Rocket’s red glare
Trip to Fort McHenry will make you proud
We all love a good story, even if it moves us to tears. That’s what you’ll get when visiting Baltimore’s Fort McHenry. The 18th century star-shaped fort is famous as the birthplace of our national anthem, written by Francis Scott Key during the War of 1812. But any tears evoked while listening to America’s valiant defense against the powerful British and the legacy of the Star-Spangled Banner are tears of pride.
Admiral Fell Inn
Planning a two-day visit, I arrived a Fell’s Point, an historic waterfront village on the city’s Inner Harbor, at 7 a.m. I had reserved a room at Admiral Fell Inn, and though it was too early to check in, a young man greeted me warmly and said my room was ready and breakfast was being served. That was the first of many friendly encounters I had in Baltimore, which is often referred to as “Charm City.” I settled into a cozy, Federal-style room overlooking the quaint streets paved in Belgian-block.
The first water taxi didn’t leave for the fort until 10 a.m., so I had plenty of time to indulge in the inn's European-style breakfast. I then took a leisurely stroll through Fell’s Point which reflects an old English village with 18th and 19th century row houses. The little shops, cozy pubs and tea gardens left me craving for more as I headed to the harbor to catch the taxi to Fort McHenry.
Though I’d seen pictures of the fort in brochures, nothing prepared me for the awe-inspiring beauty of its peaceful surroundings which are part of the National Park System. “It’s the only park in the country designated as a national monument and historic shrine, according to Park Ranger Vincent Vaise, my guide for the morning.
It was hard to imagine that such a fierce battle once raged there as the British, with the world’s most powerful navy, lobbed 1,500 bombs and rockets as a mere 1,000 dedicated Americans held the fort.
First stop, the visitor’s center which features a must-see, 16-minute film about the fort’s defense and the writing of “The Star Spangled Banner.” The real drama came at the end when the curtains on one side of the room opened to a panoramic view of the fort. There, flying in a gentle morning breeze, was a repica of the 30x42 ft. flag that inspired Key. As the U.S. Naval Academy Choir sang “The Star-Spangled Banner,” we all stood in pride, placing our hands over hearts and singing along. The experience will bring you to your knees.
“It’s those few moments after the curtain is drawn that people remember the most about their visit. It’s very rewarding to see their expressions and know they’re leaving with a greater sense of the fort’s historic significance,” Vaise said.
We walked “o’er the ramparts” where Key saw the flag so “gallantly streaming.” As Vaise pointed out the cannons that helped win the battle that cinched our freedom, his deep love and appreciation for the fort’s history was intoxicating. And so was his enthusiasm as we visited the restored barracks where the troops spent their days. “If you really listen, you can almost hear the stories whispering through these walls,” he said.
Vaise portrays the fort’s Captain of the Guard in the “living history” performances held each Saturday afternoon during the summer. You’ll see soldiers rolling musket cartridges, writing letters home with a quill pen and polishing brass. “People enjoy living vicariously through the visit, wondering what it would have been like to be one of the defenders here. It’s easier to imagine when they see the 1814 fort guards dressed in uniform, performing drills and firing cannons. They’re all volunteers who take their jobs very seriously, observing the protocol of early 19th century so visitors get a clear picture of the history at the time our national anthem was written. All the senses come to life. We even cook stew in the barracks. It’s more like a fort than a museum, and visitors become part of it,” Vaise said.
After the War of 1812, the fort was never attacked again, but it periodically served as an active military post for the next 100 years.
Returning to Fell’s Point, I walked along the two-mile promenade that wraps around the Inner Harbor and found my way to Little Italy where Mary Pickersgill sewed the massive flag that flew over Fort McHenry and inspired Key. Her 17th century home is now The Flag House and Star-Spangled Banner Museum and well worth a visit.
Besides its home-town charm, Baltimore offers a wealth of history and cultural diversity. The Inner Harbor is definitely its crowning jewel, surrounded by historic neighborhoods, piers, and wharfs. Old warehouses have been restored for offices, hotels, quaint boutiques, galleries, and restaurants.
The harbor's roots come to life at the Baltimore Maritime Museum which is highlighted by the USCGC Taney, the last Pearl Harbor survivor afloat, and also in the Knoll Lighthouse that graces Pier 5. A stroll along the harbor wouldn’t be complete without spending time at Harborplace – two European-style pavilions which are lively with street entertainers and open-air concerts and feature 125 specialty shops and sidewalk cafes.
By late afternoon, I was sinking my teeth into tasty crab cakes at Kooper's Tavern in Fell's Point. I returned to the historic inn, which takes seven buildings dating back to the 16th century, before nightfall. The inn is named for William Fell, an Englishman who came to Baltimore in 1726 to open a ship building operation. The city quickly became a thriving shipbuilding center. Today, it maintains its maritime heritage as more than 30 million tons of cargo pass through the port each year.
That night, I met an old financer of shipping, Mr. Livingston, a charming character who has been hanging around the inn since he died 155 years ago. He was sitting in the lobby and seemed quite eager for conversation. Come to find out, he shares the hotel with several other resident ghosts who often chat with guests. “I have seniority so I could choose which room to spend most of my time in. I’m usually in the bar because I like the spirits there,” he said with a mischievous grin.
When it comes to the spirits of bygone days, Mr. Livingston stressed "location, location, location is important." I must admit, considering the city's charm and history, the old chap is a perfect fit!
This feature first appeared in The Daily Journal, Kankakee, IL
To read more about the Star-Spangled Banner, see "Baltimore's Star-Spangled Banner" and "Frederick's favored son" in Maryland's destinations.
Things to do
Fort McHenry National Monument & Historic Shrine – star-shaped fort famous for the War of 1812. (410-962-4290) www.nps.gov/fomc
The Flag House and Star-Spangled Banner Museum – 18th century home where Mary Pickersgill lived when she sewed the flag that inspired the writing of our national anthem. (410-837-1793) www.flaghouse.org
Ed Kane’s Water Taxi – on-off water taxi that transports riders to 35 Baltimore attractions and historic neighborhoods. (800-658-8947) www.thewatertaxi.com
Clipper City, Inc. – Baltimore’s tall ship which sails from the Inner Harbor daily. (410- 539-6277)
Baltimore Maritime Museum- home of several old ships, including the USCGC Tany, the last ship to survive Pearl Harbor afloat. (410-396-3453)
Harbor Magic Hotels for a "magical" experience
Admiral Fell Inn – an historic, European-style hotel in Fell's Point, a charming waterfront village. Guests are pampered with afternoon tea and scones and fireside treats, such roasted chestnuts. (410-522-7377) The inn is one of three Harbor Magic Hotels in the city. www.harbormagic.com Others include: Pier 5 - a good life destinations in itself, the plush hotel is decorated in vibrant colors and has a breathtaking, three-story atrium. Best of all, it sits right on the harbor. (410-539-2000); Brookshire Suites - a contemporary downtown hotel within walking distance of the Inner Harbor. Check out the views from the Cloud Club at the top of the hotel. (410-625-1300)