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History of the Harbor

Maryland Historical Society

The Baltimore Harbor has transformed Baltimore City from a small industrial town into a booming tourist destination. From the beginning of the 18th century, the Harbor’s strategic importance generated widely successful trade, shipbuilding, canning, and steel industries. Years of industrial power, however, have rapidly deteriorated the water conditions, pipes, and infrastructure, forcing Baltimore into a period of revitalization and reorganization of the economy. Today, Baltimore’s Inner Harbor drives the tourist industry that the city has come to rely on. This reliance on tourism requires a healthy harbor to maintain and expand Baltimore’s appeal as a recreational and productive destination.

 In the 1790's, Maryland led the nation in shipbuilding and Baltimore was the undisputed leader of this industry on the Chesapeake Bay. Baltimore Clippers, built for speed in an era when speed on the high seas was synonymous with survival, won the respect of the maritime nations of the world and helped establish the reputation of the Port of Baltimore as a center of commerce and the home of some of the world's most creative shipbuilders. The first US Navy ship ever to enter service was launched from the Harris Creek Shipyard in Fell's Point on September 7, 1797. She was christened the USS Constellation and served in the US Fleet for more than 50 years, protecting our countrymen in campaigns against Tripoli and Great Britain. Now, she rests in the Inner Harbor as a reminder of Baltimore’s contribution to our nation.

By the 1840s, oyster canning was an established industry in Baltimore. The oyster beds nearby, and the city’s growing population of workers and rail connections, made Baltimore the center of canning in the country. By 1870, there were more than 100 packinghouses in the city. The region’s real economic powerhouse, however, was the steel industry. Steel was brought to the City with the construction of a steel mill and shipyard by the Pennsylvania Steel Company in 1893, and came to dominate the local economy following the company’s acquisition by Bethlehem Steel in 1916. Workers from rural Maryland and Pennsylvania and the South, of Welsh, Irish, German, Russian, Hungarian and African-American descent, were attracted to the promise of high pay of industrial employment, and many came to live in the company town.

In 1950, after decades of hyper growth fueled by immigration, Baltimore's population peaked in the 1950 census. Post World War II Baltimore began to spread into the outlying counties due to the rise of mechanized transportation and suburban development. With these population shifts to the suburbs and business activity that followed,  economic conditions in Baltimore declined.

However, in the late 1950s, business and government rallied to prepare a redevelopment plan to save Downtown and quickly expanded the plan to include the 240 acres around the Harbor. A plan was prepared, support garnered, and clearance began. By 1976, our Harbor hosted a huge Bicentennial Celebration with International Tall Ships sailing into the Harbor and tens of thousands of tourists flocking to the Harbor. In 1980, Harborplace and the National Aquarium opened, securing Baltimore’s place as a center of tourism activity and a model for waterfront redevelopment around the world.

Today, Baltimore’s tourism industry continues to grow and prosper and has become one of Baltimore’s top employment generators. With nearly 8,000 hotel rooms, hundreds of restaurants, world-class attractions, and thriving businesses, the tourism sector is an employment source for over 16,000 residents and the Harbor a destination of choice for entertainment and business.

More recently new mixed-use neighborhoods along the waterfront such as Harbor East have grown, with locally owned restaurants, movie theatres, hotels and luxury condominiums rising along the skyline. Many of the leading national and regional employers have moved to new LEED certified buildings along the waterfront.   

As we look to the future, Waterfront Partnership sees Baltimore’s Harbor growing still to be the home of even more outdoor activities – bike paths along the waterfront promenade; grassy parks lining the water’s edge, sailing regattas, kids slipping down water slides, swim teams racing from shore to shore, fishing lines cast from boats and piers. 

 
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