Caulkers of Fell’s Point helped U.S. stay afloat in 1812

Written by on August 22, 2012 in Featured, Neighborhood News - No comments

It looks like a rundown old duplex, and that’s what it is. But these two dwellings, which originally housed the caulkers that kept our privateers’ ships seaworthy during the War of 1812, have actually been standing since the late 1700s. Photo by Erik Zygmont

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Without a doubt, motorists and pedestrians pass the small wooden structure at 612 and 614 S. Wolfe St. everyday, clueless to its significance to the history of Baltimore and its role in American history.

“These are very interesting buildings, in that they are the first white European buildings, or however you want to refer to it, that were built at these locations,” said J. Bryan Blundell, whose Dell Corporation is helping to preserve the two connected buildings.

“What’s really unusual about them is that they’ve survived at all,” said Ellen von Karajan, Executive Director of the Federal Hill and Fell’s Point Preservation Society. “The thing about 18th Century wooden houses in Baltimore is that there’s only a handful of them—they’re rare, quite rare.

The dwellings were most likely erected in the late 1700s, by Ann Bond Fell Giles. She was first married to William Fell, founder of Fell’s Point. After his death, she remarried and took the name Giles.

“She was a corporate whiz-bang,” observed Blundell, noting that Giles instituted a “ground rent” on the properties—whoever bought them owned the buildings, but she owned the land and collected rent payments on it for life.

“It’s a clever custom,” said Ellen von Karajan, Executive Director of the Federal Hill and Fell’s Point Preservation Society. “It still exists in Baltimore. It was a way she could be sure that she still had some income coming in.”

Blundell believes that there’s a strong possibility that the the duplex—which was originally the southern half of a four-plex—was assembled from a kit that was cut at a nearby shipyard. According to Blundell, Giles had a policy that land purchased for speculation cannot be without a structure.

Von Karajan said that African American caulkers—the men responsible for sealing ships’ hulls with caulk—lived in the houses.

Caulking was a father-to-son trade. Some caulkers were freemen; others were slaves. Frederick Douglass was a caulker at one point, von Karajan said.

As ships and mariners played a huge role in the War of 1812, so did the caulkers who ensured that they stayed afloat, said von Karajan.

While the caulkers labored, the mariners lived lives of adventure. Captain Henry Dashiell owned a house at the corner of Aliceanna St. and S. Broadway, now the location of Todd Conner’s restaurant. Karajan marveled at a letter Dashiell had sent to his wife Mary, prior to the War of 1812. He was was writing from British prison; his ship had been taken by the British; and the whereabouts of his crew were unknown. Somehow he made it back to Fell’s Point.

Dashiell would go on to be a privateer—or government-sanctioned pirate/sea warrior—during the War of 1812 and even after the signing of the Treaty of Ghent which ended it.

“They didn’t have cell phones back then, so he didn’t know,” said von Karajan.

Thomas Boyle, another famous privateer of the War of 1812, proclaimed a blockade of England and Ireland in response to England’s so-proclaimed blockade of America. Boyle’s defiant decree states that while Britain didn’t have the power to enforce its blockade, he, Boyle, did have the power and the will to blockade Britain. British insurance rates skyrocketed, and British merchants put pressure on British politicians.

“It became yet another pressure to end the war,” said Karajan.

Boyle’s ship, the Chasseur, became “The Pride of Baltimore” upon his return.

“The caulkers were fundamental to being able to do all these things,” said Karajan.

The homes on Wolfe St. are very simple.

“All their life centered around the teapot and the table,” said Karajan.

The homes were purchased in the 1960s or 70s by the Dashiell sisters, descendants of the famed mariner.

“They came down here and were going to establish a museum that told their family’s story in the context of the greater thread of American history,” explained Karajan.

The homes were inhabited into the 1980s, but bankruptcy court put out the tenants. The Preservation Society took ownership, saving the structure from the city’s “rehab or raze” policy. According to von Karajan, the structure exhibits the various building and home advances that occurred since the end of the 18th Century, including oyster-shell insulation, soft “salmon bricks” from the 1870s, and 1920s-vintage electrical wiring.

“You can see vestiges of the ages, all in these two little rooms,” she said.

“It really becomes a location where you can do CSI on the building,” said Blundell.

Blundell said that the long-term plan is to restore 612 S. Wolfe St. to a semblance of what it looked like in the 1812-era. The unit at 614, he said, will be a “stabilized artifact,” more or less preserved as-is for study and research.

Von Karajan said that the properties are just one example of Fell’s Point’s status as an intact historic neighborhood.

“Even Williamsburg is a recreation of what was there, but Fell’s Point is real,” she said.

by Erik Zygmont

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