Part 2: Warship Constellation Launched from Harris Creek, 1797

Map of 1700s Baltimore harbor

There’s only a few boards left from the original ship built in Canton but that’s not too bad after 200 years… Chris Rowsom, Historic Ships of Baltimore

The last two decades of the 18th century – almost one hundred years after the official opening of the Port of Baltimore in 1706 – were milestones for the stretch of waterfront due east of Fells Point.

One event helped established the United States Navy; the other created a sprawling estate that remains one of the most fabled and enduring neighborhoods in Baltimore.

In August of 1785, John O’Donnell [1749-1805] – an Irish sea captain in the service of the British East India Company – docked his ship Pallas in Baltimore. The vessel was filled with goods and finery from the port of Canton in China (now known as Guangzhou), the sale of which made O’Donnell a wealthy landowner.

harris creek, stodder shipyard
Harris Creek at the time of Stodder Shipyard

Two months later, O’Donnell married Sarah Chew Elliott, a handsome woman from a prominent Fells Point family for which Elliott Street is named in the 21224 zip code.

O’Donnell built a family home near the current site of the former First Mariner Bank tower on Clinton Street while buying 11 acres along Boston Street. In honor of the source of his fortune, he named the estate – soon enlarged to a 1,940 acre plantation – Canton.

[A good thing, for the Baltimore patois has enough trouble with “Highlandtown” and “Dundalk” without tackling Guangzhou.]

boston street bridge over harris creek
Boston Street bridge over Harris Creek, 1901.

Harris Creek, long underground and running beneath 17 neighborhoods from Clifton Park to the Canton waterfront, was the original dividing line between Fells Point and the vast, undeveloped acreage to the east that became Canton.

Beginning north of Johns Hopkins Hospital down past Patterson Park to Boston Street, the creek is covered by Lakewood Avenue. There, about where the Safeway supermarket stands, the original U.S.S. Constellation was built and launched by a master shipwright from Hingham, Massachusetts named David Stodder.

Though its history is often confused and misrepresented due to three Navy ships bearing the name, the Constellation will be forever remembered as the first American navy vessel put to sea and the first one to engage and defeat an enemy ship.

The ship was named in honor of a “new constellation of stars,” the configuration of those representing 15 states on the original national flag of the United States.

The second incarnation of the Constellation remains in permanent berth at Pier One Pratt Street and its legends and battle victories well-documented.

The man who built the original vessel for the fledgling United States Navy, however, is largely forgotten, buried beneath more glittering personalities of post-Revolutionary America much like Harris Creek was paved over with concrete and asphalt.

Boston Street bridge over Harris Creek, late 20th century. Photo: Library of Congress.
Boston Street bridge over Harris Creek.

To salvage David Stodder from obscurity, retired Eastern Shore computer salesman and self-taught historian Ron Pilling spent three years researching a manuscript about the 18th century heir to a Massachusetts shipbuilding family.

This installment of The History of Canton, is greatly indebted to Pilling’s unpublished work.

Stodder, argues Pilling, should be remembered “as an important figure in the [Baltimore’s] early political, economic and military history.”

But without overseeing the building of the Constellation, he would just be another 18th century social climber who cleverly exploited capitalism, democracy and slavery for wealth and stature.

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Stodder was 29 when he was awarded a commission by the Third Continental Congress to build the Constellation under the Naval Act of 1794.

Because of problems launching her sister ship in Boston, the U.S.S. Constitution; the Baltimore frigate became the first ship of the United States Navy, sliding into the Northwest Branch of the Patapsco River the same year the City of Baltimore was incorporated.

Painting of the Constellation by Antoin Roux, ca. 1805
Painting of the Constellation by Antoin Roux, ca. 1805

According to an account by a reporter working for a Rhode Island newspaper, the big day in Baltimore – September 7, 1797 – went something like this.

“This morning, precisely at 9 o’clock, at the navy-yard of Mr. Stoddard (sic) the builder, was launched the United States Frigate Constellation…

“Everything being in most complete preparation – all the blocks taken away, every man from under the vessel, and the hull standing on almost nothing but the slippery tallow, orders were given for knocking away the last stanchion.

