Baltimore's original marketplace

December 01, 1993|By James M. Merritt

SURPRISINGLY, my old friend Joe Beckwith is heartily in favor of the announced plan to transform Market Place into an urban park beginning at Pratt Street and leading to a children's educational and entertainment complex from Water to Baltimore streets. I thought he would react as if he had heard an old house he had inhabited for many years was slated for demolition.

Joe is a retired produce merchant who operated in the old Marsh (Mash) Market at Market Place and Lombard streets from 1930 to 1960, when it moved to the 6400 block of Pulaski Highway. Its surviving dealers are now part of the giant food center in Jessup.

"However," Joe said, "I think the children should be told how for nearly 200 years Market Place served its purpose and became a vital part of our city and state's economy."

Joe explained that the original market opened for business in 1787. It was built on the bed of a dredged-out marsh 150 feet wide that ran from Baltimore Street to Water Street. This was actually an extension of Harrison Street but was named Market Place, and the market house became Center Market.

By the early 1800s Market Place had been lengthened to the waterfront at Pratt Street. Three blocks of wholesale houses opened along its east side, emitting the pleasant smells of roasting coffee, leaf tobacco and ship chandlery. The west side was lined with three-story dwellings with store fronts on the ground floor. In 1850 the City Council passed an ordinance permitting the construction of the Maryland Institute for the Mechanical Arts over the market house.

While this was going on, the Patapsco Neck section of Baltimore County and all of northern Anne Arundel County were becoming the largest truck gardens in the nation. Volume became so heavy at Market Place that, shortly after the Civil War, commission firms were established to handle the produce. Canneries sprouted along Fells Point's Boston Street and in South Baltimore. Their buyers, along with produce shippers, who loaded cars for Midwestern and Northern markets, and jobbers, who served the local retail trade, converged on Market Place in the early morning hours.

Then the Great Fire of 1904 devastated the area. The west side was rebuilt almost in replica, but the eastern flank experienced a total rebirth as the result of plans drawn by the Center Market Commission appointed by Mayor E. Clay Timanus in 1905. These brought into being the Marsh Market building and sheds at Lombard Street, the wholesale fish market at Water Street and the building for the Maryland Institute at Baltimore Street. Each extended a block eastward to West Falls Avenue.

In 1912 the mighty Chandler Building began to rise along the east side of the area from Pratt to Lombard Street. An industrial building 12 stories high, it covered a city block. It was completely autonomous down to the Coca-Cola logo on each brass doorknob.

In the late '30s, the old age and survivors division of the Social Security Administration moved into five floors of this building and began working around the clock. By this time the market had begun receiving shipments from all over. Imagine the congestion as the produce trailers and local farm trucks competed for parking on the streets surrounding the already filled market sheds as the midnight shift of Social Security workers arrived!

I reminded Joe that, while this story would be very interesting to the children, it would be nice if he could recall some events of historical significance that happened at Market Place.

"Well," he replied, "the old Maryland Institute was the scene of rump Democratic political conventions in 1860 and 1872 that nominated presidential losers. But these are only historical footnotes. Also, where was there a better spot than Market Place and Pratt Street for a mob to gather in April 1861 and cause the first bloodshed of the Civil War as it attacked Union troops heading for Washington? But that isn't a good story for present-day youngsters.

"We have to stick with what the space was laid out for. Here, about 1910, the long-awaited stringless bean began its first journey to the dinner tables of Baltimore and Maryland. From Anne Arundel county came the Big Joe strawberry, Long John cantaloupe (with the shape and size of a football), Maryland golden sweet potato, Baltimore County's famous pointed Wakefield cabbage, longleaf Savoy spinach and Country Gentleman sugar corn.

"If there is any doubt about the debut of these items at old Mash Market, I can vouch for round Copenhagen cabbage, Sugar Baby watermelons and round Edisto cantaloupes from Georgia and the Carolinas, because I introduced these produce lines to the Baltimore trade my own self. And now the kids will get a chance to learn something about their history."

James M. Merritt worked at the Mash Market, too. Now in his 80s, he writes from Baltimore.

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