Port Covington: Baltimore’s Junction with the World
Port Covington long served South Baltimore as an industrial hub of the city. Sharing a peninsula with Locust Point and Fort McHenry, the port was for many years the Western Maryland Railway’s “junction with the world.” It is most remembered as a bustling port, filled with ships and trains ready to send freight across the world, but Port Covington’s story has many other chapters.
The land that would become Port Covington remained mostly unclaimed and unsettled as Baltimore grew in its earliest years. The first colonial settlers quickly carved out tracts north and east of the port in the Inner Harbor area and as far south as Whetstone Point in the late 1600’s. Expansion into the port area took much longer, even as Baltimore Town incorporated other early settlements, such as Jonestown and Fell’s Point, during the 1700’s.
The first notable use of the land did not come until 1813 when a fort was built to provide support for Fort McHenry during the War of 1812. City officials, sensing Baltimore’s vulnerability to a British attack, requested reinforcement from the War Department to fortify the city’s defenses because Fort McHenry could not repulse the enemy alone. Colonel Decius Wadsworth, Chief of Ordinance and noted engineer and inventor, designed the wedge-shaped fort to prevent the British from outflanking the forces at Fort McHenry via the Ferry Bar Channel.* Several other small forts and batteries, including Fort Babcock and Fort Look-Out , were built at this time along the harbor to bolster defenses. The new fort, sometimes called the Patapsco Battery or Fort Wadsworth, held a magazine, troop barracks, and a guardhouse. After Brigadier General Leonard Covington was mortally wounded at the Battle of Crysler’s Field in November, 1813, the fort was renamed Fort Covington to honor the fallen Maryland native. Construction was completed by December, 1813 and would soon see action.
By September, 1814 the war was at Baltimore’s door. The British had burned Washington, D.C., destroying the White House and the Capitol Building the month before, and turned their sights on the valuable port city. On September 12, American and British armies clashed on land at North Point and Hampstead Hill. The following day, the British warships began firing on Fort McHenry. The assault lasted for twenty-five long hours. Fort Covington was equipped with about ten mounted 18-pounder long guns and manned by a small garrison under the command of Captain William H. Addison. The forces at Fort Covington and the other small redoubts provided crossfire to help drive back the enemy ships and prevent them from landing. Fort McHenry withstood the bombardment, and the British were forced to retreat. Maryland lawyer Francis Scott Key, sequestered in the harbor on a British ship, was so inspired by the sight of the American flag flying over Fort McHenry amidst the fray that he wrote a poem entitled “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” which later become the national anthem. The Battle of Baltimore proved a turning point for the Americans, and the war was over by February of 1815. A small detachment remained at the fort until the 1830s.
As Baltimore expanded its borders, the fort and surrounding land became more integrated into the city, and Port Covington served as the southernmost border of the city until 1919. An 1822 map of city by Thomas Poppleton showed that roads had been planned for the land surrounding the fort all the way down to the tip of Ferry Bar, the furthest reaches of the Port Covington peninsula. By the 1850’s, the fort’s buildings were dilapidated, and the City Council debated new uses for the area, including a public square or a new powder magazine. Eventually, the fort was torn down to make way for commercial uses. A steam mill and distillery were built near the old fort site, along with a wharf owned by O. Smith. A ferry also operated off of Ferry Bar and carried people to and from Anne Arundel County until a bridge extended Light Street across the water.
The Winans brothers, Thomas DeKay and William Louis, also purchased over 100 acres along the waterfront on the peninsula in the late 1850s to establish an industrial community. The sons of famed inventor Ross Winans, whose innovations in railroad technology spurred the industry, envisioned building a locomotive manufacturing plant and shipyard on the site, surrounded by employee housing. Their father had dreamed up a new type of steamship – called a cigar boat for its cylindrical shape with pointed ends – and his sons hoped to manufacture the boat on a large scale at their new shipyard. The new design had too many problems, and the cigar boat never caught on commercially. The failure of the ship and the family’s pro-Confederate politics brought the end of the Winans’ community. The Winans walked away from the project after building a few piers and a cottage, which was used as an office, but held on to the land. The property was later used as a brickyard and a trash dump, but the cottage stood until 1913 when it burned down.
