Baltimore's newest museum, poised to open to the public next month, honors the 1.2 million European immigrants who crossed the Atlantic and disembarked at a pier near Fort McHenry.
The Baltimore Immigration Museum is housed in a curious and beautifully preserved structure that was initially paid for by the German government to give temporary housing to sea-weary travelers who needed a room.
Once known as the Immigrant House, the building is now owned by the Locust Point Community Church, which still uses parts of the building for Sunday school and a church office.
The museum is the fruit of three years work by Brigitte and Nicholas Fessenden, who long dreamed of creating a place to help document Baltimore's immigrant past.
The couple did the research, created descriptive panels and oversaw renovation of two large rooms that now house their efforts. They hope in years to come to have the immigrant sleeping rooms, on the second floor, readied for public view.
"It's a bare-bones, frugal undertaking," said Brigitte V. Fessenden, a German-born historic preservation consultant who lives in Columbia.
Her husband, Nicholas Fessenden, who taught history at Friends School of Baltimore for years, said some 3,710 immigrants stayed at the house between 1904 and 1915, when World War I effectively put an end to mass immigration.
"The North German Lloyd Line was the main carrier to Baltimore," he said of the ships that carried those seeking a new home. "After setting up the travel arrangement with the B&O Railroad, there was one ship a month coming to Baltimore."
At times, many more ships made the journey as demand warranted.
Germans were the largest immigrant group to settle in Baltimore — at one time, one in four Baltimoreans spoke German as a native tongue. The museum panels tell the stories of Germans, as well as Irish, Italians, Lithuanians, Poles, Czechs, Greeks and Jews from Germany and from Eastern Europe
The Fessendens are working on a display to trace the African-American migration to Baltimore, as well as stories of Baltimore's Asian and Latino communities.
The couple is appreciative of the space afforded by Locust Point Community Church. Brigitte Fessenden hopes the museum will bring attention to the works of the church, which is affiliated with the United Church of Christ.
The couple notes the museum currently has only a few historic artifacts — among them an amazing steamer trunk, painted with the inscription "Bremen-Baltimore Sept. 25 Dampfer (steamship) Rhein."
The museum also has a copy of The New Testament, a book Brigitte Fessenden is sure some of the immigrants would have carried. She also has a mid-19th Century guidebook printed in German that discusses what immigrants might expect in their new host city. It observes that in Baltimore, below the Mason-Dixon Line, immigrants could encounter slaves.
"Germans disapproved of slavery and would not have liked this," she said.
Baltimore's rank in European immigration follows the ports of New York and Boston.
Only about 15 percent of the 1.2 million people who came through Baltimore permanently settled here. The B&O Railroad ran passenger trains directly to its Locust Point pier so once you had cleared customs you would be on your way to Cincinnati, Chicago or St. Louis.
After the end of World War I, North German Lloyd ships returned to Baltimore carrying cargo, but rarely passengers after the U.S. government imposed immigration quotas. The Immigrant House changed its mission and welcomed sailors who needed a room.
The place later opened its doors to truck drivers serving Locust Point's docks and warehouses.
"It's great to have a museum dedicated to a really important story in Baltimore," said Jason Vaughan, director of historic preservation for the Baltimore National Heritage Area.
The Baltimore Immigration Museum, 1308 Beason Street, opens to the public beginning Sunday, May 8, from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. It will remain open on Saturday and Sundays.