Forging a path back into Baltimore's past

Proposed history trail would provide walkers with coherent narrative

January 27, 2004|By Jamie Stiehm | Jamie Stiehm,SUN STAFF

Baltimore is following Boston's footprints in forging a history trail for those who wish to walk through time.

Boston has its famed Freedom Trail - which wends by places, such as Paul Revere's House, that tell the tale of the American Revolution - and Baltimore is developing a trail of its own that will showcase several key events in the city's evolution, including sites connected to the War of 1812, the Civil War and the establishment of three religions.

The proposed Baltimore Heritage/Star-Spangled Banner Walk will highlight a series of 20 planned sign-posts along a 2-mile foot trail east of the Inner Harbor - with more signs and another mile to be added in a second phase.

Plans for the $500,000 initiative are scheduled to be discussed at a public forum at 5:30 p.m. today at 29 S. Front St., part of the former City Life Museum complex now known as the 1840s Ballroom.

Many of the places to be highlighted - such as the Shot Tower and the Flag House & Star-Spangled Banner Museum - are well-known attractions individually. The trail will attempt to link them with a coherent historical narrative.

`Telling our stories'

"We have to be a whole lot smarter about telling our stories," said Bill Pencek, director of the Baltimore City Heritage Area. "Thematically, we've got the goods, but we have to do a better job" presenting tales of the city's past.

Inspired by the success of the Freedom Trail, a self-guided tour that also passes by the stark 18th-century Old North Church - where lanterns were hung to warn colonists that British soldiers were coming - Mayor Martin O'Malley designated Pencek last year for the task of developing a concept connecting Baltimore's historic sites.

Due to open in 2005, the proposed footpath is to begin at the waterfront visitor center now under construction on the west side of the Inner Harbor.

It will cut through Little Italy and the city's oldest section, Jonestown, which abuts the ethnic enclave.

It was there that seamstress Mary Pickersgill worked night and day in her house to make the giant battle flag that flew over Fort McHenry when the British attacked Baltimore in 1814. Pickersgill's house, at Pratt and Albemarle streets, is now the Flag House & Star-Spangled Banner Museum, one stop along the proposed trail. (The flag is now owned by the Smithsonian Institution.)

Other sites to be included are the 1781 Old Town Society of Friends Meetinghouse, the city's oldest religious structure; the Jewish Museum of Maryland, which contains the 1845 Lloyd Street Synagogue, the third-oldest synagogue in the nation; and the United States' first Roman Catholic cathedral, the Basilica of the Assumption, dedicated in 1821.

Civil war sites

The Civil War mark on the city is best seen at the small-scale President Street railroad station at President and Fleet streets - now a museum - where Abraham Lincoln had to change trains in disguise on his way to his first inauguration in Washington because of threats on his life. It was also near where the first casualties of the Civil War occurred, Pencek said, when Massachusetts soldiers were mobbed by Southern sympathizers.

One of the city's best-known historical landmarks, Fort McHenry, where American troops fended off the British attack in 1814, is not included in the walking tour. That's partly because the fort, at the end of Key Highway in Locust Point and a registered national monument, is located a good distance away from the rest of the sites, Pencek said.

Dennis Fiori, director of the Maryland Historical Society, said the idea of a historic walking tour in Baltimore is eminently sensible.

Fiori, a former Bostonian, said he has been struck by the general lack of civic promotion of Baltimore's past.

"Having lived both places, I think our history is every bit as rich," Fiori said.

Beyond the waterfront

Fiori said Baltimore's proposed trail, like Boston's existing one, will encourage residents and visitors to experience the city beyond the popular waterfront destinations.

"The Freedom Trail is something people go and do. People come [to Boston] just for that," Fiori said. "Both cities are water-centered, but the trails take you away from the harbor, and it's about time we did that."

Fiori's Mount Vernon institution, the Maryland Historical Society, which houses the manuscript of "The Star-Spangled Banner" by Francis Scott Key, is a stop on the proposed tour.

Pencek would like to see Baltimore's heritage trail attract federal support in the form of uniformed National Park Service rangers.

Fiori agrees. "This is one of the last of the great historical cities in America without a major Park [Service] presence," he said.

Information on tonight's forum: 410-396-1954.

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