Traffic, wharves and Old Bay Line kept Pratt-Light corner bustling

January 23, 1995|By JACQUES KELLY

How soon we forget that the corner of Pratt and Light was once a traffic dogfight.

This was the corner that educated traffic cops in new adjectives and made the Union Stockyards' cattle pens seem like a nursing home's corridors.

Today, as in the past, so many city roads seem to lead to Pratt and Light. The reason is partially an accident of geography and partially the way the city makes its money.

The Northwest Branch of the Patapsco River juts into the commercial, most densely built-up portion of Baltimore where these two streets meet. And, in the 19th century and first third of the 20th, it was along these streets that passenger and freight steamship lines had their wharves and offices.

Pratt and Light offered everything from wholesale bushels of Worcester County peaches to steamship passage to Jacksonville, Fla., with connections to Havana.

It wasn't all maritime glamour. There was the smell of oakum and pitch and the occasional wharf rat.

Pratt Street was, and remains, a main east-west axis. Light Street has the same function in the opposite direction. Carts, wagons and trucks swarmed to these wharves like bees to a hive.

The streets had their own railway line, with a little steam engine that delivered rolls of news print to the old News American, spices to the McCormick plant and hopper cars full of scrap metal to commercial customers.

The intersection also possessed its own law. Podge McKeldin was the brother of Mayor Theodore R. McKeldin. The city built a little traffic kiosk for the loud, whistling, hand-waving and efficient Officer McKeldin. Years later, officials selected that same spot for a hideous, $4.5 million fountain in memory of the mayor. Officer McKeldin's traffic kiosk was built of some two-by-fours and probably cost the taxpayers about $23 in 1930 money.

Woe to the poor driver who fell victim to McKeldin's exploding barrage of screams, yells, whistles and highly expressive language. Podge was said to have disdained standard police department metal whistles. He claimed they weren't loud enough so he let out shrill, sharp blasts through his teeth. You could hear him on Lee Street. Today he'd be banned from Harborplace.

The corner of Pratt and Light was not what you would call pretty. Many of the 19th Century wharves burned in the 1904 fire and were replaced by routine 1905 commercial buildings four or five stories high.

Nearly all of Baltimore's heavy bulk tonnage came in by boat and was unloaded downriver at Locust Point or Canton. Pratt and Light got the passengers, the day trippers to the Chesapeake Bay resorts and towns, some lumber and Tidewater region produce.

The wharves themselves were just that, with wooden front buildings that were often gussied up with little towers and turrets. The Merchant and Miners terminal, Pratt and Commerce, was decorated with Norwegian sea dragons, the work of some expressive architect.

The most elaborate premises belonged to the Baltimore Steam Packet Co., better known as the Old Bay Line. The name of the steam packet night boat to Norfolk has not disappeared. It lends its name to the popular mix of spices used in steaming hard crabs and other seafood recipes.

It is ironic that for all the decades spice giant McCormick was located at the harbor, it had no product championing the Baltimore waterfront. It was only many years later that it bought the Old Bay name and rights.

The Old Bay Line had a wharf head house with a fancy, four-sided clock tower worthy of a church or private school. The departure place was as worthy as the good food and service on the Old Bay Line's steamers.

Pratt and Light streets were not exempt from the northeasters and hurricanes that hit the Atlantic seacoast. The city prudently raised the level of the sidewalks and streets when hTC redevelopment began here in the early 1970s. In the old days, it was not uncommon for the wind-whipped Patapsco to rise and flood the first floors of buildings.

When in August 1933 a hurricane hit Maryland (the storm that created Ocean City's inlet), the water rose eight feet at Pratt and Light. The cantaloupes were delivered by dinghy that day.

The wharves had outlived their usefulness by 1950. They were old and falling apart, so then-Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro Jr. ordered the Light Street piers razed. The Pratt Street set fell in the early 1970s, as a somewhat dubious Baltimore waited for a new harbor to be born. Many people thought that the promenades begun 25 years ago would become outdoor hotels for bums and smokehounds.

Now, as Harborplace approaches its 15th anniversary, the shops there sell nostalgic memorial photographs of the Old Bay Line's steamers and reproduction postcards of a more lusty era.

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