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What's In A Name

Studying Baltimore's Neighborhood Nomenclature

Tom Chalkley

By Michael Sachdev | Posted 9/15/1999

Baltimore's neighborhoods, each with its own distinct history and traditions, are like squabbling children. Each thinks it has the most to offer, each has its own special problems, and, like children, each boasts a smattering of ignorance--most people can't tell you why their neighborhood is called what it's called.

If you really want to show off some pride in the 'hood, it seems to us, it pays to know some 'hood history. With this goal in mind, we offer a guide to how some of our better-known neighborhoods got their names. If nothing else, the information could come in handy in an argument at your neighborhood bar.

In that vein, what better place to start than Fells Point, Baltimore's Mecca of all things oceanic by day and all things alcoholic by night? When asked where Fells Point gets its name, most locals smile and reply, "Admiral Fell." But that's only part of the story.

Edward Fell sailed from England to the colonies in 1726. He was a real-estate man and owned property on both sides of the Jones Falls. He named his town Jones Town, after David Jones, the first man to settle here. As Baltimore grew and began to swallow neighboring villages, Jones Town became known as simply Old Town.

Edward's brother William had remained in England, but after hearing of his brother's wealth, he crossed the Atlantic in 1730. When William arrived, he bought a 100-acre parcel of land and built a mansion and shipyard. William had five children, including an only son, Edward. Young Edward got more from his uncle than a name; when the elder Edward Fell died in 1738, he left his nephew his land. In 1745, when Baltimore Town and Jones Town officially joined to form Baltimore, William Fell served on the board of commissioners that watched over the jurisdiction. William died a year later, and he too left his estate to the young Edward Fell, uniting the estates of the English brothers. In 1763, Edward Fell named this enormous holding Fells Point and gave the streets English names, such as Shakespeare and Thames.

Incidentally, Fells Point is spelled without an apostrophe; it's not a mark of ownership, but the plural of "Fell," presumably in honor of the two brothers.

To the east, many Canton residents are equally in the dark about the origin of their neighborhood's moniker. One resident was surprised to hear that he should be called "Cantonese," just like the dialect spoken in China. As it turns out, Canton was actually named after the Chinese port.

Captain John O'Donnell, a rich trader, sailed around the Far East for much of his life, amassing considerable wealth. His last stop before settling in the Americas was Canton, China's southernmost port and a great place to buy the tea, spices, and silk that Westerners craved. His arrival was reported by the Maryland Journal and Baltimore Advertiser on Aug. 12, 1785: "On Tuesday evening last there arrived here, directly from China, the Ship Pallas, commanded by its owner, Captain O'Donnell. She has on board a most valuable cargo . . . teas, china, silks, satins." On the following page of the issue was an announcement for the sale of O'Donnell's bric-a-brac.

Two months later O'Donnell married and bought a property east of Fells Point, where he and his new bride settled. O'Donnell named his estate Canton, after the Chinese city where he had purchased so many fine items that made him rich.

The origin of Pigtown is more difficult to pin down. But we do know that Babe Ruth was born in the Southwest Baltimore neighborhood, and that there were many hog butchers in the area.

One tale particularly lends itself to the neighborhood's name, and it's the one most residents cling to. Legend has it that pigs ran through the streets of Pigtown, starting at the Union Stockyards and ending up at "Pig Heaven," as the locals called the South Baltimore slaughterhouse. It is even said that during these stampedes, people would reach out through street-level windows and snatch a pig for dinner.

Near Pigtown but right on the water stands Federal Hill. The hill and its surrounding neighborhood were once called John Smith's Hill, after the famous narcissistic explorer of Pocahontas fame. Smith sailed into the harbor in 1608 and wrote about "a great red bank of clay flanking a natural harbour basin."

