NOT EVERY immigrant coming to America sailed past the Statue of Liberty. For many Europeans making the voyage in the 18th and 19th centuries, coming to America meant landing in or near Fell's Point in Baltimore.
But that city's role in "the peopling of America" is not widely known, says immigration historian Melanie Shell-Weiss. So the Baltimore Immigration Project, a group of interested citizens, business people and academics, is trying to "correct this hole in the story," according to Shell-Weiss, a postdoctoral fellow at the Johns Hopkins University.
One of its first efforts to publicize Baltimore's historic role is an immigration walking tour of Fell's Point, a joint project that the group developed with the Fell's Point Preservation Society. My husband and I, with our three daughters, ages 5, 7 and 9, took the two-hour tour last month and spent a delightful day walking, eating, shopping and water-taxiing around Fell's Point and the Inner Harbor. The tour may have been a bit too advanced for my younger girls, but they enjoyed walking around and hearing the personal stories. My 9-year-old understood the subject matter much better, and most children 10 and older will probably have studied some form of immigration and can put the facts in even greater context.
Tours are led by either a historian or costumed "historic figure." Our tour guide, Denise Whitman, an antiques storeowner and associate director of the Preservation Society, took on the accent and corset of Bridget O'Malley, an Irish indentured servant from the 1770s. While much of the historical information that she explained was beyond my daughters' understanding, she did an admirable job of drawing them in with props and vignettes they could relate to. The first thing Bridget did was hand us all freshly cut leaves of apple mint, horehound and lemon balm herbs from the Preservation Society's Colonial garden. She explained that many of the immigrants came in steerage class, under horrible conditions, so they didn't smell too good. The girls sniffed their herbs throughout the walk. Bridget explained that the land now called Fell's Point was actually purchased by shipbuilder William Fell from Lord Baltimore about 1730. Several street names in the neighborhood, including Ann, Aliceanna and Bond, were named after members of the Fell family.
Since the buildings on the tour are not in chronological order, the snippets of history Bridget presented came across a bit jumbled. A useful immigration timeline from the Baltimore Immigration Project's Web site (www.immigrationbaltimore.org) helped put it all in perspective for me afterward.
According to the Baltimore Immigration Project, more than 2 million immigrants landed in Baltimore from 1754 through the outbreak of World War I. Most came from Germany, Ireland and Eastern Europe. Since there was no direct steamship service from Mediterranean ports, most Southern Europeans came to Baltimore via other American cities.
As we walked along Thames Street near the water, she noted that the cobbled stones on the streets have a slightly greenish cast. The streets of Fell's Point were not paved with gold, as some gullible immigrants may have believed, but with Belgian block, she explained. The rock was carried over as ballast on big sailing ships, then off-loaded and sold before the return trip.
As a shipbuilding region, the boisterous neighborhood boasted as many as 28 different ship works. It was here in Fell's Point that the sleek, fast Clipper ship was developed. Known as the Baltimore Clipper, it was used extensively during the War of 1812 to raid British ships. Ship captains proudly carried their letters of marque, which gave them permission to loot and plunder English ships for profit. Bridget took on a more serious tone when she explained the fast clippers were also "outfitted for the more unsavory trade of human slaves." As we walked through a courtyard at the base of Broadway Street, she pointed out where enslaved Africans were auctioned as they came off the boats. According to Shell-Weiss, the Baltimore Immigration Project plans to erect a statue here to honor the slaves, victims of forced immigration.
Earlier on Fell Street, Bridget said that abolitionist Frederick Douglass had escaped slavery from a house on this block. Disguised as a sailor, he boarded a train to Philadelphia and freedom. Douglass was born on Maryland's Eastern Shore and had been brought by his owner to Fell's Point to work as a ship caulker. After the Civil War, he returned to Fell's Point and built affordable houses for free blacks; the buildings still stand today on Dallas Street.
At the tip of Fell Street is Henderson's Wharf, a tobacco and coffee warehouse built in the 1890s that now houses luxury condominiums and a hotel. The letters B & O can still be seen on the side, as the warehouse serviced the Baltimore & Ohio railway, which played a significant role in bringing immigrants to Baltimore and transporting them west.
My daughters were particularly interested in Recreation Pier, which the city constructed in 1916 as a play space for neighborhood children, including immigrant children, who were playing under dangerous conditions in the streets. Now vacant, Recreation Pier was used as a filming location for the popular mid-'90s television series "Homicide."
Bridget also pointed out McCann's oyster canning factory, which now houses several restaurants and retail stores. She explained that after shipbuilding died down in the 1840s, canning became a major industry in Fell's Point until the 1950s and 1960s.
"This neighborhood has always offered two things that attract immigrants: jobs and housing," Bridget said.
We observed how history is repeating itself as the neighborhood caters to the next wave of immigrants. Signs were written in English and Spanish, a former public library has been converted into an education-based Latino Outreach Center, Salvadoran pupusas (fried, filled dumplings) were sold next to bagels at the Broadway Market Cafe. A group of Hispanic men gathered and chatted at a coffee stand.
"The story of immigration does not end," said Bridget as she pointed out evidence of the newest arrivals.
FELL'S POINT IMMIGRATION TOUR -- Takes place the first, third and fifth Saturdays of the month (mid-April through October) from noon to 2. Departs from the Fell's Point Visitor Center, 808 S. Ann St., Baltimore. Tickets are $12 per adult, $6 per child under 12. The Fell's Point Preservation Society also offers other walking tours, including an evening Ghost Walk and a Maritime History tour. Call 410-675-6750 or visit the Web site www.preservationsociety.com.