Sailabration launches War of 1812 bicentennial

Baltimore will launch its commemoration of the War of 1812 by land, sea and air this week, starting with parachute jumps into Camden Yards and a parade of tall ships into the harbor. The history-filled week features music, fireworks and an air show over Fort McHenry.

The festivities kick off Wednesday with the arrival of 18 tall ships boasting sails on masts several stories high and dozens of Navy vessels. Visitors — as many as 1 million are expected, according to organizers — can catch glimpses of the ships in full sail entering the port and then tour and mingle with the crews.

Baltimore and Maryland stand at the forefront of the commemoration being celebrated in a number of cities, including New York, New Orleans and Norfolk, Va., because of the many battlegrounds and other historical sites here, organizers said. From a ship In Baltimore's harbor, Francis Scott Key wrote what became the national anthem and the Maryland militia stood ready as the city's last line of resistance against the invading British army.

"The ships are going to a dozen cities, but only we have the story of the national anthem and the flag," said Jill Feinberg, marketing director for Star-Spangled 200 Inc., the fundraising arm of the Maryland War of 1812 Bicentennial Commission. "We promise so much to do and so many great events."

The ships have sailed to Baltimore often since their debut in 1976 and have been a huge draw, but organizers promise much more this time.

The U.S. Navy's "Leap Frogs" parachute team will make landings during Tuesday's Orioles game and repeat their feats Wednesday at Clifton Park, once the home of war hero Capt. Henry Thompson, and later at Patterson Park, where the militia made its stand. Free concerts, children's activities, re-enactments, and cooking demonstrations with Maryland's favorite cuisine will take place near the waterfront.

Visitors will find many opportunities to delve into the history at battle sites, meet with historians and learn about Maryland's role in what has been called the nation's second war for independence. The Maryland Historical Society opens "In Full Glory Reflected," the state's largest display of War of 1812 artifacts. Maryland Public Television will air throughout the week "Home of the Brave," a documentary film that mixes historic elements and modern dialogue.

Martin State Airport in Essex will host the Blue Angels, the Navy flight demonstration squadron, which is putting on its first air show over Fort McHenry. The airport on Eastern Avenue will put on its own two-day festival, filling its runways with vintage and modern aircraft. Fort McHenry, the birthplace of the national anthem, will be the best vantage to view the Blue Angels.

"We are the city giving people the chance to see international ships and get involved in a landslide of activities," said Tracy Baskerville, spokeswoman for the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts. "This is a great opportunity to show off in the eyes of visitors and to give residents an extra appreciation for our city and help them rediscover Baltimore."

The United States, angered at GreatBritain'saggression on the high seas, declared war on what was then the most powerful nation in the world, on June 18, 1812. The British sent some 4,000 troops up the Chesapeake Bay in 1814. They burned several towns, the White House and most of the public buildings in Washington and were determined to sack Baltimore. They landed at North Point and were met by a band of militiamen, who killed their general. A fierce battle ensued in the harbor at Fort McHenry, and the Americans emerged victorious, inspiring Key's immortal tribute to the flag that continued to fly.

It is fitting that the Navy is so involved in the festivities, since many date its founding to the war that secured the freedom of seas. The city has for decades linked its celebrations to its maritime history.

"Baltimore is the centerpiece for planning this commemoration and will draw visitors from all over," said William G. Armstrong Jr., spokesman for Operation Sail, a nonprofit that focuses on maritime heritage and organizes events with historic sailing vessels from around the world. "The tall ships give nations a way to promote trade and good will and to showcase their culture and share their heritage. We are all one world sailing on the same waters."

OpSail is visiting other cities known for their roles in the war, including Norfolk, New York and New Orleans, where the last battle was fought a few months after the peace treaty was signed. Word had not reached the British and Americans in Louisiana.

In his first term as mayor, William Donald Schaefer set about making Baltimore's waterfront a focal point for travelers. He established Sail Baltimore, a modest effort to attract a few majestic ships to the port and bring people downtown. The concept led to Operation Sail in 1976, a week of celebrating the nation's bicentennial that brought about 500,000 visitors to the city and renewed municipal pride.

