Before the opening of a certain Interstate 95 ramp, it used to be one of Baltimore's most traveled avenues. It was a route that often was heavily bunched with breathless tourists on their way to one of the most historic sites in the area. No, it isn't any Inner Harbor thoroughfare. To get there you must go south from the harbor, not west, as Horace Greeley advised.
Fort Avenue rides from west to east along the Whetstone peninsula, dividing residential South Baltimore from industrial Locust Point. The real attraction of the avenue comes at its eastern end: the 215-year-old, elaborately tended national monument of Fort McHenry, scene of the bombardment of 1814 and the "Star-Spangled Banner's" unfurling.
About 500,000 people visit the fort every year. And until recently, when access was gained from I-95 ramps, they made the trek down historic Fort Avenue to get there. It was at the end of Fort Avenue, at the fort's gate, that the city and state learned in 1861 that Lincoln and the military had no intention of accepting habeas corpus orders from federal judges or Maryland authorities trying to free prisoners held without charges -- a violation of the Bill of Rights.
And at the close of World War I tens of thousands of casualties were carried over the road to a government hospital that spread over the fort's acreage.
But Fort Avenue, which dates to 1776 or thereabouts, has other history, too, unrelated to its heroic role in the nation's wars. Take the late 1950s, for instance. The avenue's most essential structure then was a hoary railroad bridge originally put up in 1870. The span's 620 feet lifted Fort McHenry's year-round traffic about 15 feet above 41 railroad tracks in Locust Point.
In late 1957, the Rev. Frederick J. Hanna, of the Chapel of the Redemption, Locust Point, looked out at the bridge and started getting angry. It had now deteriorated to the point where it was unsafe, he said. "If a busload of children goes through the bridge, will the deaths be less tragic because the children are not from Baltimore?" he asked.
Nothing was done immediately, as usual in this town. In mid-1957, a derailed freight car had struck the underpinning of part of a span and it had collapsed. The bridge was closed temporarily and the break repaired. But there were reports after it was reopened that freight trains were moving under the bridge with six inches of clearance on a side. The top clearance under the bridge was no better for railroaders. "Workers have orders not to ride on top of cars passing under the bridge," the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad announced.
By 1959, even the Baltimore Transit Co. was scared and canceled bus service to the fort.
Shortly afterward, the repair work began. The cost of fixing the span and setting up a long detour to the fort was about $1 million. With the work under way, things were tough for planners of the fort's ceremony welcoming Hawaii to statehood and for those trying to get there to see the salute, which included the unfurling of the 50-star flag for the first time in the nation.
A few days before Christmas in 1960, the span -- a much-improved roadway now 36 feet wide -- was ready for business, but the approaching roadwork was not ready until early 1961.
With the completion of the I-95 bridges and ramps, Fort McHenry and historic Fort Avenue have become much more accessible to its traditional visitors -- those busloads of youngsters arriving for "Defenders' Day" ceremonies in September and a glimpse of the rocket's red glare and the bombs bursting in air.