History of South Baltimore: Federal Hill

The peninsula of land south of the Baltimore Harbor, between the Northwest and Middle branches of the Patapsco River, has a long and colorful history. The strategic importance of this peninsula became apparent during both Wars for Independence.

Lord Baltimore granted the first land patent on the peninsula to Charles Gorsuch in 1661 for the yearly rent of one pound sterling. This patent was for a 50-acre tract of land that is today known as Locust Point. Gorsuch later abandoned the land, and in 1702 James Carroll received a patent for the same tract, which was then called Whetstone Point. Carroll paid a rent of 2 shillings per year.

The next tract of land on the peninsula to be patented was Upton Court, a 500-acre tract next to Whetstone Point that was patented by David Poole in 1668. Four years later, in 1672, David Williams received a patent for 100 acres next to Upton Court which he called David's Fancy. This land was between Upton Court to the east and land owned by John Howard to the west. Despite these patents, the peninsula remained unoccupied during the first two decades of the 18th century.

In 1723, John Giles obtained a Certificate of Resurvey to Upton Court and in 1725 consolidated it with Whetstone Point, which he had obtained from James Carroll for 5 pounds sterling. Giles sold 400 acres of this land 2 years later to the British Principio Company, along with the rights to all the iron ore found there, for 300 pounds sterling and 20 pounds current money of Maryland. (The Principio Company was an association of British iron-masters engaged in manufacturing pig and bar iron. It had been operating an iron furnace 20 miles to the north on the Great Falls of the Gunpowder River since 1715. Whetstone Point for many ears was to one of its principal sources of ore.) Several years later, Jacob Giles, heir of John Giles, sold the remainder of Upton Court to John Moale. When Moale found David's Fancy vacant, he also claimed that land and opened a mine.

In 1732, Richard Gist received a patent for an alluvial deposit at the foot of Lunn's Point. This area was known as Gist's Inspection, but is better known today as Federal Hill.

In 1737, John Moale obtained a Warrant of Escheat to David's Fancy. (Lord Baltimore had a right of escheat when a patentee died without a will or heirs. In a wilderness populated by semi-literate people without known relatives, this occurred frequently.) He ended up sharing ownership of most of the peninsula between the Northwest Branch and the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River with the Principio Furnace Company and Richard Gist.

The importance of Whetstone Point for the defense of Baltimore became apparent when the Revolutionary War began. Maryland expropriated the British Principio iron works on Whetstone Point and used these facilities to aid the American war effort. In 1775, preparations began to fortify the area. A water battery of 18 guns was placed on Whetstone Point. A chain was stretched across the neck of the harbor, supported by 21 sunken schooners. An air furnace was also built near the batteries to provide munitions. When the Revolutionary War ended, the Free State confiscated 195 acres of land belonging to the company and sold the land at auction.

These fortifications remained under Maryland control until 1793, when Congress passed a resolution which stated: "…the United States may think it necessary to erect a fort, arsenal, or other military works or buildings on Whetstone Point…." However, Congress did not see fit to provide adequate funds; it was the citizens of Baltimore who made up the deficiency.

Built strategically at the mouth of the Baltimore Harbor, Fort McHenry earned its place in history during the final months of the War of 1812. In September 1814, the British had turned their sights toward Baltimore after sacking and burning Washington. The British were intent on punishing Baltimore because it was home port for a large number of privateers--privately owned, armed ships sailing under government commissions--which had been harassing British shipping throughout the "Second War for Independence." Baltimoreans did not stand idly by in the face of this threat. They armed themselves and built heavy defenses around the city; Fort McHenry was a crucial element in this defense. British strategy called for their ships to blast their way past Fort McHenry. As all proud Baltimoreans know, the British failed. At the end of the 25-hour bombardment, Francis Scott Key wrote the memorable poem which later became the national anthem. The fort still proudly stands on Locust Point, an attraction for visitors from across the globe and a symbol of the American spirit.


