Maritime park earns city design panel OK

Shipyard honoring 19th-century blacks expected to open in 2005

January 30, 2004|By Antero Pietila | Antero Pietila,SUN STAFF

City design arbiters gave final approval yesterday to a Fells Point maritime park that will honor Frederick Douglass and other 19th-century African-American shipbuilders.

"It's going to be a pretty exciting place to be," Design Advisory Panel member Deborah K. Dietsch said after the Living Classrooms Foundation detailed plans for a shipyard where schoolchildren and artisans will work on small boats in public view.

The $13 million Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park project, which will be anchored by a new classroom building to be constructed next to a restored century-old sugar warehouse, is expected to open in the spring of 2005. It is located a few hundred yards from the site where Myers and other African-American investors in 1868 opened the Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Co.

Douglass was never associated with that company, but during slavery he worked as a ship caulker in Fells Point. In the 1890s, after serving as the U.S. consult-general to Haiti, he built a group of rowhouses on Dallas Street, less than half a mile away, that still stand.

A centerpiece of the planned park at the end of Thames Street will be a huge bronze head of Douglass, sculpted by Marc Robinson. Scattered around the grounds will be smaller bronzes of the abolitionist, which will be made by local schoolchildren, the design panel was told.

Panel member Gary A. Bowden commended the foundation for its "commitment to storytelling," which will also be done through excavated foundations of extinct industrial buildings on the site.

The Chesapeake Marine Railway was organized because white skilled laborers sought to remove all black caulkers from shipyards. At one point, the company employed 300 black workers and handled government contracts. It went out of business in 1884.

Foundation Vice President Wilbur Cunningham said that the new marine railway, which hoists vessels from the water, will be used to maintain a schooner, two skipjacks and a harbor boat that the foundation owns.

"There aren't many marine railways left," he said. He added that plans call for the construction in Fells Point of a number of longboats for the Constellation, the war sloop docked at the Inner Harbor.

The foundation, which maintains a lighthouse and a fleet of more recent museum ships, said more than 50,000 students a year participate in its programs.

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