“This being done she moved gracefully and majestically down her ways, amidst the silent amazement of thousands of spectators, to her destined element, into which she plunged with such ease and safety, as to make the hills resound with repeated bursts of joyful acclamations.”

Joy turned to panic several days later when an epidemic of yellow fever hit Baltimore. The rapid spread of the disease was blamed on the large crowd gathered to watch the launch – the largest up to that time in Crabtown.

Because of the plague, the Constellation sat at anchor until April 10, 1798.

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According to the 1790 census (the first in the United States), David Stodder owned more slaves than just about any other man in Baltimore with a total of 17 men, women and children. He and his wife – the former Marcia Dodge – used some of this labor at their Philpot Street home in Fells Point.

Other slaves included a 44-year-old blacksmith named Lewis Dixon to whom Stodder willed freedom and smithy tools were used to build the original, 1,265-ton Constellation inCanton.

Stodder's ad for a runaway slave
Stodder’s ad for a runaway slave

[At least once, Stodder ran an ad in a local paper for the return of one of his slaves who had escaped.]

Primarily used to protect American merchant vessels, the Constellation served in the blockade of Tripoli in 1802 (the campaign that endures in the “Marine Hymn”) and long defended U.S. shipping from the Barbary Coast to the coast of Peru.

In 1827, the 38-gun sloop-of-war began work at odds with the circumstances of her creation. Acting as the flagship for a mission in the Caribbean against piracy, she intercepted foreign slave ships three-and-a-half decades before the Emancipation Proclamation freed subjugated Africans in the United States.

The Constellation circumnavigated the globe in the 1840s and by 1853 was consigned to dry dock in Portsmouth, Virginia where she was broken up to make way for her successor. Into the bowels of the new frigate – 12 feet longer and two feet wider than Stodder’s triumph – went eight pieces of timber from the original.

[A third and thus far the last Constellation was an aircraft carrier built in Brooklyn, New York and commissioned at the beginning of the Kennedy Administration. Known as “Connie,” she was sent to a Texas scrap yard in 2015.]

In the 1850s, Constellation No. 2 also fought the slave trade in maiden voyage to the coast of West Africa. The American Civil War would not begin for another ten years.

“In one confrontation, she captured a slave ship and [re-settled] about 700 men, women and children to Liberia, then an American protectorate,” said Christopher Rowsom, 56, executive director of Historic Ships in Baltimore and former crewmember of the original Pride of Baltimore.

As the Constellation ferried the rescued recently enslaved Africans to Liberia, an American midshipmen became fatally ill with yellow fever and was cared for by an on-board slave belonging to a ship’s officer. The anecdote is contained in an archived letter from a friend of the dying man to a relative in the United States

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David Stodder died at age 58 less than a decade after the Constellation took to the seas, his passing – after two days of “painful illness” noted on October 1, 1806 by the Federal Gazette & Baltimore Daily Advertiser.

Ron Pilling
Ron Pilling

Pilling’s research did not turn up an image of Stodder, nor his precise place of burial, although the National Park Services lists his grave at the Westminster churchyard off the corner of Fayette and Greene streets.

“The only painting in which I think his house may appear is a War of 1812 painting,” said Pilling. “He was a parishioner at Second Presbyterian [then at Baltimore and Lloyd streets] when he died.”

Stodder’s Harris Creek shipyard was valued at $1,000 at time of his death. That is ten times the appraised amount for each of his slaves, including a boy named Darcus and a 43-year-old woman identified as Ann Wist.

Those eight surviving pieces of Constellation timber set in place in Canton 219 years ago?

“They’re in the lower frame and the floor timbers,” said Rowsom. “Down with the stuff you can’t see.”


 

Photos of Boston Street bridge: Library of Congress

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1 comments

  1. Margo Christie 1 year ago

    Is this your work in progress, Ralphie? Love your welcoming marble steps, scrubbed and glistening!

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