  • During Colonial period, there was a horseracing track on Whetstone Point.
  • An observatory was constructed on Federal Hill in the late 18th century. In 1797, David Porter notified the city that his observatory on Federal Hill was ready. Patrons could obtain a year's admittance for $3.00 or each visit was 25 cents. This observatory, subsequently known as the Signal Service Observatory, identified approaching ships and provided the information to those involved in commerce.
  • Several ferry companies operated from Locust Point. The "Locust Point Ferry Company" was formed in 1851; its route was from Kerr's Wharf to Locust Point; in 1857, the terminus changed from Kerr's Wharf to the lower end of Broadway. In 1865 the Patapsco Company opened a ferry from Locust Point to Ferry Bar.
  • In 1854, the "Federal Hill Steam Ferry Company" was organized. Its route was from Hughes to West Falls Avenue.
  • In 1865, some prominent Baltimoreans, assisted by the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, inaugurated the first steamship line between Baltimore Harbor and Liverpool using old steamships purchased from the Federal Government. In 1870, the Allan Line was established between Liverpool and Baltimore.
  • In 1865, M. E. Uniack opened a ferry with 20 small boats to transport people from Covington Street to the tobacco warehouse on the opposite side of the harbor.
  • In 1868, the B & O Railroad Company signed a contract with the North German Lloyds to establish the first steamship line between Baltimore and Bremen, Germany. The B& O built piers at Locust Point to receive the stream of immigrants arriving from Europe. Although many remained in Baltimore, many other immigrants immediately boarded the B&O trains and headed for points west. Thus, Locust Point was the first American soil walked on by countless thousands of European immigrants.
  • In 1874, the first dry-dock ever constructed in Baltimore was built at Charles Reeder's wharf at the foot of Hughes Street, on the south side of the basin.
  • In 1877 the Baltimore Dry Dock Co. was incorporated. This company successfully got a bill through Congress granting a portion of the Fort McHenry tract for the construction of "Simpson's Improved Dry Dock" on that tract. In return, U. S. Government ships were to dock free at that location.


The first Anglo Saxon to lay eyes on Federal Hill was the celebrated English Colonial Settler Captain John Smith (1580-1631).   By the young age of 24 years, Smith already had served with brilliance in the Dutch Wars and in the Near East where he fell prisoner to the Turks. He escaped his captors and returned to England by 1604.  While there, he became interested in the newly chartered Virginia Company and made arrangements to be among the first settlers at Jamestown, Virginia (the first English Settlement in North America) in 1606.  Smith’s status as a historical legend was assured when Pocohantas supposedly pleaded with her Chieftain father Powhatan to spare John Smith’s life during the siege at Jamestown in December of 1607.

In June of 1608 he sailed from Jamestown up the Chesapeake Bay for a 19-day journey that ended with a voyage up the Patapsco River.  It was there that Smith reported seeing “a great red bank of clay flanking a natural harbor basin.”  Early Baltimore settlers referred to this “great red bank of clay” as “John Smith’s Hill.


In May of 1788, 4,000 Baltimoreans marched through the City’s streets in a parade organized by a naval hero of the Revolutionary War, Commodore Joshua Barney, to celebrate the State of Maryland’s ratification of the United States Constitution.  The procession featured a 15-foot model of a fully rigged sailing ship named the “Federalist”.  

A contingent of the Port of Baltimore’s ship captains, mates, and sailors decided to set the Federalist on wheels, and paraded it through the streets of the city before having it placed atop John Smith’s Hill.  

Apparently, this was the auspicious beginning of one huge daylong party.  It was quite a celebration; those in attendance gorged themselves on 500 pounds of ham, 1,000 pounds of beef, 151/2 barrels of beer, 240 gallons of hard cider, and 91/2 gallons of peach brandy. As often happens in such situations, Commodore Barney and the other smashed sailors got antsy around midnight and decided it was a good time to take a trip. They slid the tiny Federalist down the hill and sailed it out of the Inner Harbor to Annapolis. So legendary has the revelry become that somewhere along the line someone decided in remembrance to rename John Smith’s Hill in tribute to Barney’s party boat.  Hence the origin of the Park’s name:  Federal Hill.

The day’s festivities were totally financed by leading Baltimore business scions like William Goddard who was the editor-in-chief of the Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser, the State’s leading newspaper at the time.  The thousands of celebrants were treated to “untold quantities of grog, toddy, beef, ham, and cheese.  Seven-gun Salutes, bonfires and fireworks kept the sky over the Harbor ablaze with light until the wee hours.  The celebration culminated with the “small” ship (the Federalist) being launched for a sail down the Potomac River to Mount Vernon where it was presented as a gift to George Washington.  While the original Federalist was lost in a storm, a replica is on display today at the State House in Annapolis. 

Figure 1: Federal Hill Observatory - c1865

Figure 1: Federal Hill Observatory - c1865


Federal Hill’s spectacular views were first put to commercial use in 1795 when, in cooperation with the Maritime Exchange, Captain David Porter established a “marine observatory” and signal tower on the site.

The tower provided a panorama that stretched a good 15 miles or more down the Patapsco.  Spotting an incoming ship, the watchman would unfurl the observatory’s “house flag” to alert the merchants and ship owners at the Maritime Exchange of an imminent arrival. Sometime around 1880, a relatively ornate Victorian era tower replaced the original structure. A fierce wind felled the tower in 1902 discontinuing signal service for good.


