Old names resurrected from original city tracts

July 14, 1994|By JACQUES KELLY

How many Baltimoreans know they live in Lunn's Lot? Or Bold Venture? Cole's Harbour? Timberneck? David's Fancy? Copus Harbor? Upton Court? Philpot's Addition?

These are 300-year-old land patent names for tracts in the heart of Baltimore, parcels fought over and speculated on by wealthy merchants and grand gentlemen.

Today's Locust Point was once Upton Court, although virtually no one had settled in this part of South Baltimore in 1668.

And even the most expansive real estate agent would be hard pressed today to give the name Timberneck to the southern end of Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

Garrett Power, a University of Maryland law school professor, has given back the names to Baltimore's earliest districts in a new 46-page booklet, "Parceling Out Land in Baltimore 1632-1796." It sells for $5 at the Maryland Historical Society.

Professor Power, 56, who grew up in Monkton and now lives in Roland Park, calls himself an amateur historian, but he is only being modest. This is a painstaking study of land ownership in a Baltimore that had not yet become incorporated into a city.

And yet, the Baltimore of the 1790s had parallels to the Baltimore of the 1990s. Everyone seemed to want a piece of the real estate action in the harbor area.

Back then, however, the merchants and real estate bigwigs were filling in the wetlands and marshes along the Patapsco River for building lots and wharves.

Even South Charles Street got wet at high tide. The area was under water at what today would be the Inner Harbor Sheraton Hotel. By 1786 this part of the street was made fast land.

Local law said that if you owned the land fronting on the Patapsco, you had the right to fill it in or build a wharf.

One of the more celebrated land fights pitted silversmith, money lender and landowner Christopher Hughes (he got a small South Baltimore street named for him) against a carpenter-architect-engineer named Leonard Harbaugh. The battle was over a parcel near what today would be the Rusty Scupper Restaurant at the eastern edge of Rash Field at the base of Federal Hill.

Harbaugh had leased marsh land from Hughes at a rent of 200 pounds a year. The carpenter planned to fill up the soggy area and build a wharf, then fill in more marshland for building lots.

But the 1780s were a foreshadow of the late 1980s -- in both eras, real estate took a tumble. In 1783, there was a real estate crash after a slump in demand for goods after the end of the Revolutionary War.

Harbaugh lost all of his investment -- he used tree stumps as piling to reclaim marshlands -- but not before he called Hughes a "crocodile" and made fun of his weight in Baltimore's principal newspaper, the Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertizer. Harbaugh fled from the town and his major creditor.

Very early on, Baltimore merchants invested in land and the curious practice of creating ground rents.

"Ground rents were attractive to buyers in an era when money and credit were in short supply because they reduced the capital necessary for the purchase of land . . . ," Mr. Power writes in his study.

At the same time, ground rents were a good passive investment for a merchant who had lost his nerve in the arena of volatile active trading.

"They were like buying government bonds with a fixed rate of return," Mr. Power says.

And if we think the recent scheme to construct a canal-like series of pools in front of the Brokerage in Market Place is new, think again.

Cumberland Dugan and Thomas McElderry did it in 1795. The project was modeled after the wharves in Liverpool, England.

They built a pair of long and wide piers due south of the Fish Market and Brokerage buildings. Between these was their canal. Three-story brick warehouses faced this long rectangle of water.

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