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Baltimore reeled from tragedy 133 years ago at Tivoli pier

Every evening at 7:05 p.m., the bells of the Corpus Christi Church in Bolton Hill ring to the tune of the Psalm "Out of the Depths" to commemorate the 1883 Tivoli disaster. Of those who drowned, 31 members of Corpus Christi Church parish died.
Every evening at 7:05 p.m., the bells of the Corpus Christi Church in Bolton Hill ring to the tune of the Psalm "Out of the Depths" to commemorate the 1883 Tivoli disaster. Of those who drowned, 31 members of Corpus Christi Church parish died. (Caitlin Faw / Baltimore Sun)

Today is the anniversary of a picnic excursion during the summer of 1883 that ended tragically along the banks of the Patapsco River.

That July 23 morning began with families gathered at the Inner Harbor, boarding a barge pulled by a steam tug and bound for Tivoli, a privately owned park in eastern Baltimore County that later would become the site of the Sparrows Point steel plant.

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The day ended in one of Maryland's worst disasters — 63 people, mostly mothers and their children, drowned.

The picnic had been organized by the Mount Royal Beneficial Society, a group affiliated with a newly formed Roman Catholic parish, Corpus Christi, at Mount Royal and Lafayette avenues in Bolton Hill.

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The society sold tickets throughout the city. Families from Canton, South Baltimore and the Mount Royal area filled their lunch baskets. The tug shuttled throughout the day to and from a Light Street wharf. It took passengers about 30 minutes to reach Tivoli.

The Baltimore Sun reported that during the day, the barge had carried about 500 persons. Most of the day-trippers remained into the late evening and waited for the final trip back to the city.

"When the barge approached, all those on the shore made a rush for the end of the wharf," The Sun reported. "The impatient crowd was packed behind a gate. As the barge came alongside and struck the wharf, it suddenly and without warning gave way, and a large portion of the crowd was precipitated into the water, which is about ten feet deep."

The Rev. William Starr, the Corpus Christi pastor, was standing on the shore when the pier collapsed. Christopher Doyle, a sawyer from South Baltimore's Battery Avenue, was among those realizing the danger of jumping into the water to assist in the rescue while fully clothed.

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"Go in, man, as God made you," the pastor told him.

Doyle and others stripped, jumped in and labored to save what The Sun described as a "struggling mass of maddened and bewildered people."

"Many were able to save themselves by fleeing toward the shore as the outer end of the pier crumbled and fell," The Sun reported.

The pier was poorly lighted by oil lamps, the paper noted. "Darkness added to the confusion and terror, and little could be done at once to rescue the drowning, most of whom were women and children."

News of the tragedy did not reach Baltimore until after 2 a.m. The barge landed at Fells Point's Henderson Wharf, at Fells and Wolfe streets, with the bodies of the drowned.

The Sun issued a special edition the next afternoon, July 24, 1883. The day after, the funerals began.

A Sun reporter at Corpus Christi Church described a grim scene: "Four coffins, carrying the bodies of John McAnenay, Annie, his wife, and Alice and Mamie, their little children, passed up the aisle in mourning procession, followed by a sorrowing multitude. ... Just in the rear of the last little coffin was Johnny, aged ten years, the only survivor of the family, crying bitterly."

Other reports of funerals — which took place across all faiths — reflected the city's sorrow. The Sun said 5,000 people assembled outside the home of the T.D. Crouch family on Montgomery Street before their funeral at the Warren Street Methodist Church. Another report noted that Bertha and Rebecca Ehrman, mother and daughter, were buried from the Eden Street Synagogue.

Tivoli's owners were charged with manslaughter. A year later in the Towson Courthouse, despite testimony about the pier's rotting condition, they were found not guilty.

Baltimore has never forgotten the event, and to this day a memorial rings out nightly from Corpus Christi Church, the parish from which 31 members were lost.

Every evening before the church bells are quieted for the night, there is one long, last ring. The melody is a tune set to Psalm 130, the De Profundis, or Prayer for the Dead:

"Out of the depths, I cry to thee, Lord."

"When I first came here, I asked why the church bells ring at 7:05 p.m," said the Rev. Martin Demek, pastor of Corpus Christi. "The parishioners told me: It's the Tivoli."

Baltimore Sun researcher Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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