The Glory Days of SoBo’s Southern Shore

For decades before the arrival of a massive rail terminal in 1904, South Baltimore’s southern shoreline was a popular getaway destination for city residents. Resorts such as George Kahl’s thrived at the point known as Ferry Bar at Light Street Bridge.

(This article originally appeared in the February 2023 issue of the South Baltimore Peninsula Post newspaper.)

The latest transformation of the peninsula’s southern waterfront – the Port Covington area south of Interstate 95 – is set to open in a matter of weeks. The first phase of the sprawling “Baltimore Peninsula” development has sprouted before our eyes: a high-density, high-impact minicity of offices, apartments, shops, and parks overlooking the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River.

This slice of Baltimore, which developed later than the rest of the central city around the harbor, had two previous iterations over the past 150 years: one that contributed to the quality of life of average city residents, the other that boosted the city’s fortunes as a commercial powerhouse.

Few traces of these glory days in South Baltimore remain. The stories of those two eras – and what made them so glorious and vital to the city and residents at the time – are all but forgotten.

When the Western Maryland Railway opened its terminal on the shores of the Middle Branch in 1904, they christened the area Port Covington in honor of Fort Covington, which once stood on the site. Photo courtesy of Baltimore Museum of Industry.

Here we resurrect these vanished landscapes so that modern-day Sobohemians and new residents of this area can see how their predecessors enjoyed and toiled on SoBo’s southern shore.

‘The Coolest Spot in Maryland’

Since before the Civil War, all the way to World War I, “Ferry Bar” would have evoked a smile from Baltimoreans, much as Marylanders today would react to the mention of Ocean City or Deep Creek Lake. Ferry Bar meant all-caps FUN: swimming, fishing, boating, socializing, dining, and drinking on the waterfront, with a cavalcade of “entertainments” tossed in. It was a South Baltimore escape from city life and it was walking distance from downtown, just a mile and a half south of Cross Street Market, where Light Street would take you to the Middle Branch waterfront.

In those days, there was little development south of Wells Street, where the B&O Railroad tracks ran east to the docks in Locust Point. Aside from an isolated brickyard here and a shipbuilder there, the traveler would have passed by pastures and ponds, straight to a slender spit of land called Ferry Bar. (Today what remains of that route in Port Covington is W. Peninsula Drive south from E. Cromwell Street, along the western edge of the Under Armour campus.)

Named for the ships that ferried Baltimoreans from the point across the Patapsco River before the Civil War, Ferry Bar was an early country getaway for city dwellers. You could grab a horse-drawn coach in Fells Point and ride in style to Busch’s Ferry Bar resort, there enjoying the proprietor’s “bar with the choicest liquors” as well as crab and fish suppers “served up in his usual admirable style.”

Ferry Bar’s fortunes grew after Richard Cromwell of Anne Arundel County built a private bridge from Brooklyn to the point in the 1860s. (Until 1919, the Middle Branch was the southern boundary of Baltimore city.) The mile-long wooden span with a drawbridge in the center was the first across the Middle Branch, bringing with it a steady stream of travelers passing through Ferry Bar.

The wooden Light Street Bridge at Ferry Bar was a popular destination for swimming, fishing, watching regattas, and picnics.

The bridge, known as the Light Street Bridge or Long Bridge, was itself a destination.  Families would spend the day on the bridge with their lunches, and spectators would line the bridge to watch regattas and boats sailing by. The Ariel Rowing Club and the Arundel Boat Club had their boat houses next to Ferry Bar.

Waterfront resorts grew on both ends of the bridge, drawing customers with drinking, dining, dancing, and unusual entertainments.

In the 1880s, Cutaiar and Murray’s featured performances by “Prof. Chas. S. Scharf, Baltimore’s renowned banjoist”; tightrope walking by Prof. Scott Hanley, the “Modern Sampson of the Age”; dancing every evening until 10:30 pm; soft crab meals for 50 cents; and “Salt Water Bathing, Boating, Fishing and Amusements of all kinds.”

Harrison’s Ferry Bar House (“the People’s Popular Resort”) sponsored a three-mile “Great Swimming Contest” between two “One-Arm Champion Swimmers” (betting encouraged). On July 4, 1881, Harrison’s went all out with another tightrope walker, Prof. El Nino Eddie, plus “sack races, tub races, and shooting and swimming matches.”

Advertisement in the Baltimore Sun, June 1886

Baltimore Sun contributor Benjamin Latrobe Weston remembered an unusual attraction of McGowan’s restaurant at the entrance to the Light Street Bridge: a beer-loving bear chained in the yard. “It required only the lure of a bottle held temptingly in his sight to make him stand erect and hold out his paws beseechingly. When the bottle was delivered to him, he threw back his head and discharged the draft down his capacious throat.”

