Face lift for Federal Hill

April 30, 1992

Excavators have begun a $900,000 reconstruction of Federal Hill. It is feared that without a new drainage system and other improvements, the steep slope overlooking the Inner Harbor might slide onto Key Highway, 50 feet below.

This is an uplifting project. Federal Hill deserves it. Fort McHenry may have repulsed the British attackers but Federal Hill has repulsed Americans. During the Civil War federal troops mounted cannon on the hill facing the city to intimidate the many confederate supporters here.

A natural hill once mined for its clay and sand, Federal Hill got its name when Baltimoreans threw an enormous party there to celebrate the state's ratification of the U.S. Constitution. A signal observatory to identify incoming vessels in the 18th Century, Federal Hill was a military redoubt during the War of 1812. Because of its proximity to the Inner Harbor, it was a center of maritime trade.

In 1859, Dr. Thomas Buckler, hired to analyze an epidemic at the city's almshouse, proposed shoveling Federal Hill into the Inner Harbor. He hired Benjamin Latrobe Jr. to plan the operation, which would reduce Federal Hill's "inconvenient height." Otherwise, Mr. Latrobe argued, the hill would continue as "an unhealthy looking tumour upon the lower limb of the city, covered with mean dwellings and unsavoury manufactories."

"There was widespread agreement on the inconvenience of the Inner Harbor, but the project was blocked" because the city simply could not afford it, according to historian Sherry H. Olson. Informed about that decision, Dr. Buckler condemned city fathers as "the most silly, unreflective, procrastinating, impracticable and perverse congregation of bipeds to be found anywhere under the sun."

Given a reprieve, Federal Hill was made into a municipal park. It was shored up. Greenery was planted on it. But a hundred years later, it became threatened again.

In the 1960s, highway planners started talking about cutting an expressway through Leakin Park to Federal Hill, constructing a bridge across the Inner Harbor and leveling much of Fells Point and Canton for the roadbed. A protracted battle ensued with civic groups. In the end, the road builders capitulated and an interstate highway dead-ended in the city.

Yes, Federal Hill is a survivor. Now that skyscrapers are being built on the opposite shore, it is an unequaled place for reflecting on Baltimore, its beginnings and future.

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