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Canton takes its name from China

Travelers to Baltimore in the 19th Century would have witnessed the noise and people at work along the city’s harbor.

Workers with hammers and saws toiled at Canton’s shipyards. Scores of workers, both African-American and white, made a day’s wage by building and repairing the ships that sailed the Patapsco River, the Chesapeake Bay and beyond.

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Baltimore merchant Capt. John O’Donnell’s ship, the Pallas, returned with a rich cargo in August 1785. His exploits became so well known that he named what is today the city neighborhood of Canton after the city in China. English speakers anglicized the city of Guangzhou to Canton.

It is believed that Capt. O’Donnell’s was the first ship from Baltimore to reach China.

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A newspaper notice recorded the goods O’Donnell brought back for sale: “hyfon teas of the first quality in quarter chests ... Nankin blue and white stone china ... satins, the greatest part black ... silk umbrellas of all sizes, elegant paper wallhangings ... cinnamon and cinnamon flavors, rhubarb, opium.”

George Washington ordered an agent to buy “if great bargains are to be had.”

O’Donnell invested heavily in Southeast Baltimore real estate. He created Canton Company to develop the area and it evolved over the decades as an industrial park surrounded by a sprawling residential neighborhood. Some of the early Canton residents were Welsh immigrants who were skilled in the copper trade. Numerous European immigrants ultimately settled in Canton. The neighborhood became dotted by German, Polish, Welsh and English religious congregations. Jewish merchants operated corner stores.

The neighborhood’s many rowhouses south of Patterson Park became the backbone of Baltimore’s Polish community.

Clinton Street in Canton became its industrial alley. By the 1850s, both sides of the thoroughfare were dotted by iron-making industrial sites. Today these work places are forgotten but they survive as Baltimore street names. Industrialist Horace Abbott, whose mills belched smoke in Canton lived at a fancy Victorian house on the site of what is today’s Baltimore City College. Nearby is Abbottston Street in the Coldstream-Homestead-Montebello community.

O’Donnell’s statue stands in O’Donnell Square, a commercial center of Canton along O’Donnell Street. Now lined by bars and restaurants, it once had a small city market staged under a wood pavilion and on the sidewalks.

In 1956, the square had only a few neighborhood bars, Eddie’s and Schenning’s taverns, an office of the Polish-American Building Association, O’Donnell radio and television repair, a Provident Savings Bank, some curtain and Venetian blind shops, and Carroll Price’s drug store.

Canton shares a neighborhood boundary line with Highlandtown. When two of the city’s major brewers were active in Southeast Baltimore, people debated whether National Bohemian and Gunther’s Brewery were in Highlandtown or Canton. If Eastern Avenue belonged to Highlandtown, certainly Boston Street was Canton.

As Canton’s population aged in the 1970s, older residents sold their homes and shopfronts. A bar and restaurant renaissance occurred along O’Donnell Square. When a neon sign of Mr. Boh, the mascot of National Bohemian beer was installed atop the old brewery, Southeast Baltimore got its own beacon. As Canton gentrified, homes and businesses were renovated. Its once busy industrial waterfront, anchored by the Tin Decorating Co., became stylish apartments.

Another Canton landmark, the American Can Company on Boston Street, evolved into a mixed-use neighborhood center of restaurants and offices as the community was making its transition.

Canton is also home to Baltimore’s oldest continuously operating neighborhood library. Several years ago the building underwent a $2.9 million restoration after termites invaded its wooden beams.

When the building opened on Feb. 15, 1886, The Baltimore Sun reported that 250 people, including donor Enoch Pratt and his wife, “assembled in the cheerful reading room” in a building described as a “neat design, of brick and sandstone.” Other dignitaries attending the library opening included Charles J. Bonaparte, a Park Avenue resident who went on to be secretary of the Navy and U.S. attorney general.

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The Sun said that first book borrowed was a volume of poet Sidney Lanier’s works. Lanier is himself commemorated with a statue on Charles Street near University Parkway.

Of the six original Enoch Pratt Free Library neighborhood branches, only the Canton branch — known for years as Branch No. 4 — remains under Pratt control. The other five still stand and several have been made into community centers.

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