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Baltimore turns 285 years old, or does it?

Confusion over the date to celebrate the city's birthday

By Yvonne Wenger, The Baltimore Sun

6:00 AM EDT, July 30, 2014

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Wednesday is Baltimore's 285th birthday.

Or is it?

A quick Google search declares July 30, 1729, as the day the city was founded. That's when the colonial assembly of Maryland passed the bill that established Baltimore as a town.

But historians such as Fred Shoken say deciding what day to celebrate the city's birth isn't so simple.

"It's sort of like, take your pick," Shoken said.

The native Baltimorean, who works as a historic preservation consultant, said he prefers Aug. 8. That's when Gov. Benedict Leonard Calvert signed the bill into law.

Some also might consider Dec. 31, 1796, the date the city was incorporated, or maybe even Jan. 12, 1730, when surveyors laid out the town.

The city's official seal says 1797, when a mayor and city council took over.

"I remember in 1979 when William Donald Schaefer was mayor, the city had a 250th celebration," Shoken said. "In 1997, when Kurt Schmoke was mayor, the city was celebrating its 200th anniversary."

It seems that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake favors July 30. She sent out a public "thank you" to city employees on that date a few years ago, but hasn't said much about the birthday since.

This year, the city will mark the date quietly — as it prepares for another big anniversary: the bicentennial of the Battle of Baltimore.

Francis O'Neill, reference librarian for the Maryland Historical Society, said the dates used to mark special occasions in history tend to slide around to fit the schedules of modern partygoers.

"It's like the old accountant who's asked how much is two and two, and he said, 'How much do you need it to be?'"

This year's Star Spangled Spectacular, he noted, correctly marks the battle with the British in Baltimore Harbor, which took place over several days in September.

"Everything else is really up for grabs, depending on when you need it to be," he said.

The law signed by Calvert on Aug. 8, 1729, authorized the "act of erecting a town on the north side of the Patapsco" on 60 acres north of Water Street and east of Light Street, near what's now the heart of the city's financial district.

To Shoken's way of thinking, a bill is just a bill until the governor signs it. In truth, though, if you'd made it to the north bank of the Patapsco on either day, you wouldn't have seen much.

"The city didn't happen until they laid it out and sold off the lots," he said.

Shoken discovered the confusion around the date while indulging his habit of double-checking historical events. (Shoken notes that the town was originally spelled "Baltemore.")

"One day I was looking it up, and it said, 'the city of Baltimore was founded,' and I started doing research," he said.

The creation of the town was prompted by a petition from "leading men in Baltimore County."

On the 60 acres carved out from the county, surveyors created 60 equal-sized lots and sold each for 40 shillings. Buyers were told to build houses of at least 400 square feet within 18 months.

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

ywenger@baltsun.com

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