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Baltimore: Gateway to America

The Baltimore City Council just promulgated a new motto for the city of Baltimore: "The Birthplace of The Star Spangled Banner." I would like to suggest another, perhaps one that may also be shared with the state of Maryland: "The Gateway to America."

My family relocated to Maryland 45 years ago for a job with the federal government and moved into a commuter suburb outside the District of Columbia. Our focus and media were D.C.-oriented, but I came with an historical appreciation for Baltimore — or, at least Fort McHenry.

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I had previously served in an historic Army regiment whose claimed lineage reached back to the U.S. gunners in the fort during the 1814 bombardment. My picture of Baltimore, however, was a quirky, post-industrial city that had seen better days. Frequent northbound trips, either on I-95 or Amtrak, did not improve the image. Fortunately, later assignments gave me a new perspective on Baltimore's strategic, economic and historic standing. An appointment to the faculty of the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy and, later, the privilege to serve as a commissioner for the Port of Baltimore opened my eyes to Baltimore's past and its future.

The British certainly didn't view Baltimore lightly during the War of 1812. After facing ineffective opposition, the British Army conducted a largely symbolic campaign through Washington. The Royal Navy then turned to the more serious business of attacking Baltimore, the United States' third largest city at the time. The Admiralty, like the leaders of Baltimore, clearly understood the city's strategic importance and geographic destiny to become the young Republic's gateway to western expansion. Linking the Port of Baltimore to the head of navigation of the Ohio River (the "Falls of the Ohio" at Wheeling) via the Cumberland Gap would create an efficient route from the Chesapeake to the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico at New Orleans, establishing a geo-political boundary for an expanding United States. Capturing Baltimore would cut the United States on a north-south basis. More important, it would thwart, or at least significantly delay, westward expansion via the Baltimore-Cumberland link to the National Road, America's first federal highway.

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Work on the National Road was already under way at Cumberland when the British bombardment fleet assumed its firing positions off Fort McHenry. The failure of the Royal Navy's long guns, rockets and heavy mortars' to destroy Fort McHenry and capture Baltimore produced a lot more than Francis Scott Key's poem. It invited a multi-modal infrastructure development race to reach Cumberland, with the "Old Pike" toll road, linking Baltimore to Cumberland, leading the way.

In 1828, the Baltimore & Ohio Railway was chartered to reach the Ohio River. The B&O soon began its push westward, eventually reaching Wheeling via Cumberland. Somewhat to the south, the C&O Canal also got under way in 1828 seeking to link Georgetown and the Potomac River to the Ohio River over Maryland's Cumberland route. It got as far as Cumberland.

These heroic infrastructure efforts, with Baltimore and Maryland at the lead, sought nothing less than to reshape the physical scope of America. They should be remembered and celebrated today in the present era of infrastructure stagnation.

Baltimore's claim to be the Gateway to America would be stronger than St. Louis' claim to be the Gateway to the West. Baltimore's claim is based on enormous and risky transportation infrastructure projects whose very undertakings were challenged in an actual shooting war. St. Louis' claim is based on the happenstance of its location at the confluence of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers. But access to St. Louis itself was opened by efforts of the earlier builders of the National Road and the Old Pike from Baltimore.

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What about Baltimore's "gateway" role today and in the future? There are echoes of Baltimore's pioneering infrastructure spirit still discernible at its port. The widening of the Panama Canal to accommodate much larger container ships presents a great opportunity to this nation's ports along the gulf and East Coast to create new traffic flows from Asia to Eastern and Midwestern destinations. Baltimore's port acted during the depths of the Great Recession to be completely ready — with 50 foot channels and berth, and super cranes — to handle the first container mega-ships transiting the widened Panama Canal.

The new port can carry its predecessor's gateway mantle.

Charles H. White Jr. is a port commissioner at the Maryland Port Administration. In a spirit of full disclosure, he is also a former member of a leading St. Louis law firm. His email is chwjr57@gmail.com.

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