Heralding Fells Point's place in U.S. history

October 10, 2002|By MICHAEL OLESKER

SOMEWHERE in the great crowds that swarmed across Fells Point's cobblestones last weekend, Jack Trautwein puffed out his chest. He is the community's human link between now and then. While the bustling neighborhood seems to revitalize itself by the hour, Trautwein goes back to its first great hour, the War of 1812, and his summer role as its Town Crier.

"Wonderful, wonderful," Trautwein, 64, was saying this week, in the afterglow of the annual Fells Point Festival. An estimated 750,000 people attended. "The best festival we've ever had down here."

That's the sound of a Fells Point nationalist talking. Trautwein, bearded and bespectacled owner of P.J.'s Place, a shop on little Lancaster Street just off Broadway, celebrates the neighborhood all the time and seems a throwback to its seat-of-the-pants, idiosyncratic times.

"Why does it charm you so much?" he was asked.

"It's a community," he said. "That's what speaks to me. It's a real community. Once you're here, it never leaves you."

Eleven o'clock every Christmas morning, Trautwein walks Fells Point's streets in Colonial-era garb and clangs a bell, wishing holiday cheer while residents open their windows and kids bolt from doorways to greet him. During the summer, from mid-August to mid-September, two evenings each week, he took it upon himself to dress up in a Colonial outfit and cried out news bulletins from those nervous days of 1814 leading to the British attack on Fort McHenry, when the city's seaport neighborhoods seemed to be flirting with destruction.

"I love the diversity down here," Trautwein says. "All the different kinds of people. That's always characterized Fells Point. And there's a history here that's as vital as any place's history. It's important that people know it, and know how it connects to the development of this young nation."

In June, he did some serious research of that history. He scoured books on the War of 1812. He found Baltimorean Scott Sheads' histories of Fort McHenry. Trautwein put the Baltimore stories into a dozen reports that he delivered the way a town crier - a news anchor of the 19th century, Trautwein says - would have done it, relating what he calls "Baltimore's finest hour."

"Fells Point," he says, "was a key player in the war effort. The British wanted it looted and destroyed. The warehouses were filled with supplies. The shipyards were building the fastest and most maneuverable ships of the sea - the Baltimore clippers. And it was the home of a very large portion of privateers who were destroying British shipping and commerce - at least 58 privateers out of Fells Point that captured or destroyed nearly 500 British vessels during the war. It was important to the British to do away with that."

In that era, Baltimore was the third biggest American city. Its population was more than 40,000. Last summer, Trautwein offered his town crier bulletins as they coincided with events in August and September of 1814.

"The dreaded [British Admiral George] Cockburn has set up and maintained the blockade of the Chesapeake Bay," Trautwein announced one night. He wore his Colonial outfit as a crowd gathered around him. "He has terrorized the citizens with savage raids of burning and looting.

"It has been extremely difficult to carry on any commerce by water. We have suffered in Fells Point, as in the rest of the city. Many of our seamen have been out of work and our wharves inactive. [But] Commodore Joshua Barney was readying his flotilla of 26 vessels, made here at Thomas Kemp's shipyard. Since then, 900 men have harassed the British on the Chesapeake Bay."

A week later, he reported, "Word has arrived that a large enemy fleet is rendezvousing with Admiral Cockburn's squadron at the mouth of the Potomac River. The entire fleet is said to consist of 49 warships, 10 ships of the line with 74 guns, 22 frigates with 36 [to] 38 guns each, 11 sloops and schooners with 14 to 20 guns each, five bomb ships and one rocket ship. ... Many authorities fear that Baltimore is their objective. Here in Fells Point, rumors of imminent danger are circulating."

As they listened to Trautwein, crowds could look toward the harbor at the foot of Broadway, and southwest toward Locust Point and Fort McHenry. Those gray harbor waters seem timeless. The crowds could see buildings - rowhouses and old factories - and cobblestone streets that date to the 19th century.

Things connect. That's the message Trautwein preaches. Things connect across eras, and across neighborhood streets, and across family histories.

As thousands of Baltimoreans gathered last weekend for the Fells Point Festival, many saw it simply as a charming way to spend an early autumn weekend. But Trautwein offers the extra perspective: While the neighborhood renews itself all the time, its charms go back to the nation's very beginnings.

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