Baltimore's crumbling link to Civil War stands ignored

October 01, 1990|By Michael Ollove

It stands in isolation on the edge of Little Italy, forlorn and bruised.

Its roof has collapsed inward. Great scars lacerate its brick face. Chest-high weeds and a dilapidated chain-link fence wrap around it. The only suggestion that this is no ordinary derelict of a building is a wreath hung between two of its boarded windows in April by those who remember the significance of this place.

The crumbling heap of bricks is what is left of the President Street Station.

One hundred twenty-nine years ago, the arrival of Northern troops there sparked a bloody riot in Baltimore that claimed the first lives in the Civil War. The dying would not end for four more years.

With the possible exception of Fort McHenry, which housed Confederate prisoners-of-war, the President Street Station is Baltimore's most tangible link to its part in the Civil War.

Yet, until now, Baltimore -- usually so assiduous about commemorating its past -- has done nothing to preserve that piece of history.

The city, which owns the building, has never placed a marker on the depot to identify it or its historical importance.

It has never nominated it for designation on the National Register of Historic Places, though preservationists say it would qualify. It has not numbered it among its 106 historic landmarks.

And, until recently, the city had taken no steps to assure that the 150-year old building did not simply fall down and disappear forever.

"It seems as though the city has just had a policy of non-intervention," said John Cimino, a Civil War buff and a founder member of the Friends of the President Street Station, which hosts a ceremony at the depot every April.

"They let it go for years and years and years. They only thing left now is a shell." Now, with the depot nearly in ruins, the city is taking its first steps to save it.

On the corner of President and Fleet streets, the depot stands at the edge of a planned $350 million development of Inner Harbor East.

The city has prevailed upon the developer of that project -- John Paterakis, owner of H&S Bakery, and his partner, Gilbane Properties Inc. of Providence, R.I. -- to add $95,000 to a $50,000 grant from the Maryland Historic Trust.

The money will be used to put a new roof on the depot and to "stabilize" its exterior walls.

Officials at Center City Development, which is overseeing the Inner Harbor East project for the city, acknowledge that the money is half of what is needed to make the building safe for occupation and only a fraction of what it would take to restore it to its original condition.

The money, they say, is merely intended to make sure the building survives.

"To do more than that isn't economically feasible for the city," said Leslie Howard, a development officer with Center City. "It's been hard enough to find seed money to get started. We don't anticipate finding money for full restoration."

Civil War and railroad enthusiasts would like to see a full restoration that would transform the depot into a museum, one that would retell the story of the riots and their ramifications for the city.

Soon after the fighting, Abraham Lincoln, fearful that Baltimore's sympathies would give the Confederacy a toehold north of Washington, sent federal troops into the city and placed Baltimore under martial law, which was not lifted until the end of the war.

The riot, in which Northern troops fired on a pro-Southern crowd, also inspired a Baltimore native named James Ryder Randall, then teaching in New Orleans, to write an anti-Union song that called on Marylanders to "avenge the patriotic gore that flecked the streets of Baltimore."

Called "Maryland, My Maryland," it became the state song.

The riot occurred a week after Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter, marking the start of the Civil War. Two days later and before any loss of life, the Union commander surrendered the fort.

As a result of the attack on Fort Sumter, Lincoln requested volunteer troops to gather in Washington.

The first to answer his call was the 700-man 6th Massachusetts )) Regiment, which, with a full band and regimental staff, left Boston for Washington on April 17, 1861. In Boston and New York and Philadelphia, the soldiers were cheered by large, pro-Union crowds. As they neared Baltimore, sharply divided in its loyalties, the troops were warned to expect a different reception.

The 31 coaches of the Philadelphia Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad pulled into the President Street Station around 10:30 a.m. on April 19. There the cars were to be uncoupled and pulled by horses along Pratt Street to the Camden Station where they would continue south.

But an angry crowd numbering in the hundreds, carrying Confederate flags and chanting Jefferson Davis' name, was at the station to meet the soldiers. They blocked their path and tore up part of the track along Pratt Street. Then they began heaving stones at the troops.

A shot was fired -- by whom remains clouded. The soldiers fired their muskets into the crowd.

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