City fires first shot in battle to preserve Civil War-era depot

August 14, 1991|By Edward Gunts

To the average Inner Harbor visitor, the odd-shaped building at Fleet and President streets probably seems like a derelict warehouse someone forget to tear down -- a remnant of the days when Baltimore's harbor traffic had more banana boats than water taxis.

Even among longtime Baltimore residents, relatively few may be aware that the small brick structure near the harbor's edge played a key role in the first dozen deaths of the Civil War.

But this summer, city officials have launched a restoration project that could lead to far better recognition for one of Baltimore's most tangible links to the Civil War era, the President Street train station.

It also will help ensure that the station will be around long enough for future generations to see it, while helping to frame a new entryway for the $350 million Inner Harbor East community that Gilbane Properties and Baltimore businessman John Paterakis are building nearby.

Earlier this month, work crews began a $92,000 project aimed at stabilizing the deteriorated exterior of the train station, which closed as a railroad terminal in the 1950s. The station has been in danger of collapse after being weakened by years of exposure to the elements.

After clearing out debris from the interior, including pieces of the roof, which began to cave in two years ago, the crews will brace and repair the brick walls, secure the windows and rebuild the roof truss and roof itself to prevent further deterioration.

The work is the first sign of restoration of the station since the Schmoke administration reached agreement with the Gilbane-Paterakis group more than a year ago on plans to develop nearly 20 acres between the Inner Harbor and Fells Point. The developers' plans call for a mix of offices, shops, restaurants, a marina and more than 800 residences over the next eight to 10 years.

The most significant event associated with the station was the riot a week after Confederate troops fired on Fort Sumter in South Carolina to mark the start of the Civil War.

Following that attack, President Lincoln called 75,000 Union troops to Washington to protect the capital. On the morning of April 19, 1861, the 700-man 6th Massachusetts Regiment arrived at the President Street Station, where 31 train cars were to be uncoupled and pulled by horses along Pratt Street to the Camden Station, where the troops were to continue their journey south.

But as they headed west from President Street Station to PrattStreet, the volunteer soldiers were confronted by an angry mob of stone-throwing Southern sympathizers, who attempted to prevent them from reaching Camden Station. At least nine civilians and three soldiers died in fighting that stretched along a mile-long section of Pratt Street -- the first casualties of the Civil War.

Today, a wreath hangs between two boarded windows in the station to commemorate the event.

Historians note that the Greek Revival structure is architecturally significant because it is the oldest surviving big-city train depot in the United States and one of the first public buildings to have an arched roof.

The work launched this summer represents the first phase of a three-step process needed to restore the station, said Jeff Middlebrooks, vice president in charge of development for Center City-Inner Harbor Development Inc., the quasi-public agency that monitors waterfront projects such as Inner Harbor East. "This is to stabilize the building, to give us time to design the next phases of interior rehabilitation and determine a use and users," he said.

Representatives of several local preservation groups, including Baltimore Heritage and the Baltimore Foundation for Architecture, said this week that they are pleased to see work finally get under way. But they remain concerned about how the building might be used.

"It's a wonderful building, and we're very happy that the city is taking steps to make sure it doesn't disappear," said David Gleason, president of the Baltimore Foundation for Architecture. "But once it's stabilized, what will the ultimate use be? Should it be a commercial use? Can the city support another museum there?"

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