BNHA A City of Firsts

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Baltimore: A City of Firsts

A border city between North and South.
A port linking America to the world beyond.
A place with strong traditions of religious tolerance.
A home to more free African Americans than any other U.S. city before the Civil War.

Baltimore was all these things—and all these things made it a site of creativity and conflict, a hub where new ideas could develop and spread, a melting pot of cross-cultural exchange, and a place where minorities could confidently assert themselves. It’s no wonder then that Baltimore became “A City of Firsts.”

Location, Location, Location

Baltimore’s position as a border city, port, and gateway to the West prompted many “firsts.” In 1824 the city became the terminus of America’s first federal highway: the National Road. The nation’s first railroad, the Baltimore & Ohio, began operations here in 1830. When 25 local B&O workers walked off the job in protest against wage cuts, they touched off the Great Railroad Strike of 1877, the first nationwide strike. News of their action easily spread to workers throughout the nation’s rail system because of another Baltimore “first”:  in 1844, Samuel Morse had sent the first telegraph message from B&O Railroad’s Mount Clare Station.

Other important inventions can be traced to the city’s position as a port and commercial hub. Shipbuilders at Fell’s Point built the first clipper ships, renowned for their speed. Waterfront canneries experimented with methods of preserving and shipping food; oysters and corn were first canned in Baltimore. The first iron building in America opened on Baltimore Street in 1851 to serve as the headquarters of the Baltimore Sun newspaper. German immigrant Ottmar Mergenthaler found opportunity in a Baltimore machine shop; his invention of the Linotype in 1884—the world’s first typesetting machine—revolutionized the printing industry.

As a border city of great strategic importance, Baltimore saw the first bloodshed of the Civil War on April 19, 1861. With tensions between North and South at a fever pitch, Union troops arrived by train at President Street Station. As they marched along Pratt Street to their rail connection at Camden Station, a mob of Southern sympathizers attacked and the soldiers fired back. Four soldiers and twelve civilians were killed in what became known as the Pratt Street Riots.

Land of the Free

With deep colonial roots as a haven for Catholics, Maryland led in the development of American Catholicism. Baltimore became the site of the nation’s first diocese in 1789 and first archdiocese in 1808, with John Carroll as the first American bishop and archbishop. In 1806 he laid the cornerstone for the nation’s first Catholic cathedral, the Baltimore Basilica (completed in 1821), designed by architect Benjamin Latrobe in the neo-classical style—a specifically American choice meant to symbolize the new nation’s commitment to religious freedom.

America’s first Catholic seminary, Saint Mary’s, opened in Baltimore in 1791. The first native-born American saint, Elizabeth Ann Seton, took her vows in the seminary chapel in 1809. Black Catholics came to the city in the 1790s, mostly Haitians fleeing religious persecution. Their arrival laid the roots for the nation’s first African American order of nuns, the Oblate Sisters of Providence (1829) and the first African American Catholic church, East Baltimore’s Saint Frances Xavier (1863).

Protestants and Jews also achieved notable “firsts.” In 1784, the American Methodist Church was born at a conference at Baltimore’s Lovely Lane Meeting House, considered to be the Mother Church of American Methodism. Dr. William Ellery Channing’s “Baltimore Sermon,” delivered at the First Unitarian Church in 1819, marked the formal beginning of Unitarianism in the United States. The Baltimore Hebrew Congregation became home to the nation’s first ordained rabbi when it hired Rabbi Abraham Rice in 1840. Two years later a small group of Jews formed Har Sinai, the first American congregation founded on the principles of Reform Judaism.

Important “firsts” arose from Baltimore’s strong African American community. In 1952, local civil rights groups challenged school segregation and won, making Baltimore the first city below the Mason-Dixon Line to desegregate a public school. By arguing that black students lacked an equal alternative to prestigious Baltimore Polytechnic, activists induced the school board to admit African Americans to the high school—two years before the U.S. Supreme Court made segregation illegal. After the court’s 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education ruling, the school board promptly voted to desegregate the school system, one of the first in the nation to do so. The NAACP attorney who argued that landmark case, Baltimore’s own Thurgood Marshall, later became the first African American to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Arts and Culture

From its earliest days, Baltimore nurtured cultural innovation. In 1814 artist Rembrandt Peale opened his “Museum and Gallery of Fine Arts.” Still standing today, Peale’s Museum was the first purpose-built museum building in the Western hemisphere. Baltimore’s grand Washington Monument, completed in 1829, was the first significant monument to the nation’s first president. Philanthropist Johns Hopkins endowed the nation’s first research-based university, which opened in 1876. Created in 1916, the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra was the nation’s first publicly supported symphony orchestra.

Cultural creativity has remained a Baltimore hallmark. The Inner Harbor renewal project of the 1970s led the way in waterfront redevelopment. Oriole Park at Camden Yards opened in 1992, the first in a new generation of “retro” major league ballparks. Three years later, the American Visionary Art Museum opened as America’s first museum of visionary (or “outsider”) art.

It’s easy to explore Baltimore’s many “firsts” in person. The B&O Railroad Museum has one of the world’s largest collections of railroad artifacts and includes exhibits on the construction of the railroad and the invention of the telegraph. Visitors to the Baltimore Museum of Industry, located in a former oyster canning facility on the southeastern shore of the Inner Harbor, can see Mergenthaler’s Linotype machine in action. The Baltimore Civil War Museum, housed in the historic President Street Station, is steps away from the site of the Pratt Street Riots and has exhibits that tell the story of that fateful day. The seminary chapel where Elizabeth Ann Seton took her vows is now part of the Saint Mary's Spiritual Center. The Baltimore Basilica and the First Unitarian Church of Baltimore are both located on Cathedral Hill, just north of downtown along Charles Street. Within eyesight of the churches is the Washington Monument, standing tall over the Mount Vernon neighborhood.