A plan for marketing our maritime legacy National Seaport: Tourism strategy aims to create a 'Williamsburg on the water.'

August 12, 1998

COULD BALTIMORE develop a tourist draw to rival Colonial Williamsburg? Several local institutions think so.

Led by the nonprofit Living Classrooms Foundation, they are launching the National Historic Seaport of Baltimore, a unified marketing drive that aims to give a new name and sharper identity to the harbor's scattered maritime attractions.

The program offers exceptional value: For $9.50 per adult and $6.50 per child, visitors can purchase a three-day pass that admits them to a dozen attractions, from the U.S.S. Torsk, a 1944 submarine, and city fire boats to the Baltimore Museum of Industry and Fort McHenry. Included in the package is water transportation by Harbor Shuttle.

In another year, when the USS Constellation returns to the Inner Harbor after its $9 million restoration, it will become the centerpiece of the National Historic Seaport.

"This is our Williamsburg on the water," muses James Piper Bond, executive director of the Living Classrooms Foundation.

The National Historic Seaport is an initiative that should be welcomed enthusiastically.

Mining the lode of local maritime history is an antidote to the increasing Hollywoodization of the Inner Harbor that has resulted from entertainment conglomerates moving in.

The program also introduces an affordable single-ticket concept that has been lacking in Baltimore for too long.

Including water transportation in the package should make it easier for visitors to branch out beyond obvious harbor attractions. As a planning document observes, "Many visitors come to Baltimore to see the 'harbor' but visit only Harborplace and the National Aquarium. They leave unaware of the unique character of the port and the wealth of maritime heritage preserved here."

Above all, the National Historic Seaport fosters cooperation among rival cultural institutions (and the National Park Service, which operates Fort McHenry). Such joint programs and promotions are essential for the stability of Baltimore's numerous museums and attractions -- many of them quite small and underfunded.

The fate of the City Life Museums and the Columbus Center exhibit hall, which closed because of insufficient crowds and skimpy corporate support, has made the need for such efforts more compelling.

The Living Classrooms Foundation's vision for the National Historic Seaport is ambitious.

Through cooperative agreements, the foundation plans to keep adding attractions. Future sites include the USS John W. Brown, a World War II Liberty ship that has been restored with authentic weaponry and artifacts, and the Maryland Maritime Museum under development in Fells Point.

The foundation is in the process of re-creating a park and working marine railway in Fells Point. It will honor Frederick Douglass, the abolitionist who worked as a ship caulker on the waterfront, and Isaac Myers, an African American who, in 1866, opened a pioneering dry dock.

The foundation is also interested in developing Fort Carroll, a long-abandoned 1850s Patapsco River fortress built by Robert E. Lee, into an educational and tourist destination.

The National Historic Seaport's potential is awesome. So are the challenges ahead.

But with community support -- from volunteers to corporations -- this concept can become an unparalleled educational experience.

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