The Winans Cottage, before it was lost to fire, served as the clubhouse for the L’Hirondelle Rowing Club, Undine Boat Club, and others similar clubs over the years and represented the growing entertainment use of Ferry Bar and Port Covington. Several resorts and public beaches cropped up along the waterfront and became a popular place for Baltimoreans to escape the long, hot summer days. In the early 1890’s, new trolley lines began bringing the urbanites from all over the city to such destinations as George Kahl’s Ferry Bar Resort. Yacht and boat clubs also lined the coast. In a 1951 article for the Baltimore Sun, Benjamin A. Hooper recalled in pleasant Sundays spent with his family at George Kahl’s Ferry Bar Resort when he would fish from the balcony and his parents would dance and have drinks. The resort notoriously flouted Baltimore’s prohibition of alcohol sales on Sunday with a pavilion 30 yards offshore and just outside city limits. Hooper described a lovely scene: “As you sat fishing—and as your parents sat drinking beer—you could see the scull races that began at the Arundel Boat Club….You could see sailboats…and the rowboats and canoes that carried young fellows in their boater hats and their girls, who carried parasols.”(1)
The surrounding area remained remarkably rural before the Western Maryland Railway turned Port Covington into a lively port and railroad terminal. George F. Obrecht, Jr., in another Baltimore Sun article, remembered playing in the fields that abutted the railroad tracks on Port Covington as late as 1911. In the winter, he and his friends would skate on the ponds that dotted the landscape and fish there in the summer. Pasture land still existed along South Charles, Light, and Hanover Streets, and after swimming at Winans Beach at Ferry Bar, Obrecht and his pals would milk the cows there.(2)
The Western Maryland Railway had long wanted to connect its ever expanding railroad network with the Baltimore harbor and found Port Covington to be the perfect location. A railroad terminal there would serve as their “junction with the world” and allow the railway to grow its shipping networks and tap into the global market. In 1883, the company formed the Western Maryland Tidewater Railroad Company, which sanctioned a new tidewater line, but the project stalled for almost twenty years. Construction of the connecting lines from Walbrook Junction, then outside of the city, down to Port Covington was completed in 1902, and the new railroad terminal was finished in 1904.
The terminal changed the area’s landscape dramatically. It covered over 95 acres and the land had to be molded into usable space. According to a history of the Western Maryland Railway, “About 100,000 cubic yards of dirt were removed to level the area; some 500,000 cubic yards of mud and sand were dredged in digging channels and anchorages.”(3) The original structure included 75 miles of track, two piers, one for coal and another for freight, a 600-foot bulkhead, and a transfer bridge for moving railcars. On the facility’s first day of operations on September 24, 1904, three freight cars were loaded with canned goods to be sent south and west. As the railroad continued to lay track across the state, the terminal’s business grew and the facilities with it. The biggest boost came once connections were made with West Virginia and Pittsburgh train lines. Expansion was necessary, and in 1913, the Railway purchased 90 acres from the Winans family. A grain elevator was built on the new land, and the new development signaled the end of Ferry Bar’s resort era. The railroad’s locomotive repair shops were also transferred to Port Covington from Hagerstown and Elkin, which brought hundreds of jobs to the city. By 1929, the terminal could store over 100,000 tons of freight, and the docks could accommodate seven ocean vessels.
Upkeep on the terminal proved costly, and new technology forced renovations. The city assisted with some of the repairs and funded new infrastructure, but the Western Maryland Railway footed much of the bill. In 1950, the company laid out a twelve million dollar plan to modernize the piers and incorporate the growing trucking industry. However, these updates and innovations did not keep the Port Covington railroad terminal in business. In 1973, the Western Maryland Railway was absorbed into the Chessie System, the holding company of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway and Baltimore & Ohio Railroad companies, which eventually became CSX Transportation. Marine operations at the port ceased in the 1970s, and the railway soon followed.
The end of the railroad era reopened Port Covington to new possibilities and new chapters. Many plans have been proposed for the area since the 1980s when CSX began selling off the land. In 1985, it was in contention to be the home to a new stadium replacing Memorial Stadium, but Camden Yards was chosen instead. Later, the Baltimore Sun opened a new printing plant. Other maritime industries have also moved into the area, but no large scale redevelopment has been successful to date. Maryland native Kevin Plank is currently working to build a new home base for his sportswear company, Under Armour, as well as a mixed-use neighborhood on the once bustling port. (Lara Westwood)
*There is some debate in the scholarship as to whether Colonel Decius Wadsworth or Captain Samuel Babcock of the Corps of Engineers designed the fort. Both were involved with the building of the new fortifications in Baltimore and had forts named for them.
Sources and Further Reading:
(1) Hooper, Benjamin A. “I Remember When…Ferry Bar Was a Thriving Resort.” Baltimore Sun, January 4, 1951.
(2) Obrecht, George F., Jr. “I Remember When…Ferry Bar Was a Bathing Beach.” Baltimore Sun, August 8, 1948.
(3) Williams, Harold A. The Western Maryland Railway Story; a Chronicle of the First Century, 1852-1952. Baltimore, 1952, 118.
Banisky, Sandy, and Steven M. Luxenberg. “Port Covington Road Links Questioned.” Baltimore Sun 18 Jan. 1985.
“Fort Babcock.” Historic U.S. and Canadian Forts. FortWiki.
“Fort Look-Out.” Historic U.S. and Canadian Forts. FortWiki.
Payette, Pete. “Baltimore Harbor.” Maryland Forts. American Forts Network.
Sheads, Scott S. The Rockets’ Red Glare: The Maritime Defense of Baltimore in 1814. Centreville, MD: Tidewater, 1986, 60-75.
Sheads, Scott S. “Fort Covington (1813-1836).” Maryland in the War of 1812. 2011.
Sherman, Natalie. “Baltimore’s New Economy Meets Its Old One in Port Covington.” Baltimore Sun. 6 Mar. 2015.
War of 1812 Timeline. Baltimore Heritage Area Association.
“Winans Cottage Burns.” Baltimore Sun 20 Sept. 1913.
“Winans Cove Will Hum.” Baltimore Sun 1 Feb. 1913.