Fells Point and the History of Baltimore, Maryland
Founded in 1726, when the Inner Harbor was marshland, Fell’s Point was Baltimore’s first deepwater port. Federal and early Victorian homes and buildings still line the streets, making Fell’s Point Baltimore’s best historical area. The cobbled streets slow traffic in the quaint neighborhood of brick row houses, where expansive water views, unique shops, bars, and restaurants, attract locals and visitors hungry for a historical urban setting.
Fell’s Point is a walkable, pleasant area. With over 350 structures dating back to the 18th century, the area was once peopled by sea captains and sailors, pirates, and slaves. Some claim that William Fell himself still roams the streets late at night, disappearing around a corner, and fading into an early morning mist.
In 1726, Fell’s Point was founded by William Fell, an English shipbuilder. Fell, a Quaker, purchased the land once called Long Island Point and renamed it Fell’s Prospect.
In 1763, William Fell’s son Edward, and his wife Anne Bond Fell divided the land into parcels and sold or leased it to speculators. The deepwater port soon filled with wharves, warehouses, homes, and stores, and was renamed Fells Point.
Robert Long acquired a 99-year lease in 1765 and built a house as required by the terms of the lease. In the 1970s, Robert Long’s house was restored and can now be seen and visited at 812 South Ann Street. The adjacent garden features a colonial style herb garden with plants used for cooking, medicinal purposes, fabric dyes, and insect repellent.
The London Coffee House at Bond and Thomas Street may be the only existing pre-revolutionary coffee house in the USA.
Fell’s Point was incorporated into Baltimore in 1773.
Quickly becoming a center for shipbuilding and maritime commerce, Fell’s Point was important to colonial commerce. As England depleted its resources, American timber was exported from Fell’s Point wharves.
By the 1790’s, Maryland and Virgina became the young country’s leading wheat producers. Baltimore’s grain mills ground flour for export, and in 1811, exported one million barrels of flour.
The Napoleanic wars caused wheat shortages in Europe, fueling a demand for American agricultural products. When American merchant ships were boarded by the British, and American seamen conscripted for service in the Royal Navy, the Federal government drew up the Embargo Act. The prohibition of American trade with Europe severely damaged Baltimore and Fells Point’s commerce. Wheat growers, millers, export companies, and seamen, suffered a loss of income.
When the Embargo was lifted, business picked up, but by 1812, troubles with England led to the War of 1812. The Federal government allowed privateers to set sail from Fell’s Point in order to capture British vessels and their cargo. Fells Point became, once again, a center for shipbuilding.
The Baltimore Clipper was a type of schooner used by privateers. Two sharply raked masts and a narrow hull created enough speed to earn the nickname, The Yankee Racehorse.
By 1812, 172 ships had been commissioned for the purpose of privateering. Capturing over 500 vessels and millions of dollars in cargo, the Baltimore clippers incited the London Times to call Fel’ls Point and Baltimore a nest of pirates and caused British shipping insurance rates to triple.
In retaliation, the British attempted a failed land invasion at North Point. In September of 1814, British ships attacked Baltimore by water. The famous Battle of Baltimore repulsed the invaders and became the source of the US National Anthem, the Star Spangled Banner.
From 1790 – 1840, Fells Point was one of the United States’ greatest shipbuilding ports, producing 1/10 of our nation’s ships. Fell’s Point produced The Virginia, one of the 13 frigates of the Continental Navy, and in 1797, produced the first Constellation (not the same ship docked at the Inner Harbor).
Many Fell’s Point businessmen did not own slaves, but hired freemen and slaves owned by others. By 1830, one out of six workers in Fell’s Point shipyards was an African American. Many were employed as caulkers and in 1838, freedmen formed a trade union, the Association of Black Caulkers.
Frederick Douglas the famous writer, orator, and abolitionist worked as a caulker in Fells Point during the 1820’s and 1830’s. There, he joined the East Baltimore Mental Improvement Society, a club formed by free blacks for purposes of research, debate, literary analysis, and writing. He escaped slavery to become an icon of the abolitionist movement.
In his autobiography, Douglas mentions the oppressive heat of summers in Fells Point. He claimed that city slaves had a better life than those in rural settings, due he believed, to the proximity of other people. Public opinion created a vestige of decency that made cruelty intolerable.
African American men called Black Jacks filled many duties in the maritime industry operating as captains, pilots, cooks, and stewards. Most caulkers of 19th century Fell’s Point were black, highly skilled and well paid workers. In the late 1880’s, some ship builders began to hire white immigrants who were less skilled but worked for lower wages. Violence ensued and eventually the tradition of African American caulkers ended.