"There was no Harborplace then, just a promenade and piers," said Gilbert Sandler, Baltimore historian. "We were elbow-to-elbow along the quays. We felt like we were part of something huge, something big time in a big town. You could sense something extraordinary was happening. It really proved to us that we could bring people downtown."

Bob Hillman, CFO of Sandy Hillman Communications, who chaired the 1976 Op Sail in the city, said no one really grasped the draw the ships would have. "There was such camaraderie. Many families invited crew members into their homes," Hillman said. "It became a great tradition for Baltimore, and now they are following up on that tradition in a great way."

The more than 500 tall ship visits to municipal docks helped foster tourism that led to Harborplace, the National Aquarium and Convention Center.

The city launched its own ship, a topsail schooner, that it christened the Pride of Baltimore. The ship resembled the ships that carried trade to and from the city in the early 19th century. It became the city's seagoing ambassador visiting ports around the world and touting its home city. When the schooner was lost at sea in 1986, the city built the Pride II, which continues the goodwill mission today.

"People really began to use the harbor and were excited about downtown," said Martin Millspaugh, former chief executive of Charles Center Inner Harbor, a group that helped launch the revitalization of downtown.

Sailabration will spur more tourism to the port city, said Tom Noonan, president of Visit Baltimore, the city's marketing arm.

"Our perception is that these events will be the game-changer," Noonan said. "These events will be broadcast around the world."

Al Roker will do his Today show segments Thursday aboard a Brazilian tall ship docked in the Inner Harbor. The America's Incentive Business Travel Market convention — about 1,500 travel and tourism planners — will be in town the last two days of Sailabration, a coincidence that Noonan hopes attracts future conventions and tourists to Baltimore.

Throughout the week, organizers will mark many key events.

On Thursday, Flag Day, the celebration will focus on the historic Star-Spangled Banner Flag House on East Pratt Street as three original threads from the flag that flew over Fort McHenry 200 years ago are sewn into the National 9-11 flag, which will eventually fly in New York City. Later that evening, the fort will be the background for the National Pause for the Pledge of Allegiance, a countrywide observance on Flag Day every year.

On June 18, organizers will mark the 200th anniversary of the declaration of war on Great Britain and the official start of the bicentennial period, which will continue through September 2014. More Sailabration events are planned in the next few months, and the ships will sail back in two years to mark the end of the War of 1812.

Lisa A. Shenkle, spokeswoman for Sail Baltimore, said she always tears up when the tall ships depart the city. But the city's welcome and hospitality make her certain of their return.

"The crews become your friends in a global sense," she said. "As they cross the horizon onto their next adventure, the fabric of our city is embedded in their memories."

The Sailabration

What: Sailabration, the commemoration of the bicentennial of the War of 1812 and the writing of "The Star-Spangled Banner"

When: June 13 to June 19

Where: Baltimore's Inner Harbor, Fort McHenry, Martin State Airport and other locations

Inner Harbor activities: Star-Spangled Sailabration Villages will feature live entertainment, traditional festival fare and hands-on fun for kids. Ships, docked throughout the harbor area, will be open for tours.

Transportation: Officials urge visitors to use public transportation, because parking will be limited. Options include the Water Taxi, MTA's MARC, the light rail and buses, Amtrak and the Charm City Circulator's free Banner Route, which travels from the Baltimore Visitor Center to Fort McHenry every 10 minutes.

For the air shows, the city has scheduled a free shuttle bus to Fort McHenry only from M&T Bank Stadium, where parking will be available for $20. Beginning Thursday, Fort Avenue will be closed at Andre Street and will not reopen until June 18.

Viewing spots for air shows: Canton Waterfront, Riverside, Cherry Hill, Reedbird Island and Garrett parks in the city. Motorists stopping to watch the show on the side of the road or any major highway will be ticketed.