John Candy and Steve Martin showed us hilarious reasons to avoid planes, trains and automobiles in their 1987 hit movie. Too bad they didn’t try a boat. After all, being on a boat, especially when visiting a big city, is a lot more fun than being stuck in gridlock traffic or long TSA lines. And instead of having to look up between canyons of towering buildings, you can take in the entire city skyline while moving along at a comfortable speed without once having to stop for a red light. Yes, entering a city by boat can be much less stressful and a lot more fun.
But not all cities are equal. Indeed, there’s only one that calls itself Charm City. Admittedly, Baltimore, like other major American cities, has been going through rough times of late, much of it due to the Covid crisis. But Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and its nearby Fells Point waterfront neighborhood continue to attract boaters looking for the type of fun, quality entertainment that only an urban center can offer.
Where else can you walk from your boat to a Major League Baseball game, watch a dolphin show at a world-renowned aquarium, see some of today’s most unique works of art created by self-taught geniuses, and have your kids be entertained for hours at a fascinating interactive science center? And just as important, where else can you tour a collection of historic ships that span two centuries of American maritime history, a fleet that is within walking distance of marinas in the harbor?
The 8-mile run up the Patapsco River from the Chesapeake Bay reveals industrial activity and historic sights. After cruising under the Francis Scott Key Bridge and past the Port of Baltimore’s sprawling marine terminals, Fort McHenry comes into view. This historic sight was the inspiration for “The Star Spangled Banner” during the War of 1812 and can be toured by taking a water taxi from the downtown waterfront. Rounding Fort McHenry, you’ll pass several top-notch marinas in the Canton and Fells Point neighborhoods on your starboard side, and if you continue another mile or two, you’ll enter Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. Here, you’ll have a choice of modern marinas surrounded by the city’s biggest attractions, including the Historic Ships of Baltimore, National Aquarium, Maryland Science Center and Top of the World Observation Level. Within walking distance are the Port Discovery Children’s Museum, the American Visionary Art Museum and Camden Yards, home to the ever hopeful Baltimore Orioles.
A History of Shipbuilding
Baltimore’s shipbuilding industry began to flourish in the late 18th century with the building of Baltimore Clippers, the fast, maneuverable topsail schooners that became the bane of British warships. Able to sail into the wind, they literally sailed circles around British square riggers and were instrumental in the outcome of the War of 1812. While Baltimore Clippers eventually gave way to larger ships capable of carrying more cargo, they forever captured the hearts and minds of wooden ship lovers everywhere.
To celebrate these beautiful ships, a replica, Pride of Baltimore, was built in 1977 in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, and it soon became a symbol of Baltimore’s downtown renaissance. Sailing over 150,000 miles across the globe, she served as an icon of America’s shipbuilding mastery. But she suffered a catastrophic sinking in 1986 after being struck by a freak squall. In an instant, an 80-knot wind hit and capsized her north of Puerto Rico. There was no time for the crew to react or reduce sail. While eight crew members survived, the captain and three crew members perished. Within a year, funds were raised and construction of a new Pride began. Slightly larger at 157 feet and designed to meet the latest Coast Guard safety regulations, Pride of Baltimore II calls Baltimore’s Inner Harbor its homeport and is open for tours. The ship also maintains an international sailing schedule promoting Maryland’s maritime history.
Baltimore’s shipbuilding industry grew throughout the 19th and 20th centuries as the Civil War and two World Wars required more commercial vessels and warships. But as the 20th century came to an end, so did major shipbuilding in Baltimore. Today, the old, sprawling shipbuilding sites and steel mills have been replaced by modern marine terminals, industrial parks and dry dock facilities, and the environmental improvements to the area are a welcome sight. While there are a few ship repair yards in the area—one of the oldest, General Ship Repair, was established in 1924—the locations that built ships are no longer standing. The nearest place to see how traditional wooden ships are built is the Chesapeake Bay Maritime Museum in St. Michaels, where Maryland Dove is now under construction.
A main attraction to the Inner Harbor is the berthing of four legendary ships. On everyone’s list is the famed sloop-of-war USS Constellation built in 1854. For nearly six decades this majestic 199-footer saw active duty, first intercepting slave ships during the Civil War and then conducting equally heroic missions while representing America’s interest throughout the world. Years after the Civil War, she was assigned to transport U.S. exhibits to the Paris Exposition. She later carried relief supplies to the victims of famine in Ireland. She also served the Naval Academy as a training ship. Surviving all these years thanks to exhaustive restoration efforts, she serves as a centerpiece of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor.
Nearby, the Lightship Chesapeake rests in her berth, retired after 50 years of guiding maritime traffic at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. An onboard tour shows how the brave crew coped with the wild swings of being bored while anchored on station to the terror of riding out violent storms, including two hurricanes. Next to the Lightship is the USS Torsk, one of our submarines that patrolled the coast of Japan during World War II. Onboard you can see the torpedo rooms, nav station, engine room and crew quarters. Decommissioned in 1968, she has served as a museum and memorial since 1982.
Just around the corner from the Torsk is the 327-foot USCG Cutter 37, in service from 1936 to 1986 and now a National Historic Landmark. After surviving the attack on Pearl Harbor she immediately commenced anti-submarine patrols in the area. Named “Queen of the Pacific” while conducting peacetime duties, she was later referred to as “The Last Survivor of Pearl Harbor” while serving in the Vietnam War. Many of those who have been aboard say it’s an honor to tour this heroic ship, where fascinating interactive programs show what life was like aboard Cutter 37.
Just steps away, you’ll find the relocated screw-pile Seven Foot Knoll Lighthouse built in 1856 and manned until 1948. Marking a shoal near the mouth of the Patapsco River, it had a troubled history of retaining qualified keepers because of its remote location and severe weather conditions. Thankfully, advances in technology allowed it to be replaced by unmanned buoys and range lights, and in 1988 it was removed and placed on land in the Inner Harbor. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places it has long been a popular attraction of downtown Baltimore, offering not only a glimpse of life as a lighthouse keeper but also an elevated view of the Inner Harbor.
Don’t Miss Colorful Fells Point
If you tire of all the tourist attractions in Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, check out the nearby waterfront neighborhood of Fells Point. To get there by foot, follow the paved walkway along the waterfront for a 30-minute stroll, take a water taxi to a public landing, or get a slip at one of the Fells Point marinas. Known for its lively pubs, hip cafés, bakeries, antique shops, indoor markets and funky restaurants, Fells Point boasts its own unique style.
Walk the cobblestone streets of Fells Point and discover a diverse mixture of residential and commercial space. Across the harbor, tugboats, freighters, water taxis and recreational boats go about their busy routines. And if you wait until the sun goes down, you’ll see the iconic Domino Sugars sign light up the entire skyline, as it’s been doing for the past 100 years. Day or night, live music, art galleries, playhouses, street performers and festivals offer entertainment for everyone. Whether you’re in the mood for an over-the-top luxury hotel experience or just want to grab a few locally brewed beers and a plate of steamed mussels, Fells Point won’t disappoint.
Yes, like so many other cities, Baltimore has seen an increase in crime. But Baltimore’s crime is committed mostly in its more impoverished neighborhoods. Fortunately, the Inner Harbor and Fells Point are quite safe because of all the activity and large numbers of visiting tourists. But it still makes sense to be cautious. Stay aware of your surroundings and be sensible.
There are many good reasons to visit Baltimore’s Inner Harbor and Fells Point, so hop on your boat, run up the Patapsco River and discover all the great things Charm City” has to offer.
This article was originally published in the April 2022 issue.