As masted sailing vessels gave way to steam ships, the shipyards of Fell’s Point closed and the shipping industry moved to Locust Point. Replaced by packing houses and canneries, Fell’s Point became famous for the 3 B’s – bars, brothels, and boarding houses.
Before the Civil War, Henderson’s Wharf in Fell’s Point was the main point of entry for immigrants entering Baltimore. After 1868, the main point of entry moved to Locust Point. The second half of the 19th century saw an influx of immigrants second only to Ellis Island. Irish fled the Great Famine, while Germans fled political turbulence. After the 1880’s, Italians and Poles formed the bulk of immigration and Baltimore welcomed up to 40,000 immigrants a year.
Many immigrants found housing in the small row homesof Fell’s Point. Due to the curious English system of ground rent, where the house is purchased but the land leased, Baltimore became a city of home owners. Immigrant workers purchased homes radiating out from Fell’s Point.
In 1914, the city built the Recreation Pier at 1715 Thames Street, a place for workers and immigrants to relax with dancing and educational programs. (The site was used in the 1990s for filming the popular TV show, Homicide:Life on the Streets). After years of deterioration, the site was redeveloped to create the Sagamore Pendry, a high end hotel.
World War I closed off the mass migrations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Today, immigrants have established a thriving Latino community in Upper Fell’s Point.
The late 1960s saw a revitalization of Baltimore, thanks to the influence of several strong community groups and the city’s forward thinking Mayor William Donald Shaefer.
When plans to build an extension for I-95 threatened to destroy the historic nature of Fell’s Point and nearby Federal Hill, community activists rose to defend the area. A local social worker named Barbara Mikulski helped lead the fight along with the Society for the Preservation of Fell’s Point and Federal Hill. The Fell’s Point Fun Festival closed off the streets in hopes of raising funds and attracting attention to the plight of the neighborhood. Since then, the Fell’s Point Fun Festival has drawn crowds on the first weekend of every October.
Fel’ls Point picked up and, in 1969, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It became a mecca for young people, artists, and an eclectic mix of characters. Funky shops and quirky bars catered to people in search of an authentic local experience, attracting tourists and locals for day time strolls, shopping, dining, and night life.
The luxury craze of the early 21st century attracted a swarm of real estate speculators. Prices of homes escalated dramatically, and the increased cost of renting store fronts drove away many of the colorful shops that gave Fells Point so much color.
Ghost tours prowl the streets, especially near Halloween. The Horse You Came In On at 1626 Thames Street is one of our nations oldest continuously running saloons. Established in 1775, horse stables stood in the rear of the building. Some claim that the ghost of Edgar Allen Poe haunts the Horse, swinging the chandelier, and opening the cash drawer.
The Cats Eye Pub is said to be haunted as well. During a renovation, workers found red light switches on the walls, a common feature of brothels and the source of the phrase “red light district.” Though the switches were covered, patrons hear ghostly clicks and glasses occasionally fly off the shelves.
If any place is haunted, it would be Fell’s Point – the ghost of the child Billie Holiday who ran the streets in the 1920’s; Mayor William Donald Shaefer at the big round table in back of Jimmy’s, reserved sign gone, but his spirit still there; the call of sailors; the sound of horses and wagons clattering along the stones in the street; the clang of rigging on masts; laughter and music leaking out of bars; a seagull eternally crying over head; the rise and fall of fortunes; and William Fell, his antiquated form fading in and out of the darkness.
Tug boats, sail boats, and houseboats still berth at the docks. Standing on the edge of the wharf you can observe the silvery refraction of light on water. The old brick buildings on Thames Street glow in the golden light of late afternoon.
There is some contention as to the street surface in Fell’s Point. Assumed by many to be cast off ballast of colonial merchant ships, the material that makes up the beautiful streets may have been a Victorian surfacing material called Belgian block, originally used in the 1880’s. In 1985, Joseph Averza and sons began replacing the asphalt of Fells Point with Belgian block in a restoration project to create a more historic atmosphere.
(Baltimore Sun 7/10/ 1985)
Despite some claims, the Constellation on display at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor is not the original vessel built at Fell’s Point in 1797. The first frigate was broken up in 1853. Today’s Constellation was built at the Norfolk Naval Yard in 1855. Serving during the Civil War and later as a training ship, the second Constellation was preserved as a relic. Reconfigured to resemble the 18th century frigate in the 20th century, the second Constellation was moved to the Inner Harbor in 1968.
The Baltimore Book – New views of Local History by Elizabeth Fee and Linda Shopes;Temple University Press; 1993
Commerce of Early American Waterways: The Transport of Goods by Arks, Rafts, etc; by Earl E. Brown
Encylopedia of African American History 1619 – 1895 by Paul Finkelman; Oxford University Press; 2006
Baltimore City Heritage Area Management Action Plan
Baltimore Immigration Memorial Found