The Southeastern Baltimore neighborhood of Fells Point was, until recent years, a rough and tumble sort of place – a sharp contrast to what is today an upscale and historically charming part of the city. Sailors, arriving from all corners of the world, crowded into rowdy saloons and bawdy boarding houses while awaiting the next ship out of dodge. Newly arrived immigrants packed into tiny row houses and fueled the waterfront industries that made up the Point’s economy. Crime, drunkenness, and immorality ruled the streets.
The Port Mission, founded in 1881, located in the heart of Fells Point on Broadway, the center of the rabble-rousing, grew out of this squalor and chaos. The Gospel Hall stood as a place for sailors to seek refuge from the temptations of drinking, gambling, and whoring that Fells Point so readily provided, and eventually became a neighborhood landmark which catered to all Point residents.
Fells Point did not start out as a drunken, brawling outpost for seafarers, prostitutes, and criminals. It had promising beginnings. A little town, founded by William Fell in 1730, quickly bloomed into the shipping hub of Baltimore by the early 1800s. Access to the Patapsco River and the Chesapeake Bay allowed merchants to easily import and export goods, such as coffee and flour, in and out of town. Shipbuilders set up shop along the wharves and launched such famous Baltimore clippers as the “Ann McKim” and the “Chasseur.” The population boomed, and by the turn of the 19th century, 31,514 people called Fells Point home, a far cry from the hundred or so families that initially settled the land.
The Point’s prosperity, however, was short-lived, and the unsavory elements of the port town became its calling card. The wealthier residents quickly abandoned the waterfront to establish posher Baltimore neighborhoods, like Mount Vernon. The Civil War disrupted the trade out of the port. The transition to steamships, which dramatically reduced demand for clipper ships, further hampered the area economy. The Point’s wharves were too small to accommodate the larger steam vessels, so Locust Point became the main port for Baltimore.
The neighborhood grew more industrial with canning companies cropping up in place of the shipyards. The once flourishing neighborhood degenerated into a slum of overstuffed tenements and houses of ill-repute. One Baltimore historian, Hamilton Owens, joked that the breadth of prostitutes in the area and the hooked shape of Fells Point birthed the term, “hooker,” writing, “Baltimore may or not be responsible for thus appellation, but it is certain that in Baltimore there is a good reason for it.”(1) Vice abounded – the federal government even singled out Fells Point in an 1894 study of the nation’s worst neighborhoods. Taverns, brothels, and boarding houses dominated the waterfront, with “one saloon to every 103 persons.”(2) News stories about the errant Causeway, as Fells Point had become known by the mid 1800s, were published daily in the crime blotters. Wild stories of brawls outside of taverns and prostitutes robbing their clients became standard news fodder.
Many attempted to tame the harbor front, but few succeeded. Immigrants established churches in their newly adopted neighborhood. Various missions sprang up to aid the impoverished. Fells Point even tried the patience of Father James Cardinal Gibbons, the future Archbishop of Baltimore. In his early ministerial career, he acted as an assistant to Reverend James Dolan, “the Apostle of the Point,” a “sturdy shepherd with a wild flock,” at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church on the northeast corner of Broadway and Bank Street, where “the flock consisted of longshoremen, sailors, wastrels from all ports of the world, men of every sort and condition.” (3)
The Port Mission became the most successful of these efforts. Prominent Baltimore businessmen, including Joshua and Leonard M. Levering, Gustavus Ober, and William Dugdale, established the Port Mission in 1881, perhaps inspired by Massachusetts evangelist Dwight L. Moody’s recent whirlwind revival tour across the city in 1879. Moody drew crowds into churches all over Baltimore, including the Broadway Presbyterian Church, located at Broadway and Gough Street, in the heart of the neighborhood. Fantastic claims were made that crime abated during the preacher’s stay, and a Captain Delanty, “of the Southern District,” which presumably included Fells Point, “reported that there were fewer arrests made for drunkenness and disorder…and he thought it was owing alone to the preacher’s influence.”(4)
The Port Mission’s supporters worked in a similar manner to the traveling evangelist. On Sundays, the mission’s agents would take their message to ships docked in the Baltimore harbor, where they preached the Gospel and handed out religious pamphlets to wayward sailors. Their missionary approach must have worked, because each year more seafarers visited 813-15 South Broadway to use the Mission’s reading room and attend services rather than frequenting the 323 saloons and 113 houses of ill-repute that lined the streets of Fells Point. In the 1889 annual report, the officers noted that Sunday service attendance, “[was] such that the Hall has been taxed to its utmost capacity, and some have been unable to find seating accommodation.”(5) Through the Gospel Hall, collections of clothing, shoes, food, and other supplies were taken up to provide to sailors who often found themselves without. The Port Mission also frequently paid for funeral services for impoverished seamen who died in Baltimore and buried them in Mount Carmel Cemetery. Lending libraries were established on ships that frequently returned to Baltimore. The shelves were stocked with both religious and entertainment materials, so the sailors could pass their time aboard with a wholesome activity, reading rather than gambling or imbibing. In return, sailors often brought souvenirs from their travels all over the world to decorate the reading room.
