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Charmed Life

Point Men

By Charles Cohen | Posted 1/3/2001

Many neighborhood champions believe their community is the most important in the city. Few set out to prove it.

For the last year and a half, Scott Sheads, Jim Neill, and Oleg Panczenko have been doing just that, combing elusive records and prying stories out of locals to prove the historical significance of Locust Point. After all, everybody knows this peninsula on the west side of the Inner Harbor is the birthplace of "The Star-Spangled Banner"--but how many people know it was where tens of thousands of 19th-century immigrants first set foot on U.S. soil? That it was once home to Bethlehem Steel and several shipbuilding companies, or that the forerunner to the modern submarine was launch-ed here? That a German sub docked here for a month during the height of World War I?

"Locust Point is, I think, one of the most important neighborhoods in Baltimore, if not the most important neighborhood," says Sheads, a National Park Service historian at Fort McHenry who has written books on the fort and on Baltimore during the Civil War.

National anthem notwithstanding, Locust Point itself gets scant mention in even the most thorough books of Baltimore history, forcing these amateur researchers to do their primary historical spelunking in state archives in Annapolis, the Library of Congress--and even on eBay, where they've bid for old maps. But their biggest challenge may be convincing the locals to buy into their Locust Point Historical Project and start coughing up the stories.

"You can interest [residents] for five minutes, and they are quite enthusiastic," says Panczenko, who actually lives in neighboring South Baltimore (Sheads and Neill are Locust Pointers). "When it comes to following up with leads and promises, it's always a perpetual 'tomorrow.'"

Panczenko, an unemployed software developer, and Neill, a legal consultant for the Army at Fort Meade, got the idea for their project while discussing local history at the Avenue Bar on Fort Avenue, where the History Channel is as apt to be playing on the barroom television as ESPN. In the tight-knit neighborhood, it was almost inevitable that they'd hook up with Sheads, whose status as a local historian was well-known. They decided to team up on the project, with the aim of producing a photo-heavy book on Locust Point through the ages.

Talking about their work around a table at Hull Street Blues Café, the trio bemoans the lack of historical record about the neighborhood as if it was the product of a centuries-long conspiracy of silence.

"What's motivates me is the mystery of Locust Point," says Panczenko, whose main role is combing newspaper microfilm in search of neighborhood news. "We know there was lots of industry here and a close-knit community, so I figured it would be easy to find tons of stuff about this. But when you go through the archival material and newspapers, you would think nobody lived there."

Despite that handicap, the three researchers are amassing a pretty convincing case for Locust Point's importance in the larger history of the city, even the country. Not only is it home to a national shrine, Fort McHenry, but it was one of the nation's biggest receiving centers for European immigrants, and a former industrial hotbed where ships were built and copper processed.

The former Whetstone Point (as the area was originally dubbed in 1661) has played host to numerous colorful characters. Giovanni Martini, the last messenger out of Little Big Horn and thus the only survivor of Custer's army, played trumpet in a regiment at Fort McHenry at the turn of the 20th century. In 1916, Capt. Paul Konig of the German submarine Deutschland ran British blockades and docked for a month in Locust Point, to the delight of the neighborhood's numerous German residents. In the 1940s, Marie Mattson ran a ship-salvaging yard where she organized crews to harvest scrap iron. And the three researchers are trying to hunt down information about something called the "Locust Point Boat Club for Disgusted Millionaires" (pictured).

The factors that have kept Locust Point largely overlooked--its isolation as a peninsula near the city's edge, separated by water from the bustle of downtown, Fells Point, and Canton--have also helped preserve its stout working-class character. Many immigrant families came off the ships, sidestepped the masses waiting for westward trains (a B&O station was conveniently located at the Locust Point pier), and settled in the neighborhood. Generations later their descendants are still here, lending credence to the neighborhood saw that people only come to Locust Point to live and only leave when they die.

But now, longtime residents who fought off plans to demolish the neighborhood to make way for an Interstate 95 extension in the '70s are wondering if Locust Point's close-knit, stoop-sitting feel will survive Tide Point, the dot-com office park/retail complex going up at the old Proctor & Gamble plant at the end of Hull Street. To hear the city tell it, the Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse project is just the first eddy of the "Digital Harbor" wave set to wash over the waterfront.

"Walking through the neighborhood and coming into the bars, especially in the bars, you would meet people with incredible stories about their lives," Sheads says--tales of housewives hitching a ride with the iceman to a paper-recycling plant to complain about the plant's soot ruining their laundry, and of bars sending out cabs to pick up lunchtime patrons at nearby factories. "I said, 'Gosh, these stories need to be written down somewhere before they are gone.' So it's almost a race against time here."

It's not an easy task in an insular community that has fended for itself for generations. Panczenko recalls fishing for stories along Cuba Street, a beautiful jumble of old industrial buildings and rowhouses that jut out toward the water. He found one woman willing to talk, but an old man watching the proceedings just shook his head, swearing, "No one's goddamn business."

Now it's Panczenko shaking his head at such lost opportunities. "Our archival work will only get us a skeleton," he says. "This is a living community. The stories are clothes and flesh that will set the project apart from others. Otherwise it's just an academic exercise of a history of industrial community."

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