The Great Port of Baltimore - page 11

he kings of the Colonial economy were tobacco planters,
whose wealth dwarfed the resources of early Baltimore Town.
The planters developed Maryland’s first maritime chains: small
canoe-shaped sailboats sliced through the Patapsco’s tributaries
to dock at planters’ wharves and load cured tobacco leaf, which
was transported to ships in giant barrels called hogsheads some-
times rolled or horse-pulled to what is now Calvert Street — then
the only road leading to the marshy expanse of Baltimore’s harbor
area, where wetlands extended west to what is now Charles Street
and just north of Lombard to Water Street.
The English-born planters, who had seen the economic benefits
of trade first-hand, spoke the language of maritime commerce. Since
local consumption of any product was naturally limited, the key to
greater profitability was the export or sale of tobacco to customers
in distant markets. Of course, getting it there was another problem.
Overland travel was dicey at best, always tedious and time-consum-
ing. Water was shorter and surer; ships provided ready access to
world markets, and had the added benefit of ample capacity.
And with their merchant mentality, the planters knew they
needed to spend money to make money, so they invested in
harbor development and shipyards, and also leaned on legislators
for better roads to improve deliveries to waiting ships — a set of
changes which improved the region’s general business climate
and encouraged fresh enterprise.
The planters’ return on investment was substantial; Maryland’s
exports of “sotte weed” climbed from 30 million pounds in the 1720s
to 100 million pounds in the 1770s. Emboldened by the dynamics of
maritime trade, Marylanders began diversifying into other areas of
agricultural production, and openly debated the merits of making
a clean break from Britain, which perpetuated America’s economic
dependence by controlling the terms of Colonial trade.
Planter Kings
On the Bay, boat traffic and commerce were picking up:
Cargoes were transported in skiffs, flat-bottomed barges, canoes
and larger vessels like a shallop — the open 30-footer John Smith
used to explore the Bay — and a pinnace like the
, from which
the very first English settlers disembarked onto the western shore
of the Delmarva Peninsula.
The clock was ticking down on Colonial Maryland’s deep sleep.
Already, developments were afoot that would revolutionize the
state of the economy and the state of the nation, and propel the
Port of Baltimore to global pre-eminence. Scattered amidst tobacco
warehouses in the Patapsco River Valley, the means of transitioning
from an agricultural to an industrial economy — and the underpin-
nings of a diversified economic base — had been set in motion.
Baltimore’s shipwrights, using the Chesapeake as a
proving ground to test their designs, began developing
a distinct style of boat built for speed and maneuver-
ability, single-masted sloops and two-masted schoo-
ners which shook off pirates and French privateers
who stalked them during trade expeditions to
West Indies islands.
In a sense, much of the heavy lifting for
Baltimore’s growth was performed 35
million years earlier, give or take,
when an extraterrestrial body
(no one knows quite what, since
it was vaporized) slammed
into the mid-Atlantic
coast at blinding speed
and formed a crater,
which became the
A map from 1780 reveals the
breadth of the Bay’s reach into
Maryland. Baltimore Harbor
rests at the top of the Patapsco
River shown in the upper-
middle portion of the map
beside the “A” in Maryland.
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