The History of Highlandtown
The History of Highlandtown as a separate and distinct neighborhood really began in 1866, when Fort Marshall - located on what was then called Snake Hill - was abandoned by the Union troops.
A young Irish immigrant named Thomas McGuinness, under the direction of the Philadelphia Land Company, which owned the property, started the development of the area as a residential neighborhood. McGuinness planted trees and laid out streets, naming one Mt. Pleasant Avenue after his own birthplace in County South, Ireland.
For years, the neighborhood's only resident, McGuinness, lived on the northwest corner of Baylis and Bank Streets. His original house was an odd attraction, being the cabin of an old boat hauled to the site and roughly renovated into living quarters. He later built a frame house and still later a three- story brick dwelling.
Early Local Industry
Among the earliest industries to move into the little village was George F. Weissner's Fort Marshall Brewery at Highland and Eastern Avenues, which began producing beer in 1869. The brewery employed nine employees, and at the southern end was a beer garden, saloon and picnic ground. Later, Weissner added a bowling alley, a dancing pavilion and flying horses. In 1899, the plant was purchased and closed by the Maryland Brewing Company, a trust which had bought 17 local breweries.
Another local industry was the Mickey Dorsey and Son Acid Factory, which later became Geyner's Lime Kiln. In addition, the three Schluderberg brothers - Conrad, William and George - bought land for a butcher shop. Theodore Maasch, butcher, and Adam Elgert, saloon-keeper, also opened businesses.
Lighting The Avenue
During these early days, a night watchman named Rapp would light the few street lamps each evening and patrol the streets, notifying residents that all was well.
Henry Miller was appointed the community's first policeman about 1875, and a member of the Elgert family was named the first magistrate.
On December 30, 1873, the Highlandtown Fire Department was organized as a hook and ladder company called "The Rescue." A cornerstone was laid on Main Street (now 400 North Conkling) in September 1875, and a 24' x 75' building was erected.
Snake Hill Becomes Highlandtown
By 1870, the citizens objected to the original name of the community, Snake Hill. The village had already attracted two classes of businessmen, butchers and brewers: the butchers because they needed a thinly-populated area for their trade, and the brewers because of the potential for adequate space for the beer gardens that were popular and usually respectable gathering places for the whole family. Milkmen also found Snake Hill to be good pasture ground.
These dignified merchants called a meeting at Weissner's for the purpose of selecting a new, definite name for the community. The Committee finally decided on Highland Town for the central portion of the community, from which one could see the surrounding countryside for miles around. When Baltimore City annexed the area in 1918, the spelling was changed to avoid confusion.
Highlandtown As Oasis
In the late 1870's and early 1880's, few streets ran east of Patterson Park. Eastern Avenue was paved with cobblestones as far as the wooden bridge over Harris Creek. Beyond the bridge, the avenue was a small road. So, for years, Highlandtown remained a country village of detached brick and frame houses with picket-fenced front yards. Woods, corn fields, dairies and truck farms surrounded the village.
Church’s Were a Cornerstone of Highlandtown
Many Germans resided in Highlandtown, the majority of whom were Roman Catholics. At first, these German-speaking Catholics walked a mile and a half from their homes, or rode the Green Line horse car that ran on Toone Street as far as Conkling Street, to St. Michael's Church and school located on Lombard and Wolfe Streets.
St. Michael's Church was administered by the Redemptorist Fathers who first came to Baltimore in 1840 when an agreement was reached between the Most Reverend Samuel Eccleston, Archbishop of Baltimore, and the Redemptorist Order that they assume charge of the German Catholics of the Arch-Episcopal City and of the whole diocese, by employing a number of German priests who were competent missionaries.
By 1870, these German- speaking Catholics petitioned the Archbishop of Baltimore, the Most Reverend James Roosevelt Bayley, for a church in their neighborhood. The Redemptorist Fathers viewed the proposition favorably because many people were missing Mass and growing lax in the practice of their faith on account of the distance from the church.
