- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 15, 2001

History collides with the 21st century at the corner of Fleet and President streets in downtown Baltimore.

In the shadow of the 32-story Baltimore Waterfront Marriott Hotel on the west side of President Street lies an unassuming two-story brick building with a curved roof. Once the oldest big-city railroad station in the United States, the President Street Station was the "head house" of a 6-square-block railroad yard and the Baltimore terminus of the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore railroad. The building has witnessed more than 150 years of Baltimore history, including the tumultuous events of the Civil War era.

It was a railroad freight depot until 1953 but was abandoned in 1978. By 1990, it was badly deteriorated. However, a nonprofit group, the Friends of the President Street Station, began raising funds for a museum in 1993, and today the building serves as the Baltimore Civil War Museum.

The Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore railroad, known as the PW&B, opened a railroad yard on the site in 1848 to service its tracks ending at the Baltimore waterfront. The current building, designed by George A. Parker, was built with four bowstring-arch roof trusses and opened on Feb. 18, 1850. At that time, the site included shops for servicing locomotives and railroad cars, a freight depot and a train shed, which extended across present-day President Street, 208 feet east of the museum.

Visitors enter the museum through efficient and modern glass doors. They are greeted at the admissions counter by museum interpreter Paul O'Neil. The exhibits are to the visitor's right and extend behind the admissions counter. A small museum shop is on the immediate left. The second floor is presently unoccupied and unfinished. During the time when the building was a railroad station, the first floor contained a ticket sales area, a special waiting room for female passengers and a general waiting area. The second floor was home to the offices of the PW&B.

The museum, which opened in 1997, took four years to plan and build, at a cost of a little more than $1 million. The state of Maryland provided a $500,000 grant, and the city of Baltimore did likewise, in money and in-kind services. The building and land are owned by Baltimore and leased to the Maryland Historical Society, which operates the museum.

The exhibits chronicle the role the railroad station played in the Civil War and include "Baltimore on the Eve of War," which shows Baltimore in 1860 and pictures of Civil War-era figures. Other exhibits are titled "Off to War in 1861," "From Manacles to Muskets" and "Action at the President Street Depot."

"From Manacles to Muskets" tells the story of the station's role in the Underground Railroad and the contribution of black troops to the Union war effort. Included in the exhibits are brief biographies of such figures as George W. Brown, then mayor of Baltimore; Police Chief George P. Kane; inventor Ross Winans; and Luther Ladd, a 17-year-old private in the 6th Massachusetts Volunteer Militia who was killed in the Pratt Street riot on April 19, 1861.

The President Street Station's involvement in the escalating tensions between North and South began in the 1850s, when several captured runaway slaves were routed through the depot. Then, at approximately 3:30 a.m. on Feb. 23, 1861, President-elect Abraham Lincoln arrived at the depot on a PW&B train from Harrisburg, Pa. Lincoln had left Springfield, Ill., 12 days earlier. Rumors of a plot to assassinate him in Baltimore had surfaced. At the suggestion of detective Alan Pinkerton, who had been hired by the railroad, he reluctantly agreed to change his schedule and travel through Baltimore in the wee hours of the morning. His car was uncoupled, and a team of horses pulled it west on Pratt Street to the B&O's Camden Station, where he caught the train for Washington.

All was quiet for a while, but on April 15, in response to South Carolina's attack on Fort Sumter, Lincoln called for 75,000 troops to put down the rebellion of the Southern states. In response, troops of the 6th Massachusetts Volunteer Militia left Boston on April 17, bound for Washington. They were joined en route by troops of the 26th and 27th Pennsylvania Infantry, who arrived at the President Street Station about 10:30 a.m. April 19.

The troops were issued ammunition in response to rumors of armed resistance. Seven companies of the 6th Massachusetts remained in the railroad cars and were pulled by horses down Pratt Street to Camden Station. Four companies were forced to make the journey on foot. Both were attacked and shot at by a mob of secessionist sympathizers who at one point nearly blocked the path of the troops.

The troops returned fire. Several rioters and soldiers were killed, despite courageous efforts by Brown and the Baltimore police to restore order.

In 1881, the Pennsylvania Railroad acquired a controlling interest in the PW&B, outmaneuvering the B&O. In 1886, the Pennsylvania Railroad built Pennsylvania Station about two miles to the north, near Mount Royal Avenue and Charles Street.

From then on, passenger traffic at the President Street Station dwindled. From 1886 to 1922, the station handled commuter traffic. After 1922, the station handled only freight.

The Baltimore Civil War Museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. A guided tour that retraces the 6th Massachusetts' route to Camden Station is offered at 1 p.m. on Sundays from April through October. The museum entrance fee is $3 per person, $2 for students; admission is free to children 12 and younger. The guided tour is an additional $3 per person.

Steven Bernstein is a free-lance writer.

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