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News Opinion Editorial

The second defense of Baltimore

"And all I ask for is a tall ship and a star to sail her by."

Those words are from John Masefield's "Sea-Fever," a poem that evokes strong feelings of nostalgia for the maritime life of the past and all the beauty and adventure that came with it. Baltimore had its own bout of sea fever this past week, and it was just what the doctor ordered.

It will be months before Sailabration organizers have an official tally of exactly how many people came to Baltimore to see the 17 tall-masted ships and 28 military vessels that arrived last Wednesday to launch Maryland's War of 1812 bicentennial celebration, but it's safe to assume tourists numbered in the hundreds of thousands (if not 1 million or more), and their economic impact was likely in the neighborhood of $100 million.

Not since Operation Sail 2000, when a comparable armada of tall ships visited to celebrate the city's rich maritime history, has there been anything quite like it. To see so many wooden masts rising above the Inner Harbor — as they did so many generations earlier — evoked a time when Baltimore was first emerging as a global trading center.

That Baltimore ended up hosting the largest War of 1812 kick-off ceremony in the nation this past week should be a source of tremendous civic pride, not just for Charm City but for Maryland. It might have been held in New York, or Boston, or Norfolk, Va., but it wasn't.

Not to belittle the Baltimore Grand Prix, but it's clear that the city does 19th century sailing much better than 21st century automobiles. Perhaps the next step will be an annual tall ship race around the Patapsco River and Chesapeake Bay. It's a lot quieter, and it doesn't require any extra paving.

Organizers estimate that not only did the event cost a mere $6 million or less to stage but that (at least when the final tally is done) the vast majority of those dollars will have come from the private sector, chiefly in the form of donations from corporate sponsors like Under Armour, Legg Mason and M&T Bank, but also from merchandise and coin sales.

But the real measure of success can be found in the first-hand accounts of those who attended the festivities downtown and elsewhere, visiting the ships or witnessing the Blue Angels in action. The public obviously had a great time — and said so in venues ranging from Twitter to this newspaper's letters to the editor.

Could it really be just a matter of weeks ago that a Baltimore County delegate was agitating from the back bench (and his radio talk show) to have the same Inner Harbor be declared the equivalent of a no-man's land? To stand on the deck of the Pride of Baltimore, to be surrounded by a sea of men, women and children happily strolling down the city streets, waving and clapping in excitement, was to recognize just how overstated and outrageous that particularly episode of fearmongering has proven to be.

There certainly were youthful mobs in the Inner Harbor these last six days. And wasn't it great?

Whatever money Sailabration earned for local hotels, restaurants, stores and the like, it pales compared to the good will the event generated. This is what this city does best, attracting people from around the world to enjoy a marine-centered celebration of history and tradition. Pride of Baltimore, indeed.

The War of 1812 may not generate quite the publicity or sales of history books or public commemorations that other U.S.-involved conflicts have received. But thanks to Fort McHenry and "The Star-Spangled Banner," as well as the dozens of skirmishes fought on Maryland soil over 18 months of British invasion, it is Maryland's war as much as anyone's.

Sailabration was an inspired kick-off, but organizers have months to create something even more spectacular and involving to draw attention to the battles ahead (less two centuries, of course) culminating in the Battle of Baltimore two years from now. In the meantime, those who planned and staged the event can rest in the knowledge they successfully defended Baltimore in more ways than one.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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