George Kahl devised a clever way to attract beer-loving humans after he took over Cutaiar and Murray’s resort in 1895. At the time, Baltimore city prohibited the sale of alcohol on Sundays , so all the establishments at Ferry Bar were dry on Sundays. Kahl built a barroom 30 yards offshore, claimed it was in the prohibition-free county next door, and kept his customers happy all weekend long. He called his resort “the coolest spot in Maryland.”

Sports and recreation were another big draw to Ferry Bar. In winter, there was ice skating and even an occasional skating carnival on the river. The rest of the year, there was fishing and boating, but most of all swimming. There were small beaches next to the resorts and a few yards east of Ferry Bar, a sandy public beach and wooden diving floats at Winan’s Cove. It was a popular spot as late as 1914, when the city-maintained beach attracted over 68,000 summertime visitors.

The Light Street Bridge at Ferry Bar (circled) stretched south over the Middle Branch to Brooklyn. Riverside Park is shown at the top of this 1882 map.

The Ferry Bar waters were also used for holier purposes. Baptisms were common in the late 1800s. One joint ceremony by a Baptist and African Methodist Episcopal church immersed seven women in the river while “a mixed assemblage of about 1,500 persons” looked on.

The golden age of Baltimore’s Ferry Bar came to an end during World War I. The resorts had closed, although some boathouses and marinas remained. The opening of Hanover Street Bridge in 1917 rendered the Light Street Bridge, with its “rattling planks and swaying joints,” obsolete. The Ferry Bar bridge was torn down and before the end of the decade, steam shovels had clawed away the tip of the point. Dredges were deepening the channel in the Middle Branch as part of the major transformation of the area launched a few years earlier.

A New Port for Baltimore

And that reinvention could not have been more dramatic. The pastures, ponds, and pleasant waterfront living alongside the Patapsco were wholly transformed into a new port for the city that rivaled the docks at nearby Locust Point. Christened “Port Covington” by the Western Maryland Railway, whose trains carried goods to and from the waterfront, the massive terminal was hailed by The Baltimore Sun when it opened in 1904 as “one of the crowning events in the history of Baltimore, as it is destined to add momentum to the wheel of progress and greatly stimulate and increase commercial, financial, manufacturing and all other lines of business.”

Map of the extensive network of rail lines and piers that once stood where the new Under Armour headquarters and Baltimore Peninsula development are being built.

The new South Baltimore railroad terminal, which initially covered 95 acres, was connected to points west by a new trestle bridge over Ridgely’s Cove. (The abandoned bridge still stands near Swann Park.) Tracks ran alongside McComas Street to piers and railyards that spread over the waterfront from Light Street east to the current site of the Maryland cruise ship terminal. There were 75 miles of track, a pier for coal, and another for freight.

The shipping and rail facilities at Port Covington gradually doubled in size to become one of the largest Baltimore marine terminals in the World War II era. By 1929, the terminal could store over 100,000 tons of freight. A three-crane ore pier and merchandise piers were added. The many docks could handle up to seven ships at a time. The sprawling railyard could accommodate 2,500 rail cars.

A towering, 5-million-bushel grain elevator went up in 1915 alongside Winan’s Cove near the current location of the Under Armour offices. Locomotive repair shops stretched along Light Street to what remained of Ferry Bar.

The Western Maryland Railway touted Port Covington in this 1957 trade magazine advertisement.

In the 1950s, the Western Maryland Railway boasted of how Port Covington’s modern freight-handling equipment could save time and money. An advertisement promised a “Short Cut for Fast Freight” at the terminal, which was “designed to keep turn-around tuned to a quickstep. … Car-a-minute coal loading paces the tempo of this bustling Port.”

All that hustle and bustle came to an end in the 1980s as rail transportation had to compete with trucking on the new interstate highway system and grain-carrying ships on the St. Lawrence Seaway. Railroad mergers followed and the Western Maryland Railway was absorbed into the Chessie System (the forerunner of CSX). Traffic at Port Covington dwindled through the 1970s, and the terminal eventually shut down. In 1989, the massive grain elevator alongside Ferry Bar succumbed to dynamite and the wrecking ball.

Baltimore Sun reporter Jacques Kelly, writing in 1988, described the bleak scene: “Today, it looks like a dismissed piece of land where somebody forgot to put a factory or wharf.”

This part of SoBo’s southern waterfront largely languished for decades. The Baltimore Sun built its printing plant (now shuttered) in the 1990s, and a short-lived shopping center sprouted in the 2000s. But the overall area has been waiting for its next big transformation, which is now on the horizon. – Steve Cole

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