Demand for the Port Mission’s services quickly outgrew the Broadway building. The Women’s Auxiliary of the Port Mission opened the Anchorage, a boarding house for sailors, in 1892 on Thames Street, where the Recreation Pier now stands. By 1900, even more space was required so the Anchorage moved down the street on the corner of Broadway and Thames Street, which is now the Admiral Fell Inn. Mariners could stay in a clean, simple room at the Anchorage for a moderate price. The biggest reward, however, was protection from being shanghaied, which plagued less than reputable boarding houses – or “crimps,” in maritime slang – in Fells Point. Stories of being unwillingly pressed into service on a ship were common in all port cities, including Baltimore. Men would awake to find themselves on a ship out to sea with no recollection of joining the crew. They “had been dragged half-stupefied from dens of vice” by enterprising captains or their agents, who earned cash per man delivered, to man the steamers leaving Baltimore.(6)
The Anchorage was a safe haven for sailors where their physical and spiritual well-being was carefully tended. In 1909, 2,255 sailors from “twenty different nationalities” stayed at the Anchorage. They ranged from regular boarders to charitable cases. Injured men, sent from area hospitals, spent their recovery in relative comfort at the Anchorage. A report from that year claimed that, those received from hospitals, “feel themselves entirely forsaken, having lost all fellowship with other people. Such we tried to restore and made to feel that some one cares for them….” (7) Shipwrecked sailors who had lost everything were also welcomed. By 1929, the Anchorage became too large for the board of managers to handle, so the boarding house changed hands. It became the Seaman’s Branch of the Y.M.C.A and served over 5 million sailors until 1955 when funding was cut. The Anchorage building changed ownership several times and operated as a vinegar and cider factory, Vinegar Works, until the 1970′s.
With the Anchorage a great success, the Port Mission expanded its services to the Fells Point community at large. Sunday school classes were taught for local children, most of which were immigrants new to the county. Women from wealthier parts of the city volunteered to teach sewing and cooking classes. Community meetings were held at the Broadway building. It became a place for the neighborhood to gather with activities most nights of the week.
The Port Mission’s efforts alone could not stop Fells Point’s decline, however. The neighborhood gradually lost its identity, and became known as only “the foot of Broadway.” It had become so derelict that the city planned to build a superhighway right through the neighborhood in the 1970s. Residents and historical preservationists were able to band together to save Fells Point, leading to a neighborhood renaissance. As part of its push to save the Point, the Society for the Preservation of Fells Point and Federal Hill started the Fells Point Fun Festival, which brings thousands of revelers to town each year, perhaps giving a taste of the old days of the Point. (Lara Westwood)
Sources and Further Reading:
(1) Hamilton Owens, Baltimore on the Chesapeake (Garden City, N. Y.:Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1941), 45-46.
(2) “Statistics of the Slums: Result of an Official Investigation in Baltimore and Other Cities,” Baltimore Sun, July 28, 1894.
(3) Maria Letitia Stockett, Baltimore: A Not Too Serious History (Baltimore, Md.: The Norman Remington Company, 1928), 174.
(4) Thomas M. Beadenkopf and W. Raymond Stricklen, Moody in Baltimore (Baltimore, Md.: Students of Johns Hopkins University, 1879), 12.
(5) Fifth Annual Report of the Port Mission of Baltimore City (Baltimore, Md.: Press of Fleet, McGinley & Co., 1889), 3.
(6) Allen Sinclair Will, The Life of James, Cardinal Gibbons (Baltimore, Md.: John Murphy Company, 1911), 43.
(7) The Anchorage Eighteenth Annual Report (Baltimore, Md.: The Anchorage, 1909), 13.
Jacqueline Greff, Images of America: Fell’s Point (Charleston, S.C.: Arcadia Publishing, 2005).
Jennifer Klima, The Baltimore Clipper.
Norman G. Rukert, The Fells Point Story (Baltimore, Md.: Bodine & Associates, Inc., 1976).
Damon Talbot, What’s the Point?