John Latrobe left his mark in the law and architecture

150 Years of Howard History

December 26, 2000|By Paul S. Bridge | Paul S. Bridge,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

An 1878 map of Elkridge Landing shows a parcel of about 5 acres on the eastern side of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad's Washington branch, to the west of the Washington Turnpike. It's marked as the property of "Jno. H.B. Latrobe."

John Hazlehurst Boneval Latrobe - engineer, lawyer, artist, architect and advocate for human rights - was truly an "honored" citizen, the phrase used to describe him in one of the many accolades quoted in a Maryland Historical Society commemoration in 1891, shortly after his death.

Born May 4, 1803, Latrobe was one of the founders of the society. His life and accomplishments deserve far more notice than they receive in the only known biography of him, written by John Semmes and published in 1917.

Biographies of Latrobe's father, architect Benjamin Henry Latrobe (1764-1820), and the elder Latrobe's journals supply details of the son's early years.

"John is a very extraordinary fellow, soul and body," the father wrote in June 1817 to his son, Henry, who died three months later.

As a teen-ager, John Latrobe assisted his famous father with the drawings for the U.S. Capitol, for which the senior Latrobe was principal architect. On the basis of his skills in drawing and shooting, the young John was appointed to West Point, where his professor of mathematics was Andrew Ellicott, a son of Ellicott Mills' co-founder Joseph Ellicott.

When yellow fever cut his father's life short in 1820, John, then 17, left West Point and studied law, a profession in which he would be capable of supporting his mother, Mary Elizabeth, brother Benjamin Henry Jr. (born 1806) and sister Juliana (born 1804.)

An older stepsister, Lydia, the child of Benjamin Latrobe's first marriage, was by that time the wife of Nicholas Roosevelt.

When the B&O Railroad was chartered in 1827, John Latrobe became its counsel and remained with the company for the rest of his life. His service with the B&O opened the door for his brother, Benjamin, to later become chief engineer and designer of the Thomas Viaduct.

As a teen-ager, John Latrobe heard Francis Scott Key speak about the plans of the American Colonization Society to release black people from slavery and establish them in freedom and self-sufficiency in Africa.

Latrobe became active in the colonization movement and eventually was president of the American Colonization Society, succeeding such luminaries as James Madison, Charles Carroll of Carrollton and Henry Clay.

Latrobe's architectural and engineering successes include the design of porticoes for the Catholic Basilica, which stands on Cathedral Street in Baltimore and for which his father was architect. John Latrobe also designed the gateways to Druid Hill Park.

The Latrobe coal stove, patented in 1846, was a forerunner to central heating and a staple in hundreds of thousands of homes. As an accomplished "technologist," Latrobe gave encouragement to Samuel F. B. Morse, who was experimenting with the telegraph along the B&O line.

Latrobe's most enduring accomplishment is thought to have been a fabrication. On March 23, 1868, he presented a talk at the Maryland Institute ("tickets 25 cents at the door," according to The Sun).

The Maryland Institute was founded in 1829 to promote education in the mechanical arts. But by the 1850s, the learned society's audience had changed. The Sun (which then cost 2 cents) advertised performances at the institute by minstrels, magicians and ventriloquists. A big draw in 1865 was "Dr. Williams' experiment in making men drunk on cold water."

The Sun ran only a brief report of Latrobe's lecture, which was later published verbatim by The Sun Book and Job Printing Office in Baltimore. The little book contained the story of Peter Cooper's 1830 experimental steam engine and its race with a horse.

The technical details of the engine are accurately described by Latrobe, but the name "Tom Thumb"- which he used as an adjective to describe the machine - was bestowed on it for the first time. The horse won the race, "but the real victory was with Mr. Cooper, notwithstanding," Latrobe said.

After extensive research, this writer has come to the same conclusion as several other historians - among them, former curator of the B&O Railroad Museum John Hankey - that the race and the engine's name, "Tom Thumb," were both products of Latrobe's imagination.

Finally, how did Latrobe come to acquire the parcel of property in Elkridge Landing?

His second wife, Charlotte, was chronically ill and needed a retreat from town. In 1840 or 1841, according to the biographer Semmes, Latrobe obtained quarters in Relay House, a privately owned inn that also served as a B&O station until 1874.

Charlotte Latrobe's health improved so much that her husband bought property on what is now Lawyers' Hill, then a summer retreat in the Patapsco Valley for wealthy Baltimoreans. Their first house, "Fairy Knowe," burned down in 1850. It was immediately replaced with another house of the same name.

According to Howard County historian Joetta Cramm's book, "Howard County, A Pictorial History," the second "Fairy Knowe" burned down in the early 1900s.

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