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Museums celebrate 150th anniversary of immigrant ship's arrival in Baltimore

The Baltimore Immigration Museum is located in Locust Point.
The Baltimore Immigration Museum is located in Locust Point. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

On March 23, 1868, a ship carrying 141 passengers arrived in Baltimore from Bremerhaven, Germany, and docked at a newly built pier in Locust Point.

Those in steerage had paid $30 to cross the Atlantic aboard the SS Baltimore. It was about three weeks’ pay for a semi-skilled male worker in those days, said Nicholas Fessenden, co-founder of the Baltimore Immigration Museum.

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On Saturday, the B&O Railroad Museum and the Baltimore Immigration Museum joined together to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the ship’s arrival.

It was the first North German Lloyd steamship to dock in Baltimore. Its passengers were the first of 1.2 million immigrants who would land in the city between then and 1914.

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“We’re here to celebrate the high tide of immigration, which has made this country great,” Fessenden told a group gathered at the B&O Railroad Museum to remember the occasion.

The ship’s arrival was the result of an agreement made in 1867 between the B&O Railroad and the North German Lloyd Co. The railroad would build the immigration pier and connect it to its rail system. Lloyd would send a ship of immigrants at least monthly.

Joe Stewart, recording secretary of the Baltimore City Historical Society, called the anniversary “a very special occasion.”

“The connection between the ship and the railroad is really significant because it enabled so many people to cross the sea and then cross our country,” Stewart said.

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Many of those who arrived in Baltimore in that time period headed west, Fessenden said, particularly to the “German Triangle” — Cincinnati, Milwaukee and St. Louis.

By 1880, 11 percent of Baltimore’s population was German, said Harrison Van Waes, curator and director of volunteers for the B&O museum.

The 1890s saw a significant demographic shift, Fessenden said: A growing number of immigrants arrived from Eastern Europe.

The celebration included an open house at the Baltimore Immigration Museum, which Fessenden and his wife, Brigitte, opened in 2016. The museum is located in a 114-year-old building on Beason Street that once served as temporary housing for new immigrants.

While “everybody knows about Ellis Island,” Fessenden said, the history of immigration in Baltimore is less well known.

“Immigration is our history,” he said. “I think it’s important to celebrate our history, and this anniversary is a good way to do it.”

Kathleen Schonowski, a lifelong resident of Locust Point, said her ancestors came to Baltimore in the 1890s from Poland by way of Germany. She said she has done quite a bit of genealogical research through ancestry.com, but was still surprised to learn Saturday about certain aspects of the history of the immigration pier — such as the mysterious fire that destroyed the structure in October 1917.

She said it is important to her to remember the history of her family and community.

“It’s a connection with the past — the connection with people who made you what you are,” she said.

JoAnn Best, who serves on the board of the immigration museum, said she hopes it can inspire local residents to take interest in this part of the city’s past.

Best said her grandparents came to Baltimore from Germany.

“One of the reasons this area ... has been gentrified is because of the history,” she said. “But I think a lot of people don’t understand the significance of the history, so I’m glad we could commemorate the anniversary. I would like to get more people on board where they not only are aware of the history, but appreciate the history and work with us to preserve it.”

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