Point of Entry:
Baltimore, the Other Ellis Island
By William Connery


E llis Island in New York harbor is well known as the main entry point for European immigrants in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. What many do not know is that Baltimore was the second-leading port of entry at that time. The establishment of the nation's first commercial steam railway, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, in 1828 opened the way to the West. As the westernmost major port on the East Coast, Baltimore was a popular destination.

LocustPoint-Canton-1860     Irish and German settlers were the first to use Baltimore as a point of entry. Their tide increased after the Irish potato famine of the mid-1840s and the German political uprisings of 1848. The number became so great that after 1850, immigrants were no longer brought directly to Fell's Point, Baltimore's first port. Instead, they were unloaded at Locust Point, next to Fort McHenry. Between 1790 and 1860, Baltimore's population soared from 13,503 to 212,418. Word spread that, for those who worked hard, there were jobs to be had with the railroad and businesses in the city.

     Soon, shipping links were established with Liverpool and Bremen. The situation for immigrants became even easier in 1867, when the B&O signed an agreement with the North German Lloyd Steamship Line, allowing passengers to purchase a single ticket that would carry them across the Atlantic and then west by train. The first steamer, the Baltimore, arrived in 1868, carrying passengers and German manufactured goods. It returned to Europe with Maryland tobacco and lumber.

     In 1869, several steamship companies signed a contract with a Mrs. Koether to run a large boardinghouse at the pier where immigrants debarked. For each one she fed and housed, she received 75 cents a day. Over the next fifty years, Koether received as many as forty thousand per year at her boardinghouse.

     Entry into the city was fairly easy. Doctors and immigration officials boarded the ships as they steamed up the Chesapeake Bay. In New York, people had to land at Castle Garden and Ellis Island to be checked. The B&O had constructed two large buildings at Locust Point that served as terminals for both the steamship lines and the railroad.

     Many who did not take the trains rode ferries across the harbor to Fell's Point. The early German and Irish immigrants improved their means there and then moved to other parts of the city. Increasingly after 1880, Italians came and settled to the west of the Point, while Poles settled to the east.

Closing the port

     By 1913, when Baltimore immigration was averaging forty thousand per year, the federal government had built an immigration center at Locust Point. But just as the center was being completed, World War I closed off the flow of immigrants, so the building became a military hospital. After the war there were not enough new arrivals to justify reopening the center.

     In the 1920s, the building was transferred to the Treasury Department and used by Prohibition agents as a depot for confiscated liquor bound for Baltimore. Many a bottle and keg found its final resting place against the rear brick wall. In 1943 the building was transferred to the U.S. Navy. A naval radio operations unit served there during World War II, and in 1947 it became a Naval Reserve Center, which it remains today under Cmdr. John Turonis.

     By 1970, Baltimore's heyday as an immigration center was a distant memory. In fact, part of Fell's Point was nearly torn down to make room for a highway. A group of local citizens, led by future Sen. Barbara Mikulski, helped save the area. Since the bicentennial celebrations of 1976, more people have become aware of the need to preserve the Point.

The prospect

     Fell's Point is the oldest section of Baltimore and one of the country's oldest ports. The English settlement of this area began in 1726. Baltimore Town was established in 1729, as a separate entity to the west. In 1730 an English Quaker, William Fell, bought land on a marshy hook that jutted into the Patapsco River. He called his tract of land "Fell's Prospect," sensing the Point's possibilities for shipping and shipbuilding. The river offered a deepwater anchorage, which enabled seagoing vessels to send smaller boats back and forth from shore with cargo. Within a few years, ships would anchor off Fell's Point.

     In 1763, William's son, Edward Fell, laid out streets and lots. Edward's wife, Ann Bond Fell, sold parcels of land to newcomers eager to take advantage of the economic boom fomented by the American Revolution and its aftermath. In 1773, after a generation of political independence, Fell's Point was annexed by Baltimore Town. In 1797, Fell's Point was incorporated as Baltimore City, along with Jonestown to the west and Baltimore Town, situated around the inner basin.

     The Point served as the port of Baltimore for over a hundred years, since the inner harbor was too shallow for oceangoing vessels. In 1797, the Navy launched its first frigate, USS Constellation, from the Point, beating out Boston's USS Constitution. Fell's Point reached its zenith between 1800 and 1860, when its many shipyards (there were eighteen at one time) turned out hundreds of sailing vessels of many kinds. The most famous were topsail schooners--sharp, two-masted vessels that carried lots of sail but little cargo space--popularly called Baltimore clippers. These greyhounds of the sea could outrun and outmaneuver the lumbering warships that dominated the seas.

     Dozens of schooners designed and based in Fell's Point, like Chasseur and Comet, operated as privateers during the War of 1812. They broke the English blockade of American ports and made a number of Baltimoreans very rich. After burning Washington in August 1813, Britain turned its army and navy toward Baltimore to eradicate that "nest of pirates." The result was the British defeat at Fort McHenry and Francis Scott Key's anthem, "the Star-Spangled Banner."

     By the 1860s, Fell's Point was no longer the center of maritime commerce, as port facilities had moved to Locust Point and farther downstream to deeper waters and larger facilities. The Point remained a "sailortown," however, with bars, brothels, boardinghouses, and churches catering to the seaman ashore.

     Today, Fell's Point serves as a center of nightlife for Baltimore. Many bars, pubs, and restaurants line the cobblestone streets. Much of the popular television police drama Homicide: Life on the Streets is filmed at the Point. The City Recreation Pier has been refurbished to serve as the TV location for the Baltimore Police Department.

Ethnic Fell's Point

     The Germans and Irish who started coming in waves during the 1840s were not the only new Americans to settle in Fell's Point. A variety of eastern European nationalities came in later decades. The Point also served as an early African-American neighborhood. Both freedmen and slaves worked as caulkers on the many ships being built. Frederick Douglass, abolitionist and statesman, was born a slave on Maryland's Eastern Shore and brought to Fell's Point at the age of 7 to be a houseboy. He learned to read and write and later worked as a caulker. In 1837 he escaped and headed north, where he became a black leader. In old age, he returned and built a row of houses.

     Another caulker and black leader, Isaac Myers, led a group of black entrepreneurs in opening and operating the Chesapeake Marine Railway and Drydock Company in 1868. It was one of the earliest and largest black-owned businesses in America. Billie Holiday, Baltimore's famous blues singer, reputedly began her singing career at her uncle's bar and lounge.

     Many hands and nationalities helped to make Fell's Point the shipbuilding and immigration center of Baltimore. Today, many are working to preserve its nautical charm and historical importance.

     William Connery was born and grew up in Upper Fells Point. His family moved to Glen Burnie in 1962. He attended St. Paul Latin High School, St. Charles College, and the University of Maryland. He currently lives in Alexandria, VA. He writes and speaks mainly on Civil War and Baltimore topics. He can be reached at william.connery@verizon.net.

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