Historic site is on track to a revival Museum: Planners say $1 million project will transform the decrepit, 146-year-old President Street Station into a tourist attraction by next year.

July 07, 1996|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,SUN STAFF

Long before the vagrants took up residence, before the roof caved in, before the fires turned it into a charred shell, the President Street Station earned its place in history.

Abraham Lincoln sneaked through the station in the middle of the night, to avoid Southern sympathizers as he headed to Washington on the eve of his inauguration.

Slaves -- wearing disguises, carrying fake papers, even traveling in crates -- boarded trains to freedom at one of the few Underground Railroad stops that really was a railroad.

Union troops, just after arriving at the station in 1861, marched along Pratt Street -- and the ensuing riot led to the first casualties of the Civil War.

Now, after more than two decades of doubts about its fate, America's oldest surviving big-city railroad depot is about to become a museum chronicling its rich heritage. Construction workers just began preliminary restoration work, while exhibit designers have started sketching visions for the depot, near President and Fleet streets.

By early next year, museum leaders say the estimated $1 million project will transform the decrepit, 146-year-old building into a newly refurbished President Street Station.

The attraction will feature exhibits on Civil War-era Baltimore, the Pratt Street riot, the Underground Railroad and the station's role in the city's transportation history.

It's been a long time coming for the group of die-hards who have lobbied for the project for years but encountered repeated delays in part because of higher-than-anticipated cost projections. The bulk of the museum's cost will be shared by the state, which awarded a $495,000 grant in 1992, and the city, with the remainder coming from the private sector.

On a sultry summer afternoon, Shawn Cunningham, the museum's director, stood outside the brick shell and journeyed through the ages, if only in his mind. Soon, he promised, this place will give visitors chills.

"The building as it stands right now is really just a shadow of what it once was," he said. "But when you really begin to understand what happened there and the significance of what happened there, I don't think you can help but be moved. When people see this taking on its earlier shape and really see what a beautiful and historic building it is, I think they'll feel it too."

The museum, which will serve as the architectural gateway to the planned $350 million Inner Harbor East waterfront community, is expected to draw about 100,000 visitors in its first year, Cunningham says. Thousands of school children from throughout the state will attend the museum each year for the sort of history lessons they can't get in a classroom, he predicts.

Preliminary exhibit plans call for a diorama featuring a lithograph that depicts the Pratt Street riot, with life-like figures of soldiers and rioters in front of it. The April 19, 1861, melee began after members of the 6th Massachusetts Regiment arrived at the station. As they marched up Pratt Street toward Camden Station, an angry mob of Southern sympathizers pelted them with stones, leading to the bloody clash that killed at least nine civilians and three soldiers.

Pictures, text, Civil War-era relics and armaments, recorded narrative, museum staffers and sound effects pumped through speakers will tell the story of the riot, the Underground Railroad, a city and a nation divided, a time when troops occupied the city, loyalties ran deep and fierce, tempers short.

Lincoln, the station's most famous passenger, came through in the dead of night from Pennsylvania on the eve of his inauguration to avoid mobs of Southern sympathizers. After his arrival, his rail car was unhitched and taken by horse to Camden Station, where he caught a train to Washington.

To Stanton Collins, head of Friends of President Street Station, the group that formed in 1988 to save the station, says the little brick building's history represents a story that is at once uniquely Baltimore and, in microcosm, the story of the country in its darkest hours.

"The way that this building reflected what was going on in America, the direction of the whole country was unfolding right here on Pratt Street," he said. "This story needs to be told. It's important not to forget that."

He tells the story often, along with the other 300 members of the Civil War Roundtable, which leads walking and bus tours detailing Baltimore's history during the war between the states.

Collins hopes to offer the tours to museum visitors -- and expects no shortage of volunteers to lead them.

The two-story, Greek Revival building, acquired by the city in the 1970s, had served as the main building and the waiting area for the station, one of Baltimore's busiest passenger terminals until the 1870s.

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