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South Baltimore:
A Brief History of the SoBo Peninsula

History of South Baltimore

That's south of the harbor, Hon!

The peninsula of land south of the Baltimore Harbor, between the Northwest and Middle branches of the Patapsco River, has a long and colorful history. The strategic importance of this peninsula became apparent during both Wars for Independence.

Lord Baltimore granted the first land patent on the peninsula to Charles Gorsuch in 1661 for the yearly rent of one pound sterling. This patent was for a 50-acre tract of land that is today known as Locust Point. Gorsuch later abandoned the land, and in 1702 James Carroll received a patent for the same tract, which was then called Whetstone Point. Carroll paid a rent of 2 shillings per year.

The next tract of land on the peninsula to be patented was Upton Court, a 500-acre tract next to Whetstone Point that was patented by David Poole in 1668. Four years later, in 1672, David Williams received a patent for 100 acres next to Upton Court which he called David's Fancy. This land was between Upton Court to the east and land owned by John Howard to the west. Despite these patents, the peninsula remained unoccupied during the first two decades of the 18th century.

In 1723, John Giles obtained a Certificate of Resurvey to Upton Court and in 1725 consolidated it with Whetstone Point, which he had obtained from James Carroll for 5 pounds sterling. Giles sold 400 acres of this land 2 years later to the British Principio Company, along with the rights to all the iron ore found there, for 300 pounds sterling and 20 pounds current money of Maryland. (The Principio Company was an association of British iron-masters engaged in manufacturing pig and bar iron. It had been operating an iron furnace 20 miles to the north on the Great Falls of the Gunpowder River since 1715. Whetstone Point for many ears was to one of its principal sources of ore.) Several years later, Jacob Giles, heir of John Giles, sold the remainder of Upton Court to John Moale. When Moale found David's Fancy vacant, he also claimed that land and opened a mine.

In 1732, Richard Gist received a patent for an alluvial deposit at the foot of Lunn's Point. This area was known as Gist's Inspection, but is better known today as Federal Hill.

In 1737, John Moale obtained a Warrant of Escheat to David's Fancy. (Lord Baltimore had a right of escheat when a patentee died without a will or heirs. In a wilderness populated by semi-literate people without known relatives, this occurred frequently.) He ended up sharing ownership of most of the peninsula between the Northwest Branch and the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River with the Principio Furnace Company and Richard Gist.

The importance of Whetstone Point for the defense of Baltimore became apparent when the Revolutionary War began. Maryland expropriated the British Principio iron works on Whetstone Point and used these facilities to aid the American war effort. In 1775, preparations began to fortify the area. A water battery of 18 guns was placed on Whetstone Point. A chain was stretched across the neck of the harbor, supported by 21 sunken schooners. An air furnace was also built near the batteries to provide munitions. When the Revolutionary War ended, the Free State confiscated 195 acres of land belonging to the company and sold the land at auction.

These fortifications remained under Maryland control until 1793, when Congress passed a resolution which stated: "…the United States may think it necessary to erect a fort, arsenal, or other military works or buildings on Whetstone Point…." However, Congress did not see fit to provide adequate funds; it was the citizens of Baltimore who made up the deficiency.

Built strategically at the mouth of the Baltimore Harbor, Fort McHenry earned its place in history during the final months of the War of 1812. In September 1814, the British had turned their sights toward Baltimore after sacking and burning Washington. The British were intent on punishing Baltimore because it was home port for a large number of privateers--privately owned, armed ships sailing under government commissions--which had been harassing British shipping throughout the "Second War for Independence." Baltimoreans did not stand idly by in the face of this threat. They armed themselves and built heavy defenses around the city; Fort McHenry was a crucial element in this defense. British strategy called for their ships to blast their way past Fort McHenry. As all proud Baltimoreans know, the British failed. At the end of the 25-hour bombardment, Francis Scott Key wrote the memorable poem which later became the national anthem. The fort still proudly stands on Locust Point, an attraction for visitors from across the globe and a symbol of the American spirit.


Interesting Facts:

  • During Colonial period, there was a horseracing track on Whetstone Point.
  • An observatory was constructed on Federal Hill in the late 18th century. In 1797, David Porter notified the city that his observatory on Federal Hill was ready. Patrons could obtain a year's admittance for $3.00 or each visit was 25 cents. This observatory, subsequently known as the Signal Service Observatory, identified approaching ships and provided the information to those involved in commerce.
  • Several ferry companies operated from Locust Point. The "Locust Point Ferry Company" was formed in 1851; its route was from Kerr's Wharf to Locust Point; in 1857, the terminus changed from Kerr's Wharf to the lower end of Broadway. In 1865 the Patapsco Company opened a ferry from Locust Point to Ferry Bar.
  • In 1854, the "Federal Hill Steam Ferry Company" was organized. Its route was from Hughes to West Falls Avenue.
  • In 1865, some prominent Baltimoreans, assisted by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, inaugurated the first steamship line between Baltimore Harbor and Liverpool using old steamships purchased from the Federal Government. In 1870, the Allan Line was established between Liverpool and Baltimore.
  • In 1865, M. E. Uniack opened a ferry with 20 small boats to transport people from Covington Street to the tobacco warehouse on the opposite side of the harbor.
  • In 1868, the B & O Railroad Company signed a contract with the North German Lloyds to establish the first steamship line between Baltimore and Bremen, Germany. The B& O built piers at Locust Point to receive the stream of immigrants arriving from Europe. Although many remained in Baltimore, many other immigrants immediately boarded the B&O trains and headed for points west. Thus, Locust Point was the first American soil walked on by countless thousands of European immigrants.
  • In 1874, the first dry-dock ever constructed in Baltimore was built at Charles Reeder's wharf at the foot of Hughes Street, on the south side of the basin.
  • In 1877 the Baltimore Dry Dock Co. was incorporated. This company successfully got a bill through Congress granting a portion of the Fort McHenry tract for the construction of "Simpson's Improved Dry Dock" on that tract. In return, U. S. Government ships were to dock free at that location.


Garrett Power, Parceling Out Land in Baltimore, 1632-1796, published by the Maryland Historical Society.

J. Thomas Scharf, History of Baltimore City and County, published 1881 in Philadelphia, PA

May 21, 2019

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