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Path of light sparks memories of Baltimore piers' role as window to the world

The view of Light Street piers looking South from Pratt Street in February 1946.
The view of Light Street piers looking South from Pratt Street in February 1946. (Alex Malashuk / Baltimore Sun)

As crowds converged along Pratt and Light streets for the Light City Baltimore spectacle this week, I was reminded of this crossroads' colorful past.

Until city planners began redevelopment of the shipping piers, the area where nighttime strollers are now congregating to see the lights was once a thriving passenger and freight terminal.

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Eastern Shore peaches arrived here and — depending on the era vacationers could take off for St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands or catch a ferry and connecting train to Ocean City.

Before World War II, traffic at Pratt and Light was something akin to today's busy Southwest Airlines terminal at BWI Marshall Airport.

Many ships and steamboats that docked downtown did not travel enormous distances; a good number called at destinations throughout the Chesapeake Bay.

Perhaps the most famous was the Old Bay Line, which had nightly departures to Norfolk, Va. — it left across from what is now the Royal Sonesta Harbor Court, and later from a Pratt Street pier near today's Power Plant and the National Aquarium. The service endured until 1962.

Earlier, until the mid-1930s, it was possible to sail overnight from Baltimore to Philadelphia aboard the Ericsson Line, which docked at the corner of Pratt and Light.

Walking southward along Light Street in the direction of Federal Hill, one would find the piers of the Western Shore Steamboat Co., the Baltimore and Crisfield Line, the Rock Creek, North Carolina, Wilson, Old Bay and Tolchester lines, as well as Love Point Ferry — this is the one that transported beachgoers across the bay to the trains that would carry them to Ocean City and Rehoboth Beach, Del.

In that era, Pratt Street piers offered more distant, sometimes exotic, destinations. The United Fruit Pier and its ships were painted white for their tropical service — Baltimoreans called them the "banana boats." They also generated considerable truck and horse-drawn wagon traffic along bustling Pratt, as grocers took delivery of the tropical produce.

The Arundel Corp. maintained its own pier and had an office building on Pier 2.

Pier 3 was the Merchants and Miners Transportation Co.'s Baltimore base and a thing of curious beauty. The head house was covered in copper — somehow the architects came up with a fearsome-looking Norse sea monster, which over time oxidized to green.

Passengers who preferred water travel to Boston and Savannah, Ga., departed here. There were also summer specials to Florida and the Bahamas.

M&M ships saw government service during World War II. The Dorchester, torpedoed by a German submarine, sank off Newfoundland in 1943. Aboard were four chaplains who gave up their life jackets as the vessel sank; their heroism was commemorated on a 3-cent stamp.

Pier 3 became home to the Old Bay Line as M&M folded. An ex-Old Bay ship, the President Warfield, was renamed the Exodus in 1947, and transported Holocaust survivors to Palestine.

One year, the Orioles returned from spring training at Pier 3.

Pier 4 at Pratt Street was home to the harbormaster's office, along with the NBC Line — Norfolk, Baltimore and North Carolina.

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The Bull Line and its passenger operation, the Baltimore Insular Line, was at Pier 5. This line got to you to St. Thomas and San Juan — and during World War II saw damage from German torpedoes.

In the 1930s, the Mattingly Lumber Co. occupied Pier 6. Baltimore received timber and wood products from the Middle Atlantic, and the harborside lumber yards occupied what is now expensive real estate along East Pratt Street.

Europe beckoned for the more adventurous. The North German Lloyd Line sailed for Bremen, leaving from Andre Street in Locust Point before World War I. Then, in the 1930s, you departed for Le Havre, France, on Clinton Street in Canton aboard the Baltimore Mail Line.

This line's brick head house survives, and in fact touches the tourists who still travel by ship. It's one of the maritime-related buildings that today's cruise ships pass as they make for the Caribbean.

Note: An earlier version of this story erred in stating WWII's impact on Bull Line ships. It has been corrected here, noting that some of its ships were damaged by German torpedoes.

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