Fells Point: The Town That Saved a Nation
The neighborhood of Fells Point is older than the city of Baltimore itself, a history one can feel driving over the rough-hewn cobblestone streets today. People have always been attracted to the area because it’s close to the deep water harbor. While today’s visitors like to stroll the promenade and enjoy the sights and sounds of the waterfront community, early settlers saw in Fells Point the ideal location to build a shipyard.
William Fell, a Quaker British settler, arrived in Baltimore Town in 1730 and began to purchase large tracts of land. He built a mansion near present day Lancaster Street and a small shipyard where he built two-masted sloops. William eventually owned more than 1,000 acres of land in the Fells Point area, which he passed on to his only son, Edward. It was Edward who laid out the town of Fells Point in 1763 and gave the streets their names, reminiscent of the family’s English origins: Thames, Shakespeare, Queen. In 1773, Fells Point was annexed into Baltimore.
Fells Point had easy access to timber, foundries and the port of Baltimore; because of this, it quickly became a boomtown for shipbuilding. Small wooden homes were built to house the shipbuilders and artisans who came to Fells Point to work in the industry and finer homes were constructed for merchants and ship captains. Churches, pubs and shops were erected, and a covered market was built on Broadway in 1784 to create a hub for local commerce.
During the Revolutionary War, the first warships of the fledgling nation’s navy were built in Fells Point. But it was the “privateers,” a privately owned ship commissioned by the government to act as a vessel of war that put Fells Point into the annals of naval history and aided in the creation of the United States. Privateers sailed by the dozens into the Chesapeake Bay during the Revolution. During the War of 1812, (the same period when Francis Scott Key was writing the Star-Spangled Banner across the harbor near Fort McHenry), 126 privateers set sail and captured more than 500 British ships. The effectiveness of the privateers was due to the extraordinary design of what were called “Baltimore Clippers.” These vessels, designed and built in Fells Point, were long and lightweight with clear decks for guns. They were more nimble than the British ships and easily overtook them.
After the war, Fells Point continued to be a hub for maritime activity, although it also began to develop light industry, mostly the canning of oysters and produce (the National Can Company still stands and is now a retail and office complex). As immigrant populations arrived for work, the wealthier merchant class moved to the area surrounding Baltimore’s Washington Monument and built the grand homes that still stand in the Mount Vernon neighborhood.
In 1904, The Great Fire missed Fells Point, preserving the neighborhood’s 18th and 19th century architecture; Fells Point is now protected as a nationally registered historic district and contains the oldest home in Baltimore (circa 1765). The market, one of the many historic covered markets in the city, still stands on Broadway. Fells Point’s pristine location has appeared in films such as Barry Levinson’s Avalon and on the television series Homicide. As it contains the city’s highest concentration of eclectic pubs, bars, music venues and restaurants, residents can channel the raucous good times no doubt had by their seafaring predecessors.