inspired the writing of The Star Spangled Banner.
The end of the war in 1815 brought freedom of the seas to Baltimore captains, who quickly seized the lead in transporting flour and other goods, a Baltimore thriving commerce that made Baltimore the new country’s second-largest city. But however strong its sea commerce, Baltimore saw the need to complement this with land access to the western frontiers, and became a leader in building railroads. The B&O line reached the Chicago by the 1870s, providing a link that took goods both ways. The railroad and the C&O Canal also brought coal from the rich inland mines to the
port of Baltimore, whence they traveled by ship to New England to power the mills of the Industrial Revolution.
Civil War and Immigration
The Civil War, which had sympathizers on both sides in Baltimore, gave rise to at least two industries there: ready-made clothing and canning. The sudden need for uniforms led to the modern idea of standard sizing, so clothing could be made in quantity. Baltimore soon had a thriving garment industry. The need to supply troops with safe food inspired the perfection of the canning process, which by the end of the war had not only become cost-effective but accepted for household use. Huge canneries rose along the wharves at Canton, supported by factories that made the cans and others that printed the labels, two other industries that were to thrive here. At one time, more than 100 canneries lined the waterfront.
During the great immigration boom of the 1800s, Baltimore was second to New York as a port of entry, a fact still evident today in the city’s strong ethnic ties and thriving ethnic neighborhoods. The 20th century started well enough, but in 1904 the Great Fire (“What was so great about it?” wonders Fran Zeller of Harbor City Tours) destroyed a large part of the commercial district. But its rebuilding allowed for modernization, and Baltimore continued to prosper until the Depression in the 1930s.
Post-Worl War II
Post-WorldWar II prosperity worked against the city, instead of helping it recover from the depression, as its residents began to leave for more modern and spacious suburbs. Downtown businesses suffered and died until the 1960s seemed little different from the 1930s. But the factors that made Baltimore great in its previous centuries were still
there, and under the leadership of a strong and far-sighted mayor and city government in the 1970s, Baltimore bounced back.
The city cleaned up its act, along with its harbor, renovating the deteriorated buildings and replacing decrepit wharves with a bright new waterfront, then stocking it with historic ships, lively museums and accessible arts venues. Fine buildings, unchanged in benign neglect, were restored and put to new uses, a process that still continues. Striking new ones were built.
With these visible improvements came the inner pride, the sometimes brash, but indomitable spirit born of gutsy people surmounting tough times.You can’t help but like the Baltimore they’ve preserved and
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