Baltimore celebrates maritime history Port Baltimore: Portfest celebrates two centuries of the harbor's contribution to the city's history and achievements.

Up Front

October 16, 1997|By Karin Remesch | Karin Remesch,CONTRIBUTING WRITER

Imagine standing on a wharf at Lombard Street overlooking the harbor. That's just what folks did in the early 18th century, when Baltimore's port stretched a few blocks north of where it is now -- all the way to Water Street.

You'll be able to retrace the harbor's former edges and discover the city's rich maritime history during walking tours and a variety of other activities offered this weekend as part of Portfest, an annual harbor celebration.

"Today Pratt Street is the harbor's edge and few people realize that the street's high risers are actually the curtain behind which is a stage to Baltimore 200 years ago," says Jamie Hunt, organizer and leader of the Portfest walking tours. "Boats from around the world docked beyond Pratt Street and merchants kept shop on wharfs."

This year, Portfest joins Baltimore's bicentennial celebration by focusing on the productivity and historical significance of the Port of Baltimore over the past 200 years.

"Education through entertainment is the theme," explains Laura McCall, executive director of Sail Baltimore, the city's official committee for visiting ships and maritime events and organizer of this weekend's festivities.

Whether it's a tour of the harbor on foot or by boat, boarding a visiting vessel for a sailor's view, or sampling the bounty of the bay at area restaurants, Portfest '97 is an entertaining learning experience for the entire family, McCall adds.

For landlubbers ready to discover the harbor on foot, Hunt will start his free walking tour at noon and 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday on the harbor promenade at the World Trade Center -- "next to the Exodus 1947 memorial that commemorates the President Warfield, a Baltimore steamship that was converted to transport concentration camp survivors from Germany to Israel at the end of World War II," says Hunt, who at 34 is quite a city historian.

Hunt will take a few moments to talk about the history of the port, which was founded in 1706, predating the city by 23 years. He'll also point across the water to Federal Hill, which was first described by Capt. John Smith in 1608.

He will then lead his group through the Pratt Street Pavilion -- designed to evoke turn-of-the-century steamship terminals -- to the Gallery at Harborplace. He'll proceed to Lombard Street for a stop at a plaque commemorating Cheapside Wharf, named in the 18th century after London's Cheapside district.

"We'll continue a half block up Cheapside Street to Water Street, the original edge of the harbor when the city was founded in 1729," explains Hunt, executive director of the Mount Vernon Cultural District.

Other stops on the tour include the Custom House on Gay Street, one of a few survivors in the area of the city's Great Fire of 1904.

The group will continue to the Fish Market, soon to become the Port Discovery's Children's Museum.

"The Fish Market has a plaque noting that this was where the Great Fire was halted by the Jones Falls and the harbor, sparing Little Italy and East Baltimore from destruction," says Hunt.

Walkers will pass the Flag House where Mary Pickersgill sewed the 30-by-42-foot flag that inspired Francis Scott Key to write "The Star-Spangled Banner."

"Another stop on the tour is the Sewerage Pumping Station and Public Works Museum -- for generations the recipient of untreated sewage," says Hunt. "Thanks to the Great Fire, the city was able to install a more modern system that uses gravity to bring waste here, and then it is pumped out to the Back River treatment plant in eastern Baltimore County."

The tour also passes the President Street Station Civil War Museum, the Columbus Center, the 7-foot Knoll Lighthouse, the Power Plant and the National Aquarium.

"The 90-minute tour is an easy walk on level ground, suited for everyone -- the physically fit, seniors and those pushing baby strollers," says Hunt. "And we're never more than three blocks from the World Trade Center, so people can bail out at any time and return to the starting point."

By taking tourists on a walk through the more intimate streets along the harbor's edge, Hunt says, he hopes to acquaint them with Baltimore's past and whet their appetite for things to come.

Mary Sue McCarthy, co-chairwoman of the Portfest committee, adds: "We believe in the city and care about it and are always looking for ways to spread our enthusiasm and to show off parts of the city people may not have had a chance to see before. I hope Portfest accomplishes that."

After catching their breath from the walking tour, Portfest visitors can test their sea legs by climbing aboard the Harbor Cruises' Bay Lady at Harborplace for a one-hour, narrated, history tour of the harbor.

"At the awesome rate of only $3 a person, even a larger family should be able to afford the boat tour," says McCarthy.

The Bay Lady will cruise Saturday and Sunday past Federal Hill, Locust Point, Canton, Fells Point and Fort McHenry.

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