Deutschland's visit to Baltimore was a local fascination, and linked to international incident

Deutschland's visit to Baltimore was a local fascination, and linked to international incident
Painting of the Deutschland outbound from Baltimore in the Craighill Channel on Aug. 2, 1916. This piece was painted by Capt. Brian H. Hope, a retired Chesapeake Bay pilot and a member of the Association of Maryland Pilots. The Arnold resident is also a self-trained maritime painter. - Original Credit: (HANDOUT)

A celebrated Baltimore maritime episode occurred 100 years ago this month when the U-boat Deutschland, a German submarine ostensibly on a commercial mission, spent a couple of weeks at South Baltimore's Locust Point at the height of World War I.

The arrival in July 1916 of the Unterseeboot, from a Germany at war with Britain and France, was an event that captivated the country's attention.


"The U-Deutschland was something of a celebrity during World War I. To German citizens, she was Germany twisting the [British] lion's tail and making a mockery of the [the British naval] blockade," wrote historian Dwight R. Messimer in his 2015 book "The Baltimore Sabotage Cell."

At the time, Baltimore had a large population that spoke German as their native tongue, and many cheered the vessel's arrival and prayed it would make it back safely to its home port. It did.

The U.S. was a neutral power at the time — though that would soon change with a declaration of war against Germany in April 1917.

As the exotic and somewhat mysterious German submarine was berthed in Baltimore, the U-boat's captain, Paul Koenig, became a celebrity. When he walked into the Hotel Belvedere lobby, the house band struck up "The Watch on the Rhein."

The courtly and articulate captain was the center of attention at a Baltimore Country Club banquet. Lois Marshall, the wife of U.S. Vice President Thomas R. Marshall, drove from Washington and demanded — and got — a personal tour of the Deutschland.

Meanwhile, as the Deutschland was tied up near Latrobe Park east of Port Covington, New York harbor hundreds of miles north was rocked by an explosion in the early hours of Sunday, July 20, 1916.

A sprawling munitions rail depot, known as Black Tom Island, shook with the explosion of tons of gunpowder, shells and bullets. The munitions had been destined for Britain and France.

That incident, it was later revealed, had a connection to the Deutschland — and to a Baltimore figure.

While Captain Koenig took his bows and posed for photos, the person behind the ship's visit was a Baltimore businessman of German ancestry, Paul Hilken.

Hilken was chief of the Baltimore division of the North German Lloyd steamship company and had his own office building in downtown Baltimore. A City College graduate and Roland Park resident, Hilken was a pillar of Baltimore's Zion Lutheran Church.

The Baltimore Sun later reported that a postwar reparations commission determined that Hilken — on orders from the German government — had set up a shipping firm to receive the Deutschland and its cargo, presumably valuable dyes used for fabrics.

In his book, Messimer alleges that while on an earlier business trip to Germany in early 1916, Hilken had been recruited by the German secret service, the Sektion Politik, to become a saboteur with an objective to destroy munitions bound for England, France and Russia — all Germany's enemies.

Messimer writes that the clandestine operation's command center was Hilken's third-floor office in his steamship line's Hansa Haus building at the northeast corner of Charles and German streets. (German Street would, in a few years, be changed to Redwood Street during World War I.)

The Sun reported that to eliminate the munitions at the Black Tom piers in Jersey City, Hilken peeled off $1,000 bills to a small number of operatives who were associated with the Deutschland.


The plot scored a bull's eye. The Black Tom explosions killed at least five people and shattered windows across the Hudson in Manhattan.

The German government denied responsibility.

Hilken left Baltimore after the episode — the Federal Bureau of Investigation was onto him.

He was called to testify before the reparations commission but escaped all legal actions and died in 1959 in New London, Conn.