Field Trip

The Driving Forces Behind Maritime Park

A hands-on display captures the attention of Ayla Boykin, 8, and brother Eiljah, 10, at Baltimore's Frederick Douglass -- Isaac Myers Maritime Park and museum, which opened in June.
A hands-on display captures the attention of Ayla Boykin, 8, and brother Eiljah, 10, at Baltimore's Frederick Douglass -- Isaac Myers Maritime Park and museum, which opened in June. (By Robert A. Reeder -- The Washington Post)
By Amy Brecount White
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, October 27, 2006

The first thing that catches your eye as you walk along the Fells Point promenade in Baltimore toward the new Frederick Douglass--Isaac Myers Maritime Park is a set of strange railroad tracks. On a sweltering August day, the ducks loitering there were unfazed that the tracks led straight into the Inner Harbor.

Turns out, they're supposed to. These partly submerged tracks replicate those used by the Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Co. to haul ships in need of repair out of the water. The largely unknown but inspirational story of the company, founded against the odds in 1868 by 15 African American entrepreneurs, is the main focus of the park and on-site museum.

"There are many, many stories recounting Baltimore's history that just haven't been told," Dianne Swann-Wright, curator of the park, said in a phone interview. "This museum enriches people's lives by helping them understand what happened before that really shaped who they are today."

Most visitors are acquainted with Douglass's accomplishments, but the museum, which opened in June, focuses on scenes and stories from his early life. Douglass, who was a mentor and inspiration to many black entrepreneurs, especially Myers, spent many of his early years as a slave near the site of the maritime park. The lesser-known Myers was an important figure in Baltimore history and was one of the founders and the driving force behind the company, which was the first black-owned marine railway and shipyard in the United States. An 11-minute orientation video features alternating first-person narrators outlining the lives of both men.

The two brick buildings that house the museum and classrooms are partly reconstructed from a historic warehouse once called the Sugar House and joined by an elevated walkway. Large windows offer commanding views of the waterfront from every room. Our docent, Jordan Fortson, pointed out where Douglass and Myers lived and worked.

"This area of Baltimore was really a huge slave market in the 1830s," Fortson said. "I think about how Frederick Douglass walked around and watched all this."

Such nautical props as stacks of coiled rope, stuffed burlap bags and tools of the shipbuilder's trade are scattered throughout the museum to aid the visitor's imagination. One exhibit shows how a tree trunk is cut and shaped into a mast. Several interactive stations encourage visitors to try their hand at various maritime activities, such as sitting in a swing similar to those that hauled workers up to repair torn sails. My 11-year-old son enjoyed using a mallet to pound simulated oakum, a tar-like substance once used to caulk between ships' timbers. A small diorama nearby with a pulley shows how boats were hoisted out of the water via the railway tracks.

"The workers had to be brave, too," Fortson said. "The ships would come in from all over the world, and you never knew what would be in the hull -- sometimes rats and snakes."

In another part of the museum, murals and re-created scenes let visitors walk in the footsteps of Myers and Douglass. In one display, visitors sit in a railcar while the simulated voice of Douglass tells the harrowing story of his escape north from slavery. Douglass partly credited his escape to "his knowledge of ships and sailors' talk." He had phony seaman's papers and could play the part. (Douglass was trained as a caulker.) Although he was a free man, Myers also had firsthand experience of prejudice, yet the exhibits make it clear that Myers continued to fight for improved relations between races.

The walls of the large Founders Room are graced with portraits of the original 15 members of the company, including Myers. Below their likenesses are photos of contemporary teenagers who are role models in their own communities. The Living Classrooms Foundation, which spearheaded the development of the park, also is planning interactive displays of shipbuilding and ship-repair activities, using replicas of historic ships.

In addition to telling untold stories, the maritime park seeks to inspire visitors to make the stories of their own lives worth the telling. Most people think of heroes as "ready-made adults," Swann-Wright said. "There's something to be said for showing how Douglass got to be who he was."

FREDERICK DOUGLASS--ISAAC MYERS MARITIME PARK 1417 Thames St., Baltimore. 410-685-0295. Open 10 to 5 Monday-Thursday and 11 to 6 Saturday and Sunday. $5 adults, $4 ages 6 to 12, free for 5 and younger; free through November. Tours daily at 10 and 2.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company