Spirit of '76 set harbor on course

Watershed: Before Harborplace, crowds thronged the newly renovated waterfront to see the tall ships -- affording a hint of attractions to come.

June 21, 2000|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,Sun Staff

Those five July days in 1976 awakened Baltimore to the reality that it had a monster hit on its hands.

The visit of the tall ships to Baltimore drew more than 100,000 visitors the first Sunday. It was a week that turned the heads of elected officials and travel agents.

It was also a week of discovery -- both by the thousands of visitors and by the city planners who envisioned that this deluge need not be a one-time phenomenon.

The summer before, 1975, workers had completed the walks around the Inner Harbor, capping a multimillion-dollar federal urban renewal investment in what had been an old warehouse and manufacturing district that hugged the water's edge. The U-shaped brick promenade was so new that only a relative few -- those who worked downtown -- knew the urban park existed at all. True, there were annual downtown fairs, but these were considered brief provincial outings that celebrated the life of urban neighborhoods. The only attraction that charged admission was the Maryland Science Center.

"The ships' visit was the turning point in the whole Inner Harbor development," said Martin Millspaugh, former chief executive of Charles Center Inner Harbor and now vice chairman of Enterprise Real Estate Services in Columbia.

"It was the watershed between the years when we were building what had been conceived as a playground for Baltimoreans. The tall ships made us realize we could attract some tourists."

In other words, residents of the mid-Atlantic region might want to risk a car or bus ride to the walks along Baltimore's harbor -- and spend some money, provided there were places to do so.

Millspaugh said his agency then hired consultants, who reported that the stage had been set (walks around the harbor, Constellation Dock) and that a background of office buildings was in place. All that Baltimore needed were the stars -- the permanent tourist attractions.

Within five years, they would arrive -- Harborplace, the National Aquarium, the Convention Center and hotels for the visitors.

"People don't realize it now, but the tall ships visit was the beginning of the creation of the critical mass. It was the beginning of the Inner Harbor as a destination for tourists as well as Baltimoreans," Millspaugh said.

Baltimore was indeed lucky. Officials of the 1976 Operation Sail went to New York and wooed the captains of the ships here with promises of our excellent, newly refurbished harbor. But as it turned out, other East Coast cities wanted the ships, too.

Baltimore netted a big catch -- the Danmark, Amerigo Vespucci, Gorch Fock, Esmeralda and Eagle -- a huge show of sail.

The weeklong visit had unexpected consequences. The ships proved a large regional draw, especially among visitors from counties surrounding the District of Columbia. Washington newspapers gave the event major coverage. All of a sudden, it seemed that the distance between Baltimore and Capitol Hill had been reduced -- at least in terms of perception.

On a humid and gray Sunday afternoon, the ships slipped in. A reporter on the deck of the Danmark noted how the crowd's density grew -- from a few boats off the mouth of the Patapsco until it seemed like a human blanket at Fort McHenry and Federal Hill. There didn't seem to be an inch of unoccupied space.

Later that week, President Gerald R. Ford met with German Prime Minister Helmut Schmidt aboard the Gorch Fock, anchored off the old McCormick spice plant on Light Street. It may have been planned as a photo opportunity, but it worked wonders.

Not all the action was at Pratt and Light streets. Little Italy and Fells Point opened their doors. The Italian sailors were given a big pasta dinner at St. Leo's Church, and the bars of Fells Point were packed all week.

A reporter at the old News American commented: "The tall ships gave Baltimore a temporary reprieve from its usual inferiority complex."

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