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Irish immigrants created a stir, and compassionate response, in 1800s

Judge Tom Ward leads a 2015 tour of the W Baltimore neighborhood as it relates to Irish history. He is on the steps of The Irish Railroad Workers Museum, 918-20 Lemmon St., which on Saturday will host a commemoration the great famine at 1 p.m.
Judge Tom Ward leads a 2015 tour of the W Baltimore neighborhood as it relates to Irish history. He is on the steps of The Irish Railroad Workers Museum, 918-20 Lemmon St., which on Saturday will host a commemoration the great famine at 1 p.m.(Kim Hairston / Baltimore Sun)

Baltimore experienced a refugee crisis more than 150 years ago, a little-known event being recalled Saturday during at a ceremony in Southwest Baltimore at the Irish Railroad Workers Museum.

It was during the busy 1847 spring sailing season that three ships carrying 674 immigrants, mostly young Irish natives, arrived at Baltimore harbor.

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The passengers were sick, some near death. The ships — the Hampden, the Richard Anderson and the Rio Grande — had sailed from Liverpool. They came to be known collectively as "coffin ships" because of the overcrowded conditions that contributed to disease spreading among the passengers.

Those on board had been fleeing the great Irish famine. At the time The Baltimore Sun, quoting the newspaper The Dublin Nation, reported: "Two millions of human beings... are destined to perish by this year's famine in Ireland."

The port of Baltimore's health officer would not allow the sickest of the refugees to come into the city's most populated parts. Baltimore's quarantine area was a then-isolated stretch of lower Canton opposite Fort McHenry. Today, it is marked by the Lazaretto Point light and a Lehigh Cement facility.

"The truly distressing and pitiable situation of most of the Irish passengers who have lately arrived in our city appears to be little known," The Sun reported on May 11, 1847. The article mentioned the efforts of the Hibernian Society of Baltimore to "ameliorate the immigrants' condition."

This society, which remains active today, assists the Irish of Maryland in need.

"Many of the passengers ... have been in a wretched condition; feeble and weak from the want of food at home, their situation has been rendered worse by the confinement of their passage, and they have landed with frames emaciated by hunger and broken down by disease," The Sun wrote.

The story detailed how the last of the three vessels, the Rio Grande, carried the "most wretched" passengers. Of its 220 passengers, nearly half were "prostrated by disease and starvation, destitute in everything; in fact, in the most deplorable condition the mind can conceive of."

Most of the adults were in their 20s. The family names included Barrett, Reddington, Loftus, Coyne, Flinn, Regan, McGrath, Gordon, Hughes, Gallagher, Devine, McCaffrey, Kenny and Feeney. Their occupations included servant, stonecutter, gentleman, laborer, weaver, ship's carpenter, cooper, farmer, shopkeeper and dressmaker.

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The Sun reported a Fayette Street baker, G.W. Arnold, distributed 100 loaves of bread among the immigrants, and the paper encouraged others involved in the food trades to be similarly generous.

The Hibernian Society answered the call. Its members raised funds for a temporary hospital. The Sisters of Charity, from Emmitsburg, volunteered as nurses.

The immigrants carried what the health officer called "ship fever," or typhus and dysentery. Disease claimed the lives of many of the immigrants — and some of those giving them care.

In June, The Sun reported the death of Sister Clarina, a Sisters of Charity member born Mary Fledderman, and the illnesses of Sister Chrysostom and Sister Mary Ann. The paper said rumors were circulating about the health of the sisters who served "in the spirit of self-sacrifice."

The infirmary area remained under quarantine for weeks.

The Rev. James Dolan, pastor of St. Patrick's Church on Broadway in Fells Point, rallied support. He visited what The Sun called the Canton "infirmary" and soon was addressing the need for housing the children whose parents had died.

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He worked with Hibernian Society president Hugh Jenkins to buy a 71-acre suburban tract in Govans on Homeland Avenue to create a boys' orphanage.

The institution housed as many as 30 boys in the 1850s, and was later transferred to Fells Point. The Govans property became the basis of a Roman Catholic parish, St. Mary of the Assumption, and a Homeland Avenue cemetery.

It's a chapter of Baltimore history that few know well, but is well worthy of remembrance.

The Irish Railroad Workers Museum's commemoration of these events and the great famine begins at 1 p.m. Saturday, and will last about an hour. The museum is located at 918-20 Lemmon St.

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