The name Federal Hill didn't come about until 1788, when Baltimore threw a huge shindig in honor of Maryland's ratification of the U.S. Constitution. In honor of the event, Commodore Joshua Barney, a naval hero of the Revolutionary War, had a 15-foot boat built and rigged as a warship. He named the ship the Federalist, set it on wheels, and paraded it through the streets of the city before having it placed atop the hill, where it was joined by 4,000 partygoers. It was quite a celebration; those in attendance gorged themselves on 500 pounds of ham, 1,000 pounds of beef, 151/2 barrels of beer, 240 gallons of hard cider, and 91/2 gallons of peach brandy. As often happens in such situations, Commodore Barney and the other smashed sailors got antsy around midnight and decided it was a good time to take a trip. They slid the tiny Federalist down the hill and sailed it out of the Inner Harbor to Annapolis. They probably enjoyed a good case of bed spins; we still enjoy the view from the hill named for the boat.

Residents of Bolton Hill may be loath to learn they don't actually live in Bolton Hill. For centuries, and even today, Bolton Hill was synonymous with fine living. The trend began in the 18th century, when two aristocratic houses, Bolton and Mount Royal, dominated the area. Everyone important lived on the hill, or else knew someone who did. But the area we know today as Bolton Hill doesn't actually cover the original Bolton property. Rather, it covers William Gibson's 75-acre Rose Hill estate.

In 1850, 16 years after Gibson's death, Edward Tiffany, of the famous Tiffany family, purchased Rose Hill plus 15 acres. After petitioning the city to create a boulevard (now the 1200 to 1500 blocks of Eutaw Place), Tiffany developed the land. People in those days may have enjoyed the reputation they got by living near the Bolton and Mount Royal estates, but they, like the Bolton Hillers of today, didn't actually live in Bolton Hill. The neighborhood took on the name Bolton Hill in 1955 so locals could reminisce about their community's (nonexistent) aristocratic roots. What we now call Mount Royal is on the site of the old Bolton Hill and Mount Royal estates.

Like Pigtown, Butchers Hill derives its name from the prominent role meat played in the area. The neighborhood's elevation protected surrounding residents from the smell and other unpleasantries of butchering. In addition, laws passed between 1812 and 1818 prohibited slaughterhouses from operating southwest of the intersection of Baltimore and Ann streets; the hill became the easiest place for butchers to start cutting meat.

North Baltimore's Hampden, famous now for its trendy "Avenue" (36th Street) was once renowned for its water-wheel mills and cotton industry, started by Horatio Nelson Gambrill in 1865. The Maryland Historical Society Magazine describes the neighborhood at this time as a "100-acre tract of land near the present intersection of Falls Road and 40th Street."

Hampden dates to 1856, when Henry Mankin sold 450 acres of land to the Hampden Association, and it became part of the city in 1888, but the origins of its name go back much further than that--to the 17th century, in fact. In 1925, Mankin's daughter Oliva wrote that her father named the community "in honor of John Hampden, Gentleman of Buckinghamshire, the patriotic Englishman, who was among the first, if not the first, to oppose the opening of the arbitrary, if not illegal levy--of taxes by King Charles I." Such "arbitrary" taxation of colonists was one of the leading causes of the American Revolution.

Unlike neighboring Hampden, Roland Park's reputation remains very much what it was in its 19th-century origins--home to the patrician upper classes. The neighborhood grew out of the Roland Park Co., formed in 1890 by landowners William Edmunds and Charles Grasty and planner Edward Bouton and named for Roland Thornberry, an English landowner in Baltimore County (of which, at the time, Roland Park was part). With Bouton as its president, the company developed the new community with strict property restrictions, including minimum house prices. When Roland Avenue was transformed from a dirt path to a major street in the 1890s, the neighborhood began to grow, eventually becoming part of Baltimore City in 1918.

Walbrook, like Roland Park, was founded as a haven for the wealthy, albeit of a different era--the late 17th century. Hence the origins of its name are a bit hazier. Walbrook's history goes back to 1669; in its early days it was known as Parrish Range, after Edward Parrish's estate. In 1719, Peter Bond built a mill on Gwynn's Falls Stream. To the east, more estates popped up, including Whitestone, named after owner Julian Levy White; Beech Hill, belonging to the Slingluff family; John Smith's Mount Holly; and The Mount, owned by James Carey. The original Walbrook was Galloway Cheston's estate, near what is now Walbrook Avenue and Hilton Street.

