Settled by Europeans in 1661 (the Susquehanna Indians lived in the area before that), Baltimore Town was founded in 1729 when the Maryland General Assembly bought a 60-acre tract on the Patapsco River. (It was not officially incorporated as a city until 1797.) The town was intended as a tobacco trading center for plantations in the southern part of the state, but quickly expanded.
Coffee from South America and wheat from neighboring Pennsylvania were among the products that passed through the town, and eventually flour milling and grain exporting were the city's chief income producers.
For a brief period, the city served as home to the fledgling Continental Congress, when British troops threatened Philadelphia in 1776. But Baltimore is perhaps best known as the birthplace of "The Star Spangled Banner."
On the evening of September 13, 1814, Baltimore attorney Francis Scott Key, acting as a hostage negotiator, was aboard a ship about three miles from Fort McHenry, one of the Baltimore's chief defenses during the War of 1812. The British had attacked the city by land the day before, and then set sights on the fort.
Seeing the American flag waving over Fort McHenry when the sun rose and smoke cleared, Key was moved to write a poem to commemorate the event. The poem, set to music, became the United States' national anthem.
At the fort, a film tells the story.
The Civil War Museum (601 President Street) details the city and state's part in the war between the states. Although Maryland was a slave state at the time, Baltimore had the largest number of free blacks in an American city before the war.
The state did not secede with other Southern states, however; but many Baltimore residents were Confederate sympathizers.
"One of the things that frightened the Union side was the Pratt Street riots in April of 1861, when Baltimorean secessionists attacked the Sixth Massachusetts (Federal Army division)," says Shawn Cunningham, director of the museum. "And because of that, Baltimore was occupied by the Union troops throughout the war ... and it was held as if it were an opposition city."
The museum is housed on a site that was part of the Underground Railroad, the system of safe houses and contact points used by black men and women escaping the slavery of the South. Famous orator and native Baltimorean Frederick Douglass used the Railroad to engineer his own escape to New Bedford, Massachusetts. He eventually raised enough money to buy his freedom.
The third largest city
Baltimore launched the country's first commercial railroad -- the Baltimore & Ohio, the first U.S. railroad to carry passengers. At the B&O Museum (901 W. Pratt Street), tourists get a look at how the railroad was built, and how it helped maintain the city's place as a major center for shipping, manufacturing and the employing of immigrants.
By 1860, Baltimore was the third largest city in the United States. The Baltimore Museum of Industry (1415 Key Highway) sheds more light on the city's growth.
The garment industry was the city's most important 100 years ago, says the museum's Helynn Garner.
"One out of four workers in Baltimore worked in the garment loft," she says. "Most of them were women, most of them were immigrants."
The city flourished. By 1900, more than half a million people called Baltimore home, and suburbs were cropping up outside the city's borders. But in 1904, tragedy struck.
Out of the ashes
On February 7, the Great Baltimore Fire reduced most of downtown Baltimore to ashes. It burned for two days and spread over 140 acres. Amazingly, no one died, and no homes were lost.
"It had a rebirth effect on the city," says Dennis Fiori, executive director of the Maryland Historical Society (201 W. Monument Street). "And the commercial district as we know it today, much of it was developed after 1904."
The city rebuilt itself with fireproof buildings, modern architecture, and a new skyline -- and soon downtown Baltimore was again bustling.
Companies such as Bethlehem Steel helped rejuvenate the city. But in the 1960s and '70s, some of Baltimore's industry died out, and buildings that once hummed with activity were silenced.
"It was a bunch of rotting piers, a terrible place," says former mayor (and later Maryland governor) William Schaefer, "sunken boats, rats all over the place."
Schaefer initiated the city's revitalization during his tenure as mayor. Dilapidated row houses were sold for a buck to encourage residents to move back downtown. A new convention center was built, along with a new aquarium.
Those attractions -- along with shopping mecca Harborplace -- beckon 7 million visitors each year.
Baltimore is now the 13th largest city in the country. It has made a lot of changes over its long life, but there are some things that remain as unique symbols of Baltimore -- things like the city's famous row houses with their decorative, painted screens and white marble steps, and those delectable crustaceans, Maryland crabs.
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