Memorial to immigrants becomes a man's dream

JACQUES KELLY

February 15, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

Does Baltimore need to honor the thousands of European immigrants who first set foot on U.S. soil at Locust Point near Fort McHenry?

A 65-year-old South Baltimore real estate office owner thinks so. Just ask Ron Zimmerman. He wants to establish a historic shrine to honor the memory of the people who sailed from Bremen to Baltimore in search of a new beginning in this country.

"I have a gut feeling this will work because of the people who came through here," he says.

Zimmerman is not worried about money or feasibility studies or zoning laws. He sees this as a people's movement that will succeed because he feels it's the right thing.

He plans to talk up his project in South Baltimore through his business contacts and members in his many clubs, including the American Legion (Post 133), the Veterans of Foreign Wars (Post 3026), the Kiwanis Club of South Baltimore and the Allen Senior Citizens Center.

"I'm on the street a lot. I think I could talk this thing up. I don't think I'll get a backlash of people not wanting this," he says.

Zimmerman has his eye on an old railroad warehouse adjacent to a span over the CSX tracks east of Fort McHenry. He also would like to see if any of the actual immigrant pier still exists now that this part of the waterfront is operated by the Maryland Port Administration.

And Christ Evangelical and Reformed Church, whose congregation worships in a well-maintained building at Beason and Decatur streets, once ran an immigrant house alongside the church to help new arrivals become established here.

"I see whatever we do as a shrine, a place for people to bring their pictures and stories. What better way to honor your people? People want to honor their ancestors," he says.

He says he got the idea while he and his wife were visiting New York's Ellis Island, where thousands of names are memorialized. As part of the exhibit there, mention is made of Baltimore's role in immigration from Europe. After the Port of New York, Baltimore was the second largest point of disembarkation.

In short, we were the No. 2 Ellis Island. Our welcoming spot was somewhat more humble. It was a Baltimore and Ohio Railroad pier on the Locust Point waterfront not far from Fort McHenry. The principal steamship line to call here was the North German Lloyd, whose Baltimore service was operated in conjunction with the B&O.

Baltimore was the port of entry for some 600,000 European immigrants between 1868 and 1900. Some remained here; most put their feet down on dry land, saw that the streets were not paved with gold (more likely mud) and caught B&O trains to the Midwest's cities and farmlands.

The North German Lloyd Line's ships Braunschweig, Leipzig, Berlin, Baltimore, Bremen, Nurnberg and Ohio carried the human cargo on weekly crossings. When the ships made the return trip to Europe, they were often filled with Maryland and Virginia tobacco, a leaf that was popular with German smokers.

Thanks to the steamship line that called here, Germans were Baltimore's most numerous European-based group. From its earliest days as a settlement, Baltimore always had a German colony whose members had originally settled parts of Pennsylvania.

Many arrived during the late 18th and early 19th centuries, but a large population surge happened when Bismarck attempted to persecute Bavarian Catholics in the 1870s. About a quarter of the city's population once spoke German as its mother language. Several German newspapers flourished here while societies and singing clubs formed to keep Old World traditions alive.

Land hunger, low wages and insufficient industrial development and excessive taxation under Russia drove thousands of Poles to this country. Those who arrived at Locust Point often made their peace with immigration officials, then took a ferry boat across the harbor to the foot of Broadway, where many settled in Fells Point.

Russian and Polish Jews fled the czar and persecution as well. Many arrived in the last decades of the 19th century and also settled in East Baltimore, where an older German Jewish community had its synagogues.

The story of these peoples and their years in Baltimore is well preserved at the Jewish Heritage Center at Lloyd and Watson streets, not far from the main Post Office.

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