Slice Of History Inspires A Dream

December 18, 1993|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,Staff Writer

When Ron Zimmerman drives toward Fort McHenry these days, he sees more than the rowhouses and corner bars that line East Fort Avenue in his South Baltimore neighborhood.

He sees a journey back to the turn of the century, when European immigrants stepped off boats at Locust Point near a Baltimore and Ohio Railroad warehouse -- which still stands near the entrance to Fort McHenry.

Mr. Zimmerman, a local real estate broker, wants to convert the mammoth warehouse into a museum honoring the immigrants, much like the Ellis Island Museum that opened in New York City three years ago.

Although the warehouse was not used to process immigrants, "it is the only building that was left from the immigrant era" when millions of Europeans landed on a pier at Locust Point between the end of the Civil War and World War I, said John P. Hankey, former chief curator of the B&O Museum.

The warehouse stored Maryland tobacco that was loaded onto the ships destined for Europe.

Mr. Zimmerman said he would like to build a theater and gift shops, and display photographs and artifacts in the building.

Although his dream is still in its infancy, Mr. Zimmerman has been in contact with community leaders, as well as city and state officials, asking for their support.

He also has contacted the old warehouse's owner, CSX Transportation of Jacksonville, Fla., about purchasing the building, which is covered with vines and surrounded by a chain-link fence and barbed wire.

After the new year, he plans to form a nonprofit corporation to be called the Ellis Island of Baltimore Foundation and begin raising funds.

"Can you see school kids coming down here?" he asks as he drives east on Fort Avenue. "What an approach. It's perfect. Look. It should be done to honor these people, and if we don't do it soon it's going to be gone," he said of the warehouse.

Mr. Zimmerman is worried that the empty warehouse might be sold or torn down before he has a chance to form a nonprofit organization that would raise funds to purchase the property.

A Baltimore native who has lived in South Baltimore for 50 years, he thinks the warehouse is in an ideal location for tourists because it is adjacent to Fort McHenry.

"I visualize it with photos, passports, old dishes. It will be just like going to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. Here, when you go to the Ellis Island of Baltimore, you can go to Fort McHenry, too."

"Water taxis can bring people there from Fells Point and the Inner Harbor," he said.

"Certainly, this is a good location," said Nancy Brennan, executive director of the Baltimore City Life Museums.

Ms. Brennan, who has had one conversation with Mr. Zimmerman about the museum, said, "His approach is very promising. On the pure basis of storytelling potential, it's a marvelous theme. But it will take a lot of hard work."

"It's a wonderful idea. It's also a very modern idea," said Mr. Hankey, noting museums around the country honoring blacks and American Indians.

Coincidentally, Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke recently endorsed a plan for a $15 million state-run museum devoted to black history and culture that would be to be built near the Inner Harbor.

State Sen. George W. Della Jr. described the proposal as "a great idea whose time has come. I think it's very doable. I'm just absolutely convinced it's doable. I think especially in light of the fact that it's coming from the community and Ron Zimmerman is reaching out to the business community."

"I think he has generated enough interest in this that once he pulls everyone together I think it's going to take off," said Mr. Della, a Democrat who represents South Baltimore and plans to help Mr. Zimmerman obtain state funds for the project.

Mr. Zimmerman's first hurdle is in purchasing the four-story warehouse, which sits on 8.7 acres owned by CSX.

The property is for sale. Kathy Burns, a CSX spokeswoman, said, "We have a number of parties interested in it, and Mr. Zimmerman is one of those."

In a Nov. 29 letter to Mr. Zimmerman, D. K. Hurley, regional manager of CSX Real Property, wrote that CSX would consider donating the warehouse but would charge $125,000 an acre for the land.

Mr. Zimmerman discovered the history of the warehouse by accident.

After visiting the Ellis Island Museum in New York several times, he learned that Locust Point was second only to New York as an entry point for Europeans arriving at the turn of the century.

Further research at the Maryland Historical Society revealed that immigrants were processed in the very community where Mr. Zimmerman has lived for 50 years.

"That's what really excited me. It's right here," he said.

Mr. Zimmerman and Mr. Della think it will be an easy task to collect memorabilia saved by families that came to Baltimore through Locust Point.

Virginia Buccheri of Baltimore County wrote to Mr. Zimmerman that she has saved her father's passport and papers from the steamship line.

"He was three weeks coming to America, was seasick the entire time and never expected to set foot on American soil," she wrote.

"But when he arrived up on deck and saw that there were green trees growing in Locust Point, he came ashore. He had been told that America was all flatland and no vegetation.

"He died in 1958 at the age of 89 years in the land he never expected to call home," she wrote.

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