In 1814, having been promoted to Commodore, David Porter took command of a military battery that was established on Federal Hill in anticipation of an attack by sea from the British which never came.

However, on the morning of September 12, 1814, the British landed over 3,000 troops at North Point. They marched north and west to attack the city. That night, after the Battle of North Point, they reached Hampstead Hill where 10,000 Americans under the leadership of Major General Samuel Smith blocked the invading army’s path.  A statue commemorating this important victory adorns the north side of Federal Hill Park today.  More on Samuel Smith at the conclusion of our Walking Tour of Federal Hill.

At first light on September 13, British ships of war began firing bombs, rockets and cannon balls at Fort McHenry. Above the Star Fort flew our young flag, its 15 bright stars and broad stripes waving proud defiance. The British hoped the Americans would panic, evacuate the fort and leave Baltimore defenseless. For 25 hours, as lightning flashed and rain fell, they bombarded the fort, firing between 1,500 and 1,800 rounds, causing but four deaths and 24 wounded. Major George Armistead and the 1,000 patriot defenders fired back with their cannons when the British ships sailed within range.  A Memorial to Armistead and his brave troops now occupies the northeast corner of Federal Hill Park, as it has since about 1885.

Realizing their attack on the City had failed, the following day, British sailed down river to North Point to pick up their retreating soldiers. The Battle of Baltimore was over.

Figure 2:  1862

Figure 2:  1862

Federal Hill was once again converted to military use in 1861 as the 6th Massachusetts Regiment and elements of Cook’s Light Artillery occupied Federal Hill under the command of General Benjamin F. Butler. (Visit the house at 337 Hamburg Street that served as General Butler’s headquarters as the second stop our Walking Tour.)  

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   3       Fort Federal Hill – Maryland Historic Societ

Figure 3 Fort Federal Hill – Maryland Historic Societ

Fearing a Confederate attack from the many Southern sympathizers that lived in Baltimore at the time, the Union Army erected earthworks on the hill. Baltimore loyalties during the War Between the States were literally split in two. Many of the Confederate spies and blockade runners were women. 

The Monument Street Babes and the Secresh Babies were two groups of socially prominent and attractive women who flouted Union Army Regulations, adorning themselves with the red and gray colors of the Confederacy.  They regularly baited and heckled the Union soldiers based on Federal Hill.

The Union finally encircled the existing military installation with a wall and for the duration of the Civil War, the property was referred to as Fort Federal Hill. Near the Fort stood a hospital thatwounded soldiers from both sides during the Battle of Gettysburg. 


The City purchased Federal Hill in 1880 and dedicated it as a public park. Ninety years later, the “Federal Hill District” was accepted for inclusion in the National Register of Historic Places. The “District” includes Federal Hill Park and the immediate neighborhood south to West Street, west to Hanover Street, north to Hughes Street and east to Covington Street. It is in this vicinity that all of the historic places of interest that we will visit on our Walking Tour are located.

For years, stories aplenty have circulated concerning the existence of a network of tunnels, caves and storage rooms (rumored to have been used as cells from time to time) forming an underground passageway all the way to Fort McHenry.  This latter tale is not true.  However, beginning in about 1799, a series of excavations were begun near Henry Street beyond the southern perimeter of Federal Hill Park. The excavations continued non-stop for over half a century with workers mining the Hill for its red clay and fine white sand.  The Hill was also a source of low-grade iron ore once used for ballast and sash-weights (many of which are still in place in the throughout the neighborhood). For years the cool tunnels and passageways that riddle the area stored wooden kegs of beer crafted by the many local brewers operating nearby. An unfortunate side effect of all this is that Federal Hill has become increasingly unstable and all of the traffic and development, particularly at the foot of the Hill along Key Highway and Covington Street has caused the Hill to collapse at least twice during the last 10 years, requiring the City to fund major reconstructive efforts to preserve Federal Hill Park.

At the corner of Warren Avenue and Henry Street, we will begin our Walking Tour of the Federal Hill Neighborhood.

Federal Hill Harbor View - c183

Federal Hill Harbor View - c183

Exit Federal Hill at the point where the walkway is wide enough to accommodate police and other emergency vehicles (the only vehicles permitted in the Park).  Stop here for a moment and reckon with the fact that through the mid-1800’s this entire area was virtually all fields and pastures.

To view the online walking tour visit: http://www.federalhillonline.com/walkingtour.htm