Father Joseph Mueller visited the German families of Canton and Highlandtown, to take up subscriptions for the purchase of a site for the new church. In 1873, The Redemptorists bought three acres of land on the abandoned site of Fort Marshall for $17,000. Under the enthusiastic direction of Father Mueller, the work of leveling the earthworks at the present corner of Highland and Foster Avenues was begun with plans calling for a combination church and school. By December 1873, the school and church were operating.
A Brewery is also Born
Around this time, Gottleib Bauer and Frederick Buckler founded a brewery located on the southwest corner of Fait Avenue and Clinton Street, and sold it the following year to Sebastian Helldorfer. Mr. Helldorfer, a native Bavarian, was known in most circles as a highly skilled barrel maker and top coronet player who could quickly draw his friends around him into a place in the shade to sample the noble brew. When his brewery was completely destroyed by fire in 1880, it was quickly rebuilt and outfitted with the latest machinery and equipment. A tavern restaurant and park were new additions, making Sebastian Helldorfer's Star brewery the pride of the area.
The cooling tower for the brew was built on a hill and offered a far-reaching view. (The cooled brew was then stored in underground caverns that collapsed in later years when houses were built above them.) From the tower, you could see Baltimore's many monuments, churches and spires, smoking hills framed by the green hills southwest, west and northwest. But the greatest view was that of the magnificent Chesapeake Bay with its large and small sailing ships, luxurious excursion steamers and occasionally a gigantic English steamer carrying immigrants to this country.
Population Starts to Grow
By this time, the community was growing. In 1881, Canton had a population of 2,084 and Highlandtown had 644 residents. In 1888, the State Legislature authorized extensions of City boundaries one mile east. The eastern boundary at the time had been East Avenue. On Election Day, the residents of the community rejected the State's gracious offer by a vote of 485 to 317.
Population Expresses Desire for Own Mayor
To show their true feelings, the residents of Highlandtown/Canton had a bill introduced in the Legislature in 1892, requesting the authorization to allow the consolidation of the community into a separate municipality with its own mayor, city council, police and fire departments. The measure was defeated. Both City and County politicians were reluctant to allow a rival.
Taverns on the Rise
At about this time, the breweries in the area had decreased but the taverns were increasing. In the 3500 block Eastern Avenue were 23 taverns! Baltimore City at this time had a "Blue Law" which prohibited the sale of alcohol on Sundays. Therefore, the residents living in the eastern section of the City simply slipped across East Avenue to join their country cousins in the Highlandtown taverns every Sunday.
City Boundaries Moved to Include More of Highlandtown
But the community was getting too large and the City needed to expand its tax base. The Maryland Legislature of 1918 passed the new Annexation Act for Baltimore City in March of that year. The Act increased the City's area from 32.05 to 91.03 square miles. Highlandtown was included in the annexation. The eastern City line moved from East Avenue to the current City line. Now Highlandtown was just a neighborhood within Baltimore City. Or was it? For years, people in the old neighborhood referred to the rest of Baltimore as "West Highlandtown."
Highlandtown Grows to Become a Major Shopping District
In the 1920's, Highlandtown began to grow into a major commercial district, one of only two shopping areas in the City (the other being Hampden) which did not have a market at its core. To fill the function of a market, Highlandtown had hucksters, who parked their carts or their trucks along the streets and sold goods out of the vehicles. Soon these were joined by a variety of stores.
Shopping is Joined by Slaughter Industry
In addition to the thriving retail sector, Highlandtown in this period also had a number of slaughterhouses. Beef, veal and pork products were processed in the area, and, in fact, what is now Dean Street was known as Hog Alley. Chickens and ducks were also processed in Highlandtown. Many local residents worked at the packing houses (where no ability to speak English was required) or for the Pennsylvania or B & O railroads, whose yards were nearby.
1930’s Saw Increase in Entertainment
After Prohibition ended, cabarets sprung up in the area. Admission was 50 cents, and you had to provide your own liquor and buy ice and set-ups from the cabaret owner. These flourished in the mid- to late 1930's.
Today, Highlandtown is a thriving and diverse community in Southeast Baltimore. It is the home to restaurants, bars, shops, churches, schools, non-profit organizations, and art galleries. It's diversity in businesses and residents make Highlandtown the unique treasure that it's residents love.