The Baltimore Experience 400 Years of History
Baltimore has been described as a sleepy southern town and a commercial-industrial center. Its many nicknames include “Charm City” and “Mob Town.” With cities to the south, it shares longstanding trade routes, a relaxed pace of life, and a history deeply informed by slavery, Jim Crow, and the cultural influence of a centuries-old African American population. With cities to the north, it shares a history of industrialization (and deindustrialization) along with the ethnic diversity that comes from being a major port of immigration.
In other words, Baltimore is a city of contradictions—contradictions that mirror those of the nation at large. As a border city Baltimore has reflected the dynamics of both the North and the South, while also holding fast to a special character all its own. Its waterfront, its industries, its neighborhoods, and its unique customs all evoke a strong sense of place, rooted in its history as the commercial hub of the Chesapeake Bay.
Baltimore’s prime location on the Chesapeake Bay was key to its emergence as an important American city. After a slow beginning, the city rose as a commercial center in the late 1700s, exporting grain and tobacco to the Caribbean and Europe while importing sugar and other foreign goods. At the bustling shipyards at Fell’s Point, free blacks, slaves, and white journeymen worked side by side—albeit sometimes uneasily—building the famous Baltimore clippers and other vessels that enabled trade during times of war as well as peace. During the War of 1812, the success of the clipper ships in defeating the British blockade, along with the ability of Baltimore’s diverse citizenry to mobilize against British attacks by land and sea, led the city to play a key role in winning America’s “second war of independence.”
As the nation’s farthest inland East Coast port, Baltimore was well situated to become a gateway to the west. In 1824 it became the terminus of the first transportation corridor to cross the Appalachian mountains, the National Road. Baltimore entrepreneurs chartered the nation’s first railroad, the Baltimore & Ohio. It began operations in 1830 and reached the Ohio River in 1852, proving a boon to the city’s increasingly vital harbor. The railroad linked Baltimore to the nation’s growing markets in a multitude of ways: carrying agricultural goods from the south and the west, transporting manufactured products from the north, and taking European immigrants into the American interior.
While the nation became more polarized in the years before the Civil War, the North and the South intermingled in Baltimore. The booming city’s commercial and industrial activity was carried out by a multicultural workforce of native born whites and immigrants, slaves and free blacks—in fact, the largest population of free blacks of any American city. But even as diverse Baltimoreans cooperated in building up their lively port city, conflict sometimes flared. Anti-Catholic riots erupted in the 1830s and 1840s in response to an influx of Irish and German Catholics. As sectional tensions rose, pro-slavery mobs attacked local abolitionists. The first bloodshed of the Civil War occurred on city streets when Confederate sympathizers clashed with Union soldiers en route to Washington, D.C.
After the Civil War, Baltimore continued to be a place of convergence and occasional conflict: an ethnically diverse, industrial, East Coast seaport with a recognizably southern disposition. Newcomers from the surrounding region as well as from overseas found opportunity in the shipyards, canneries, garment factories, and steel mills. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the city’s immigration terminal at Locust Point expanded and a flood of immigrants arrived from Eastern and Southern Europe. The city become an even more diverse mosaic of cultures, with the new arrivals settling in ethnic neighborhoods that reflected their old world customs, religious institutions, and foods. Yet the pace of life remained slower than other industrial cities, and the city retained a small-town feel—giving rise to a third nickname, “Smalltimore.”
Baltimore faced the challenges of the 20th century head on. The city’s black residents fought for full equality and, with white allies, succeeded in overturning local Jim Crow laws, integrating city schools and public places, and winning other civil rights victories. Preservationists and neighborhood activists partially defeated a massive highway plan, saving Fell’s Point and other historic neighborhoods from destruction. Civic leaders fought urban decline with the ambitious Charles Center development in the 1960s and led the nation in waterfront revitalization with the development of the Inner Harbor in the 1970s and 1980s. With the decline of manufacturing in recent decades, the city built on institutions such as Johns Hopkins University and Hospital to reinvent itself as a center for healthcare, education, and the arts.
Baltimore’s heritage continues to be reflected in the built environment: in its traditional rowhouse neighborhoods, its parks and cemeteries, its museums, and historic homes. Along the waterfront, longstanding industries mix with new residential, retail, and entertainment complexes. Some are housed in repurposed industrial buildings, others—most notably Oriole Park at Camden Yards—feature a mix of old and new. Back in the 19th century, Baltimore earned yet another nickname, “The Monumental City,” for civic memorials such as the Washington Monument in Mount Vernon Square. Today, its historic structures serve as monumental reminders of a rich past.