Thousands of tourists expecting boat rides to Fort McHenry are instead being ferried to a less scenic location: a trash-strewn industrial parking lot on Key Highway, more than a mile from the grassy waterfront park.
Although other tour boats take customers directly to the historic site for the same $5 price, the Water Taxi company is making them stop over at a shipyard at 1020 Key Highway until a school bus rumbles up to drive tourists to the fort.
Ed Kane, president of the Baltimore-based Harbor Boating, said he could have had his Water Taxi service ferry tourists directly to Fort McHenry but decided not to because he didn't want to pay the $1 per person landing fee.
Some customers complain that they're being misled by Water Taxi's signs, which proudly proclaim Fort McHenry as a destination.
Kane says he's not trying to mislead anyone. His signs and pamphlets say in smaller print that his service to Fort McHenry and 35 other sites is by a combination of boat and trolley or jitney.
"I'm a salesman," said Kane. "We can't put up a sign that expresses every minutia of our service. Generally, our pamphlets say we use a jitney and our personnel say, 'We'll get you to the fort.'"
Some tourists, though, seem baffled by the company's terms. Kane's group doesn't use anything resembling a trolley. Instead, it uses a former school bus painted red that takes customers on a lurching, stop-and-go trip through the traffic of south Baltimore to Fort McHenry. Some customers grumble that they would have driven to the fort themselves had they known they would be riding a school bus instead of a boat.
"I felt like I was misled, because it [the Water Taxi] basically says it takes you to Fort McHenry and it doesn't," said Chris Mortenson, 33, an Air Force captain from Alabama who was touring yesterday with his wife and two children. "I would have liked to have seen Fort McHenry from the water."
Beth Albert, 46, of Miami was one of many tourists annoyed to learn that they could have paid the same price and taken a rival company's boat - the Seaport Taxi - from Fells Point directly to Fort McHenry.
"I'm getting madder by the moment," said Albert, as she stood in the Tidewater Yacht Service Center parking lot, looking not at Fort McHenry but at plastic soda bottles and snack food bags littering the blacktop ringed by barbed wire.
"I came to see your lovely city and instead have to see this parking lot and trash," she said.
Behind the unusual landing site is a bitter competition between rival tour boat groups that allow tourists to ride all day to sites ringing the harbor from Canton to the fort.
One is the Water Taxi, run by Kane's Harbor Boating, which has been operating between Fells Point, the Inner Harbor and other locations for 23 years.
Its archrival: Seaport Taxis, run by the nonprofit Living Classrooms Foundation. Two years ago, the foundation expanded its educational role to become coordinator of the "National Historic Seaport of Baltimore," a dozen sites around the harbor, including Fort McHenry.
Bad blood between the two has been growing ever since.
Kane says it isn't fair for his private business to be competing against a nonprofit organization.
In early 1999, Baltimore officials granted the foundation a lease on the city-owned pier beside Fort McHenry for $1 a year for 10 years.
Before that, another company, Maryland Tours, had exclusive rights to land there. After the firm's owner retired, the city gave control of the pier to the Living Classrooms Foundation.
Kane complains that the administration of former Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke gave the foundation an unfair, "sweetheart deal" that has forced him to scramble for alternative landing sites near Fort McHenry.
This spring, the foundation offered to let Kane's company land at the pier for $1 a person. But Kane rejected the price as too high, said James Piper Bond, president of the foundation.
"We reached out to him and made it available to him, and all we asked for was $1 a head to defray our costs," said Bond. "But Mr. Kane didn't want to work with us."
Baltimore solicitor Thurman Zollicoffer said the city might look into allegations that Kane's advertising is misleading.
"We certainly don't want tourists to be taken to some destination they don't want to be taken to," Zollicoffer said.
But Dan Lincoln, vice president of the Baltimore Area Convention and Visitors Association, said Kane has an excellent reputation for running reliable tour boats.
"Ed Kane is in a bad situation because he's not being allowed to land at one of the most popular attractions on the Inner Harbor," said Lincoln. "This may not be the best situation [landing in the parking lot], but I think he's doing the best he can."