The Fascinating Past of Federal Hill, Baltimore

The War Hero Discovers Federal Hill

Federal Hill in downtown Baltimore is an area steeped in American cultural history that stretches back several centuries.

Legend has it, that one warm June day in 1608, Captain John Smith, the English Colonial settler and war hero, sailed his ship into Chesapeake Bay and for several weeks, charted his way up the Patapsco River.  He eventually arrived at the site of what is today the Inner Harbor of modern Baltimore, and wrote home that he had seen there “a marvellous hill of red clay on the banks of a wonderful natural harbor”. Indeed, early Baltimoreans are recorded as referring to the hill by the name of “John Smith’s Hill”.

Signals from Afar

The excellent vista from the top of the hill was first put to good use in 1795, when a signal tower was established there. With the growth and development of the area, the harbor became increasingly important for trade and commerce. Ships from far and near, carrying a variety of goods and produce, started arriving in increasing numbers in Baltimore harbor. In those days, before the advent of wireless communication, the purpose of the tower was to provide a lookout, that could advise and alert all interested merchants and ship owners, of the imminent arrival of new ships and their cargoes. The view from the hill, enabled approaching vessels to be seen when they were still tens of miles down the Patapsco river.  On spotting them, the lookout on duty would hoist a signal flag which could be seen by everyone throughout the district, enabling all interested parties to go down to the jetty and await the arrival of the vessel. Many years later a larger, more substantial tower was erected to serve this purpose, but it was eventually toppled by a fierce storm in the early years of the last century, bringing this era to an end.

The Civil War and Federal Hill

Because of Baltimore’s importance and location, the civil war saw the hill now being put to vital military use by the Union Army. Benjamin Butler, the Union Army general, established his headquarters there for a period during his military campaigns. Eventually the Union Army fortified the hill, fearing an attack by Confederate supporters, many of whom lived in the Baltimore district, and who opposed the North. The hill was surrounded by a wall and a fort was established on the summit. It thereafter became known as Fort Federal Hill. The origin of the name by which it is now known.

Secret Tunnels

Early rumours had it that a series of underground tunnels and rooms had been dug under the hill by the Union Army during the Civil War period, strategically linking the hill all the way to Fort McHenry. This was never substantiated, and this tunnel was never found, but late in the 18th Century further exploratory excavations were started in the area, uncovering many other tunnels, rooms and chambers.

Beer and More Fascinating Developments

An unusual by-product of the discovery of these underground tunnels and chambers, was that they were later put to good use as storage areas by the many local breweries which had grown up in the Baltimore area, as their cool atmosphere kept the beer stable and fresh. In addition, the area eventually became an important source of the red clay and excellent white sand which was found and mined there, and which was utilised widely in the construction industry.  These mining operations continued commercially for decades, well into the 19th Century. The occurrence of iron ore, found in the area, was also exploited, but as it was of a low grade, it could only be used for limited products, and the mining of the ore was quite soon discontinued.

Preserved for All to Enjoy

A temporary downside of all the mining operations and the accompanying excavations, was that part of the hill became weakened to the extent that it started collapsing in a few places. The City immediately moved in to strengthen and restore these areas, and the historic park has been carefully and successfully preserved for the thousands of visitors who visit the area each year.

A Tourist Site of International Importance

In 1880, the City of Baltimore purchased Federal Hill and declared it a public park. Many decades later, the entire district was declared an historic area and included in the National Historic Place register, with many places of historical interest being demarcated. Thousands of visitors and tourists now throng the streets and sites of the larger Federal Hill district, and it has became known internationally for its fascinating glimpse into early American history.

The Place of Choice for City Living

With the enormous growth of importance in the Federal Hill district, it has also become the place of choice for the exciting city living that it now offers Baltimore residents. New developments like 1201 S. Charles Street Apartments are rapidly becoming the place of choice for the increasing number of people eager to combine modern city living with the sense of community this affordable yet historic neighborhood provides. It’s really now the best of both worlds, exciting and available to all who want it.


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