Bicentennial redux

October 29, 1997|By Gwinn Owens

A FORMER Baltimorean writes from Michigan: ''What is all this business of a Baltimore bicentennial? Didn't we celebrate that in 1929?''

Of course we did, and I was there.

Then why the profusion of banners and signs and Baltimore Orioles uniforms with ''200'' on them?

This is a monumental historical goof. Baltimore is 268 years old. Its 200th anniversary was celebrated in 1929 with a spectacular pageant that was grander and noisier than anything that has happened in 1997 -- because that was the bicentennial.

Unfortunately, Baltimore is now telling the world that it is a Johnny-come-lately city that isn't even as old as national independence. In fact, 200 years ago it was a thriving seaport with a population of 20,000, which was a pretty big town for that era.

Independence plea

Baltimore was chartered as a town by the colonial legislature on Aug. 8, 1729. After 68 years of burgeoning growth as part of Baltimore County, city leaders successfully petitioned the Maryland General Assembly to grant it independence from the county with a municipal government and law-making power. This was an important step in Baltimore's history, but to celebrate that step as the basis for a bicentennial is like basing one's birthday on the year of graduation from high school.

For the 1929 observance, the city fathers decided to celebrate not on the actual August date, but for four days in September to combine it with Defenders' Day, Sept. 12. The schedule of events was so extensive that nearly a column of The Sun was devoted just to listing them. Many neighborhoods conducted their own observances. An official song was written, ''Down to Dear Old Baltimore.'' (Obviously it didn't catch on.)

The earliest city-wide event was a parade of fraternal groups through downtown on Sept. 7. The formal ceremonies, however, commenced on the 12th when ''Lord Baltimore,'' the bell of the City Hall tower, sounded 200 times as the mayor, William F. Broening, declared the celebration had begun.

The U.S. Navy sent a flotilla of vessels, including a battleship, to the harbor for the four days of events. Some were docked and opened to visitors. The U.S. Army sent a number of units, which were encamped in Druid Hill Park.

On the evening of Defenders' Day, recalling the 1814 bombardment of Fort McHenry, the naval vessels conducted a mock assault on the fort with fireworks, with the valiant defenders of Baltimore retaliating in kind. Some 100,000 people crowded the shores of the Patapsco to watch.

The climactic event took place on Sunday, Sept. 14, when a three-hour parade marched up Charles Street, across 33rd Street and into the old, wooden Municipal Stadium, filled with 55,000 celebrants. The parade consisted of the usual bands and military units and scores of massive, horse-drawn floats with tableaux depicting events in the city's history. In a few cases, descendants of the founders portrayed their ancestors.

What a parade

I was seated on the east side of the stadium with my uncle and perhaps my older brother and sister (I'm not sure), enjoying the show immensely. There was, however, a looming problem. Those of us facing west could see an immense black storm cloud approaching the city. The attendees on the west side, with their back to it, were not aware of the awesome threat.

The parade was about two-thirds over when the wind began to blow, the lightning flashed and my uncle decided we had better get out of there. Others made the same decision. We abandoned our seats and headed for 33rd Street. By the time we were out on the street the rain had started, a gale was raging. The benighted marchers were forced to keep their decorum in the midst of the turmoil. I distinctly remember one band marching through the stadium gates with its flag in shreds.

Thirty-third Street became crowded with multitudes seeking shelter and, for a lucky few of us, it was available. A man who lived in a rowhouse on 33rd Street, was standing on his front porch and shouted to us, ''Come up here, out of the rain.'' We accepted his invitation, as did many others. When his porch was full, he opened the front door and invited some soaking wet refugees into the house. When the rain had slacked off, we thanked him and left.

Try the parade again

To an 8-year-old, this was an exciting climax to a bicentennial celebration, but for the planners of the bicentennial it was a near disaster. Mayor Broening ordered the last third of the parade to be staged all over again a week later.

The founding year 1729 has been such a recognized date in Baltimore's history that there had been an equally extravagant celebration in 1879, the 150th year or the sesquicentennial. As for the 100th year of incorporation in 1897, my perusal of newspapers of that year failed to turn up any news about a special observance.

It remained for the misguided historians of 1997 to give the world a false impression that Baltimore is a mere 200 years old. This thoroughly confuses the few of us who recall the glorious bicentennial of 1929 -- even if it rained on our parade.

Gwinn Owens is a retired Evening Sun editorial writer.

Pub Date: 10/29/97

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