BALTIMORE JOURNAL: VISUAL HISTORY IS EVERYWHERE, FROM HISTORIC FELLS POINT, TO OLD STREETCARS, TO THE SING-SONG HOLLERING OF THE ARABBERS

By Ron Bernthal

A few blocks east of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, Fells Point is becoming a popular neighborhood destination for locals and visitors. The Baltimore Streetcar Museum provides a look at lost treasures, and arabbers still lead their colorful horse-drawn wagons through city streets, selling fresh fruit & vegetables.

Tugboats are part of the scene at historic Fells Point Harbor, a Baltimore neighborhood that is a living history museum. (Photo courtesy Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association)

Some of you may know Baltimore because of its connection to the musical, Hairspray, or from scenes from the former TV show , Homicide, or perhaps from the wonderful 1982 Barry Levinson film called Diner.

The city’s Inner Harbor district, which developed in the mid 1970′s, is now the most visited section of Baltimore, with restaurants, hotels, a nationally known aquarium, and Oriole Park at Camden Yards. But a few blocks east of Inner Harbor is another Baltimore, less flashy perhaps, and with fewer big name hotels, but with plenty of history to make it worth a visit.

“There is a major difference between the two neighborhood’s,” said Karen Patten, owner of Kali’s Court and Mezze (www.kalisrestaurantgroup.com), two popular restaurants on Thames Street, a narrow cobblestone street in the historic Fells Point district. “The Inner Harbor has lots of chain stores and big restaurants, but Fells Point is more intimate, less crowded, and the history of this area is very visible everywhere you look.”

A short walk down the block leads to The Admiral Fell Inn (www.harbormagic.com), a deluxe hotel overlooking Fells Point Harbor. In 1889 the property opened as The Anchorage, a rough and tumble seaman’s hostel, but its past history became a faded memory when the hotel property opened in 1985. Today, there are several connected buildings, some dating to the 1770′s, with views of the harbor and a cozy restaurant. It is a member of Historic Hotels of America, and the best place to stay in the Fells Point district.

Fells Point was established by Englishmen William Fell in 1730, and was a major shipbuilding center during the Revolutionary War, when the first two ships in the American Navy, the Wasp and the Hornet, were commissioned here. The area was kept busy during the War of 1812 as well, and not far from Fells Point Harbor is the original Flag House, where Mary Pickersgill created the American flag that influenced Francis Scott Key’s Spar Spangled Banner.

“The Flag House was the home of Pickersgill, and it was here, and across the street in the old tavern, that she and her assistants sewed the flat that eventually flew in the harbor that inspired the poem that became the national anthem,” said Ed Voboril, Director of Collections at the Flag House and Star Spangled Banner Museum. (www.flaghouse.org)

Baltimore did not see any big battles during the Civil War, but as a slave state, yet not part of the Confederacy, Maryland seemed to have one foot in each camp, and when Union troops came through Baltimore at the beginning of the war, citizens loyal to the Confederacy instigated the Pratt Street riot. “Basically, what happened was Union soldiers had to transfer train stations in Baltimore to get down to Washington, and during their march from one station to another they were attacked by locals loyal to the South,” said Robert Fairson, Manager of the Baltimore Civil War Museum (www.mdhs.org/explore/baltcivilwar.html), located just a few blocks north of Fells Point. “Four Union soldiers were killed during the skirmish, as well as twelve Baltimore residents, and it really pointed out how difficult it was for Baltimore residents and politicians, as a city with very strong Confederate sympathies, but also a northern state that did not secede from the Union.”

Fells point still looks and feels like a 19th-century village. Small alleys, some with names like Shakespeare and Petticoat, are lined with replica gas lamps, and narrow brick row houses, most dating from the 18th and 19th-centuries, line the streets, which often dead-end at the harbor, an industrial, yet scenic, area that conjures up images of tall masted B-Baltimore clipper ships and rowdy sailor bars. Fells Point became the first national registered historic district in Maryland in 1969, and many of the historic homes have been restored to their former exterior facades. The Admiral Fells Inn, whose architecture dates from the 1770′s, faces the waterfront, is a member of Historic Hotels of America, and a good home base for exploring this unique Baltimore neighborhood.

The Admiral Fell Inn is a historic hotel facing Fells Point Harbor. (Photo courtesy Historic Hotels of America)

The sounds of a horse drawn fruit & vegetable vendor walking through the streets of an American city is a rare treat, a vanishing treasure that needs to be preserved. Baltimore is the only American city where Arabbers, as they are called here, still walk the streets hollering their advertising jingles in a loud, sing-song cadence—-”Fresh grapes, apples, oranges, tangerines, cabbage, white potatoes, sweet pears, watermelons

Leonard Wills, also known as Felix, has been Arabbing for over fifty years.

“If you are working the same horse for several years, the horse knows the route better than you, and if you stop for drinks at the end of the day, and can’t quite stand steady, your horse will take you straight home,” Wills said, as he sat in the home of Dave van Allen, President of the Arabber Preservation Society (www.baltimoremd.com/arabber/), who is trying to keep the Arabbing culture from disappearing in the city.

A colorful, horse-drawn Arabber's wagon, loaded with seasonal produce, can still be spotted along some Baltimore streets. (Photo: Ron Bernthal)

Today, the tradition of Arabbing in Baltimore is just hanging on. New city ordinances regulating age and stabling horses are making it more difficult to get a vending license, and costs to maintain a horse and the special colorful Arabbing wagons have become more expensive. “Arabbing is a tradition that needs to be preserved, “van Allen said, as he pointed out an old stable and several wagons that he is hoping to renovate for the current group of about a dozen Arabbers. “Just hearing the sound of the horses on the pavement, and the songs of the Arabbers, is enough to explain why its so important to save this tradition.”

One of the old Baltimore streetcars on display at the Baltimore Streetcar Museum. Visitors can ride on some of the cars along the museum's private track. (Photo: Ron Bernthal)

Beginning in the late 1880′s, streetcars were the main form of urban mass transit, and American city streets were crisscrossed by hundreds of streetcar tracks and overhead electric lines. After World War II, the streetcar began its decline, as oil and rubber tire companies , together with auto manufacturers, bought up many of the streetcar lines and introduced the gas guzzling city bus. Today, about a dozen U.S. cities, from Portand and Seattle to Tampa and Little Rock, have brought back the clean, energy efficient streetcars.

But these current streetcars are brand new. To see and hear some of the original streetcars from the 1800′s and early 1900′s, the Baltimore Streetcar Museum (www.baltimoremd.com/streetcar) collects them, preserves them, and offers rides along its private track outside the museum.

The last Baltimore streetcar was pulled out of service in 1963, and the museum was founded three years later as America’s first downtown streetcar museum. In a large barn next to the museum, historic streetcars are rebuilt, painted, and interiors restored to their original look. An 1859 horse drawn car sits next to a classic 1902 model, which can be compared to the newest car, built in 1944. Inside the museum are streetcar memorabilia, photographs, and scale models. The museum is an all volunteer, non profit organization dedicated to preserving and promoting this mode of urban transportation.

Night view of Baltimore's skyline. (Photo courtesy Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association)

Travel Information:

Baltimore Area Convention & Visitors Bureau,www.baltimore.org

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