The property was already known as Walbroook when Cheston acquired it in 1853; there are two accounts of how the area got its name. One explanation is that "Walbrook" comes from London. The English capital was once walled in as a protection against invaders, and a stream marked one of its boundaries; these two features of the city were combined into one word ("stream" transmogrifying into "brook). The other version uses the same etymology but applies it locally. Apparently, James Carey's The Mount was adjacent to a parcel of land owned by a Quaker named Coale. One property was surrounded by a wall; the other had a brook running through it. Legend has it that the men decided to combine their property and name it after these two features.

Govans also goes way back, to the 1700s; it was part of the holdings of Frederick Calvert, the last Lord Baltimore. Calvert granted a few hundred acres of his land to William Govane, a wealthy importer and ship owner. Govane increased his property by purchasing an adjoining property, and named his estate Drumcastle. Years passed, and Drumcastle was handed down through generations of Govanes, eventually becoming known by that name (albeit slightly altered). Until recently, direct descendants of William Govane still lived in the area. The community grew in spurts through the 1800s, aided by the flower industry--the first orchids grown in Baltimore were from Govans.

Hamilton, in the city's northeast corner, could have just as easily been named Tamesville. In the mid-1800s, when the Tames brothers were born in a log cabin in present-day Hamilton, the neighborhood was called North Lauraville, because of its location in relation to Lauraville. The Tames brothers opened a general store at what is now the corner of Harford Road and Hamilton Avenue, selling farm equipment and other staples to the agricultural community. Before long, the store became the business center of the area, and the street it was on was named Tames Lane.

But retired sea captain Hamilton Caughey had other plans for the neighborhood. Adjacent to the Tames brothers' log cabin was Fair Oaks Farm, Caughey's estate. Caughey donated land on his property's southern border to Baltimore County for the construction of a road to Towson; in return, he wanted the road named after him. At this point, what we now call Hamilton Avenue was called Hamilton Lane west of Caughey's land and Tames Lane to the east. Eventually, though, the whole stretch became known as Hamilton Avenue.

Caughey got more than just his street. In 1900, when the community had grown big enough to separate from Lauraville, postmaster S. Davies Warfield took his cue from the main drag and named the new neighborhood Hamilton.

Last on our whirlwind tour of neighborhoods comes Charles Village. Known, perhaps notoriously, for its neighborhood pride, Charles Village only received its name in the late 1960s. The area began life as Peabody Heights, after benefactor George Peabody, of conservatory fame. Peabody and other real-estate speculators, forseeing Baltimore's growth after the Civil War, began the Peabody Heights Co. on Oct. 1, 1879. They quickly bought the high land north of the city and began marketing it as "the most desirable lands for the erection of first-class residences within the suburbs of Baltimore."

With the added views and cooler weather of the heights, plus the neighborhood's closeness to older aristocratic estates, the speculators expected the land to sell fast. It didn't, mainly because of neighborhood restrictions on many kinds of businesses, such as slaughterhouses and bars. In April 1896, Francis E. Yewell, a rowhouse developer, bought nearly all of Peabody Heights for $417,000. The neighborhood sprang up in no time, guided along the way by the Peabody Heights Improvement Association. Over the years Peabody Heights grew, eventually sharing space with the Homewood campus of Johns Hopkins University and several large apartment buildings.

During the 1920s, the locals began to forget the name Peabody Heights. The original residents, frustrated with the increasing automobile traffic, had left for garden properties to the north. By the '60s, "Peabody Heights" was all but forgotten. A local civic activist, Grace Darin, renamed the area Charles Village after its main drag, North Charles Street.

Many Baltimoreans are proud of their neighborhoods for their histories, but--as Bolton Hill residents may now know--that history may be all wrong. Others might love their neighborhoods for the spirit they feel is encapsulated within the streets. The sense of seagoing adventure, for example, has never quite left Fells Point and Canton. One thing is certain: The traditions that led people to Baltimore years ago and made them move to our most celebrated neighborhoods are the things we should be proud of today--traditions of aristocratic snobbery, big-money real-estate deals, heavy drinking, and pushy civic associations, hon.

Read more

Other Awards for What''s In A Name:

, 6/26/2002

, 5/30/2001

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