Baltimore’s Fell’s Point has been a hub of maritime activity since the 1760s, and the well-appointed maritime museum and visitor’s center offers a porthole to its bustling past.
Fell’s Point was the city’s first deepwater port and became the shipbuilding center of the American colonies and the fledgling United States. Eventually, there were 24 separate shipyards operating out of this compact, cobblestoned neighborhood.
These operations were staffed by an influx of craftsmen from around the world, making Fell’s Point one of the most diverse neighborhoods in the colonies. One of the most significant populations to work here were freedmen, who found the docks a readily available place to make a living. Frederick Douglass spent some time here (when he was still enslaved) on loan to a shipbuilder. He worked as a caulker, making sure that the wooden vessels’ seams were waterproof. In his memoir, he notes that Fell’s Point was where he learned to read and write, “making friends of all the little white boys whom I met in the street. As many of these as I could, I converted into teachers.”
These shipyards became famous for three-masted Baltimore Schooners (a replica is on display in a glass case at the visitor center), which played vital roles in some of the most explosive moments in Baltimore’s history. During the War of 1812, Fell’s Point became a veritable pirates’ nest, home to the privateers looting and raiding the British Navy. Many artifacts from the privateer era are included in the visitor center’s collection, including weapons and navigational aids.
Immediately following the Civil War, industry in this area declined rapidly. Shipbuilding moved to farther-flung locations and rival ports opened along the Eastern seaboard. However, even though things have changed a lot, they’ve also changed very little. The streets are still uneven, the wind still comes off of the water, and many of the buildings here are original 18th and 19th century buildings that served the needs of ship yardmen and sailors: boarding houses, brothels, and bars. Even now Fell’s Point hosts the highest concentration of pubs and restaurants in the city.