Baltimore: History

City Founded on Tobacco-Centered Economy

The geology at the mouth of the Patapsco River determined the location of Baltimore. The area lies on a fall line where hard rocks of the piedmont meet the coastal plains of the tidewater region. A large, natural harbor had formed, and streams coursing from the north and west toward the Patapsco fall line had tremendous velocity. This made them ideal sites for water-driven mills. Additionally attractive to early settlers were the plentiful forests, fertile countryside, and moderate climate that was ideal for agriculture.

In 1632, England's King Charles I gave George Calvert (Lord Baltimore) a vast area in colonial America that became Baltimore County in 1659. During the 1660s the Maryland General Assembly appointed commissioners who granted land patents and development privileges to enterprising colonists. Although the Piscataway and Susquehannock tribes originally lived in neighboring regions, tribal competition and the onslaught of colonial diseases dissipated all but a few hundred of the Native Americans in Maryland by 1700.

The sandy plains bordering the Chesapeake Bay were ideal for growing tobacco, and a tobacco-based economy quickly developed in pre-Revolutionary Maryland. An area of 550 acres, formerly known as "Cole's Harbor," was sold to Baltimore landowners Daniel and Charles Carroll in 1696; they sold a parcel of this land in one-acre lots for development. These lots became Baltimore Town, which grew quickly in both size and trade. By 1742 regular tobacco shipments were leaving Baltimore harbor for Europe.

Radical Politics Gain Popularity

Productive mills had also sprung up along the northwestern tributaries of the Patapsco; the market for locally-milled flour and grain was primarily directed toward the British slave and sugar colonies in the West Indies. This trade was cut off at the outset of the American Revolution, a loss that cost Baltimore. The loss was partly mitigated when Congress authorized private citizens to arm and equip their own vessels for war in 1776; privateering became a growth industry in Baltimore, since the city had become an important center for shipbuilding. Anti-British activities in the city during this era earned Baltimore a reputation for radical politicking that lasted through the nineteenth century. Baltimore was the meeting place of the Continental Congress after the British occupied Philadelphia in 1777.

City Prospers During Reconstruction

After the Revolutionary War, Baltimore, incorporated in 1797, resumed its commercial success by exporting grain, particularly to South America. A slump in maritime trade prompted the building of America's first public railroad in Baltimore in 1828, thus linking the city to other parts of the country and expanding commercial possibilities. During the Civil War, Maryland remained Unionist but Baltimore was split. Trade was cut off with the South and badly hurt with the North, but Baltimore managed to profit as a military depot. The city recovered rapidly from the physical and economic damages of the war, embarking during the reconstruction era on the period of its greatest prosperity.

Renewal Follows Destruction

In 1904 Baltimore was struck by a fire that had started in a cotton warehouse and soon spread to destroy more than 2,000 buildings. This calamity initiated improvements in the streets and the harbor and the construction of a sewer system that was considered one of the most modern of its time. The city again prospered during World War I, its economy remained relatively untouched by the 1930s Depression, and Baltimore continued to flourish as a military supply center during World War II.

Baltimore's urban renewal began in 1947, when inner city decay was so extensive that more than 45,000 homes were considered substandard. A rigorous construction and rehabilitation program reduced this number to 25,000 by 1954. In 1955 public and private cooperation resulted in the formation of the Greater Baltimore Committee, a group of influential businessmen who worked with municipal agencies to develop civic programs. Extensive neighborhood revitalization and development were undertaken in the 1970s and 1980s. Projects included the construction of shops and restaurants in Harbor Place, the Maryland Science Center, the National Aquarium, the American Visionary Art Museum and the construction of a rapid transit line to the suburbs. Waterfront development carried in the 1990s and into the new millennium, with many old neighborhoods experiencing a growth in popularity. Development continues along with historical preservation and the careful blending of the past and the present. More than $1 billion in new development is in the works, including hotels, retail space, increased arts offerings and technology improvements to Baltimore's harbor.

The 1990s were also a time of sharp population declines. Like many of the older, urban areas of the northeast, Baltimore faced an exodus to the suburbs and lost 11.5 percent of its population. Today, Baltimore is beginning to buck the trend. From 2000 to 2003, it lost only 3.2 percent.

In 1999, white city councilman Martin O'Malley won the Baltimore Democratic mayoral primary, defeating 16 candidates, 8 of whom were African American, in this predominantly African American city. Mr. O'Malley went on to win the mayoral election after a campaign in which he promised to clean the streets of open-air drug markets and have zero tolerance for crime. By 2004, Baltimore led the nation's 25 largest cities in a five-year reduction in violent crime, with the city experiencing a drop of 40 percent in violent crimes from 1999 to 2004.

Historical Information: City Life Museums, 33 South Front Street, Baltimore, MD 21202; telephone (410)545-3000 or (410)396-3279; (open to the public with permission and payment of a fee). Maryland Historical Society, 201 W. Monument Street, Baltimore, MD 21201-4674; telephone (410)685-3750. Jewish Historical Society of Maryland, 15 Lloyd Street, telephone (410)732-6400