Pratt and Light: A Look Back

JACQUES KELLY'S BALTIMORE

April 28, 1996|By JACQUES KELLY

All it takes is some sunshine and temperatures in the 70s and it seems that half the state of Maryland is strolling around what we now call the Inner Harbor. How soon we forget that the corner of Pratt and Light streets was once a traffic dogfight.

This was the intersection where traffic cops used words and adjectives we can't print here. This was as they directed horse-drawn wagons, trucks, streetcars, pushcarts and the occasional foolish pedestrian.

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 this longtime commerce center of Baltimore. And in the 19th century and well into this one, 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.

Pratt Street was, and remains, a main east-west axis. Light Street, of course, is a north-south route. Carts, wagons and trucks congregated at these wharves like drones working a beehive.

The streets had their own railway line years ago, with a little steam engine heading a string of freight cars that delivered rolls of Canadian newsprint to the old News American plant, spices to the McCormick plant and hoppers full of scrap metal to commercial customers. Look at this area today and you'll see a machine for tourism. Some 50 years ago, it was a working neighborhood, where coffee got roasted and metal parts were ** cast.

Back then, the intersection of Pratt and Light had its own traffic sheriff. He was named Podge McKeldin and he happened to be the brother of Baltimore's Mayor Theodore R. McKeldin. The city built a little traffic kiosk for the loud, whistling, hand-waving and efficient Office McKeldin. Years later, officials selected that same spot for a hideous fountain in memory of the mayor.

Woe to the poor driver who fell victim to McKeldin's barrage of screams, 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 blocks away on Lee Street.

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 in 1905 by routine commercial buildings, often faced in corrugated metal.

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

The wharves themselves were nothing fancy. There were wooden-front buildings that were often gussied up with little towers and turrets.

The most elaborate premises belonged to the Baltimore Steam Packet Co., a shipping firm better known as the Old Bay Line. The name of the company with the famed night ship to Norfolk, Va., has not disappeared from around here. It has long been on the package of the locally produced and very popular spice mix used in steaming hard crabs and preparing other seafood recipes. The Old Bay name and production rights are now owned by the spice giant McCormick, a former longtime resident of the waterfront.

The Old Bay Line had a wharf head house with a fancy, four-sided clock tower worthy of a church or private school. This departure place was as nice as the 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 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 along these streets.

When a hurricane hit Maryland on Aug. 23, 1933, the water rose to 8 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. Then-Mayor Thomas J. D'Alesandro ordered the Light Street piers taken down. 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 smoke hounds.

This summer, as they have done for sometime now, the shops on the promenades will sell to tourists nostalgic photographs of the Old Bay Line's steamers, and reproduction postcards of a more lusty era around Pratt and Light.

Pub Date: 4/28/96

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