Baltimore’s President Street Station has seen a lot of history: Frederick Douglass’ escape from slavery, a thwarted plan to assassinate President Abraham Lincoln, and the 1861 Baltimore Riot that produced some of the first deaths of the Civil War.
Now the National Park Service is seeking the public’s input on whether to incorporate the surviving brick head house, which is owned by the city and maintained as a museum, into the national park system.
Park service officials held an open house Thursday afternoon at the station to talk about the study and a meeting hours later to get public feedback. As part of its special resource study, the agency is also accepting public comments through Sept. 30.
Incorporation into the National Park system would mean federal funding for the museum. It could also be a source of local pride for the neighborhood and “may add something to the National Park Service that is not yet fully represented,” said John Warren, a spokesman for the agency. But federal supervision is not for everyone, he added, and some residents might oppose the idea out of concern that it could bring increased foot or automobile traffic.
Chuck Frascati, a member of the Friends of the President Street Museum, said he would welcome the change. As a volunteer with the group that has managed the museum since the mid-1990s, he held down the fort on a quiet Wednesday afternoon, sitting behind a front desk covered in old portraits, model trains and other memorabilia.
“We’d really like the National Park Service to take it over because we’re not sure how long we’re going to do it,” said Frascati, who is close to turning 80, referring to himself and his fellow senior-age volunteers.
Robert Reyes, also a Friend of the museum, said that in 1995, he and other members of the group began a crusade to save the station, which was deteriorating from neglect. They drew support from public officials such as U.S. Senator Ben Cardin of Maryland and turned it into a museum. The Maryland Historical Society supported the effort, but that partnership later fell through, Reyes said. In 2009, the city issued a request for proposals for revitalizing the building. The Friends were able to fend off a new tenant and sought National Park status.
Cardin introduced the John D. Dingell, Jr. Conservation Management and Recreation Act of 2019, which authorized a Park Service study to examine the site’s national significance, the suitability and feasibility of making it a part of the park system and potential management studies.
“It’s been a roller coaster,” Reyes said. “I hope this leads to what this place deserves.”
The station is located a few miles from Fort McHenry National Monument and Historic Shrine, which is managed by the Park Service.
The study will focus in part on four historical factors relevant to the station: growth of the railroad industry in the 19th century, the Civil War, the Underground Railroad and the influx of immigrants in the early 20th century.
“People have information that we don’t necessarily have,” Warren said.
The station was constructed between 1849 and 1850 by the Philadelphia, Wilmington and Baltimore Railroad. Although the two-story structure sits on a patch of land on President Street, it used to span three blocks while trains ran down Fleet Street.
It housed the getaway train of Douglass, the social reformer and abolitionist. Douglass, whose enslaver allowed him to work in the city, used the station during his commute to and from Talbot County. It is believed that he also used it while on the Underground Railroad during his escape from slavery.
“We mention Harriet Tubman, but I don’t think we can claim that she’s ever been here,” Frascati said.
The station was also where Abraham Lincoln, traveling to his inauguration in Washington, arrived secretly in the wee hours of Feb. 23, 1861, to evade would-be assassins. He then rode in a carriage for a mile to Camden Station, where he boarded a train bound for the nation’s capital.
Lincoln never got out the car to enter the station, but other historical figures — such as John Wilkes Booth, Confederate General Robert E. Lee and U.S. Army Gen. George Armstrong Custer — did.
American writer Edgar Allan Poe also “used this station shortly before he died, in fact,” Frascati said. Poe died in Baltimore in 1849.
And the station was where violence erupted after the fall of Fort Sumter in April 1861. After President Lincoln called on state militias to travel to Washington to quell the rebellion, the 6th Massachusetts Infantry arrived at the President Street Station and began making its way to Camden Station, only to be met by an angry mob in a state divided on secession. Members of the mob threw rocks at the soldiers as they walked down Pratt Street, and the ensuing violence left eight rioters, three soldiers and an innocent bystander dead, according to an NPS history. Baltimore later fell under military rule.
The surviving building used to be where patrons came in after they off-boarded the train. It contained waiting rooms, a ticket booth and a telegraph office. Women would enter on one side, to avoid the cursing and spitting of men, and men would enter on the other, according to Frascati.
It was turned into a museum in 1997 and now sits amid Harbor East’s towers, surviving on grants and small donations.
Exhibits tell the stories of travelers who used or passed through the station, such as Henry Brown, also known as Henry “Box” Brown. He was enslaved in Richmond, Virginia, but escaped by shipping himself in a crate in 1849 and sitting in silence for 27 hours as he passed through the station on his way to Philadelphia. A crate resembling the one Brown used is on display.
It sits next to another wooden box that represents the coffin that carried the body of John Brown, the abolitionist, who was hanged in December 1859 after leading an unsuccessful slave revolt. His body passed through the Baltimore station on its way to Philadelphia.
Frascati said it was tough when the pandemic started because the museum had to close for a period and there were no tourists around the city. Before the pandemic, Frascati said, the museum would have about 20 to 30 visitors a day. Attendance would double on the weekends, especially if the Orioles were playing the Boston Red Sox. Fans of the New England team liked learning about the clash involving the 6th Massachusetts, the first deaths by violent action in the Civil War.
Studies can take a few years, and Warren said he isn’t sure when this one will be finished. The findings and any recommendations from the U.S. Department of Interior will ultimately be reported to Congress, which will make a final decision.
Correction: This story has been updated to reflect the correct spelling of Chuck Frascati’s name.