Most people go to a subway station for transportation. But at one of the Metro stations that opened in Baltimore this week, patrons get a history lesson along with the ride.
On the mezzanine level of the Shot Tower/Market Place stop, a small but informative exhibit traces the successive layers of construction that have shaped the surrounding area, one of the first sections of Baltimore to see extensive development.
"Few of us would ever think of a subway train as a time machine," curators note in the introduction to the exhibit, which visitors can see without paying a fare. "But the construction of the Shot Tower/Market Place Metro Station gives us a chance to travel back through Baltimore history."
Over the past two centuries, they note, "this part of the city changed from an empty marsh to a bustling public market, a center of social and educational life, the scene of a devastating fire and, finally, a revitalized commercial center."
The Shot Tower/Market Place station opened yesterday as part of the Metro system's 1.5-mile, $353 million extension to East Baltimore.
The exhibit was mounted by the Urban Archaeology Center of the Baltimore City Life Museums, a nonprofit organization that operates historic properties near the Shot Tower station. It features artifacts found during excavation of the subway construction site, from plates and pipe bowls found in a privy to condiment bottles from an old grocery at 709 E. Baltimore St.
Because Market Place was an early center of commercial activity in Baltimore, it proved to be especially fertile area for excavation, yielding more artifacts than any local site since the excavation of the former Cheapside Wharf and Docks before construction of the Gallery at Harborplace, said archaeologist Louise Akerson. "It was very rich."
In addition to Ms. Akerson, participating archaeologists included Henry Ward and Melanie Collier. They used maps, drawings and photographs to supplement the artifacts on display inside glass cases. The exhibit shows the different ways the area has been used since the late 1700s and some of the impediments to lasting prosperity.
According to the archaeologists, the area was once part of Harrison's Marsh, a swamp on the eastern edge of Baltimore. During the 1780s, an entrepreneur named Thomas Harrison filled in the marsh and began to promote development. Rowhouses were built facing major streets, and three large market sheds were built in the center of the thoroughfare now known as Market Place, then called "Centre Market Space."
The Marsh Market neighborhood grew quickly, with grocery and dry goods stores and china and glass shops appearing along Market Place and both sides of Baltimore Street.
In 1851, one of the market buildings was replaced by a three-story structure that housed the Maryland Institute, College of Art. It contained retail space at street level and two upper floors with classrooms for the Maryland Institute and a large public hall.
The hall became one of the city's centers of social and political life; President Abraham Lincoln was one of many dignitaries who spoke there. (An 1869 drawing by E. Sachse & Co. shows the Maryland Institute building, with its market stalls at street level, and older market sheds to the south.)
By the turn of the century, many retail businesses had left the neighborhood and were replaced by wholesalers, manufacturers and warehouse operators. Further change came as a result of the Great Fire of 1904, which started near the current site of the Baltimore Arena and swept eastward.
After the fire, walls of destroyed buildings were knocked down and covered with a layer of rubble and clay to seal the ruins. Then a layer of asphalt was put down. This process helped preserve the items that archaeologists found in 1989.
The area's economic and social decline, which had begun before the fire, continued afterward. "By the middle of this century, most of the surrounding neighborhood contained substandard housing, closed businesses and vacant lots," according to the curators.
Today, the neighborhood has been targeted for redevelopment as a commercial and educational district, anchored by a $30 million children's museum inside the city's former fish market. And the opening of the Metro station is seen as a potential catalyst for a new wave of growth. "After more than 200 years," the curators note, "the old Centre Market neighborhood has come full circle, and once again is an important and vital part of Baltimore city life."