Port Covington’s name celebrates a fort that participated in the defense of Baltimore during the War of 1812. While not nearly as famous as its sister, Fort McHenry, that name has been obliterated in a fit of rebranding. From now on, it’s going to be known as Baltimore Peninsula. Or so they think.
Don’t expect hidebound Baltimoreans to buy into the new name. In an act of civic defiance worthy of when they sent the British soldiers and fleet packing, they will most likely continue to call the South Baltimore peninsula what it is, Port Covington.
Baltimoreans are a hearty and loyal tribe, and they don’t easily cotton to change or high-paid out-of-town experts and consultants prettying up existing geography with fancy names — all to sell condominiums, fancy consumer goods, and high-priced dinners and glasses of chardonnay.
It was during the coming of the War of 1812 that nervous Baltimoreans began to seriously contemplate the defense of the city. They worried that Fort McHenry might not be able to stop the English Navy from bombarding the city. They might instead might sail up the middle branch of the Patapsco and take Fort McHenry from the rear.
In 1813, three small fortifications, Battery Babcock, Fort Look-out and Fort Covington, began to rise on what is geographically the Baltimore peninsula, today the site of CSX’s Riverside Yards.
Fort Covington was the largest of the three with a pie-slice shape. It was named for Gen. Leonard Wailes Covington, a Prince George’s County native who is “one of the least known generals of the War of 1812. He doesn’t rate more than a footnote in most history books,” Evening Sun columnist Peter Kumpa wrote in 1989. Covington, a career Army officer, was 45 when he was wounded during the Battle of Crysler’s Farm in Ontario, during the ill-fated November 1813 campaign to capture Montreal.
By September 1814, 80 soldiers occupied Fort Covington under the command of Capt. William H. Addison, and their time was coming. The British invasion of the city began in earnest Sept. 12, 1814. After the British fleet was thwarted by the guns of Fort McHenry and with its invading soldiers bogged down on the east side, part of the fleet swung westward, sailing past Fort McHenry into the Ferry Bar Channel.
Shortly after midnight Sept. 14, 20 enemy barges were spotted through a driving rain, and Fort Covington’s armaments came alive. After a fierce, two-hour engagement, an unknown number of the barges went to the bottom of the Patapsco, and dozens of British soldiers died at the gateway to Baltimore.
With the end of the war, Fort Covington fell into obscurity and was dismantled, with its bricks being sold at auction in 1869; The Sun reported that “two and three-quarter acres, known as ‘Old Fort Covington’ is to be sold at auction.”
The area remained a bucolic outpost of the city when the Western Maryland Railway formed the Western Maryland Tidewater Railroad Co. in 1883, planning to build a tidewater terminal for the railroad. The project languished for nearly 20 years until being completed in 1914 but was designated Port Covington in 1904.
Eventually, the complex could handle 2,000 railroad cars. Extending 1,000 feet into the water, two piers, one for coal and the other for freight, were built. They could accommodate 23 oceangoing steamships at once, and later, a grain elevator and a locomotive shop were added to the 190-acre tract.
Port operations ceased during the 1970s and railroad operation by the late 1980s. The Sun opened its $100 million printing plant on the site of the former railroad yard in 1992. Retail, residential and other mixed-use constructions continue to rise on the peninsula.
But Port Covington is still part of the working port. The Maryland Cruise Ship Terminal is located on nearby McComas Street, and two Navy vessels, the Cape Washington and Cape Wrath, are tied up at piers by the Rye Street Tavern.
As for Gen. Covington, he lingered for 48 hours from his wounds, and reportedly the last words he spoke were “Independence forever!”
Covington was first buried with several other veterans of the battle in French Mills, New York, where Fort Covington, New York, was established by the Canadian border and named for him. In 1820, he migrated to a military cemetery in Sackets Harbor, New York, at a place called Mount Covington.
The erection of an appropriate stone monument failed to materialize, and Covington’s grave was marked by a “frail wooden monument,” Kumpa wrote, “but decades late that vanished. By then local inhabitants could not identify the location of the graves and the wooden markers had turned to dust.”