“O’Donnell presents…the President of the United States…the Indian Apparatus for Smoaking called a Hooka…” - John O’Donnell in letter to George Washington, September, 1790
Street names constitute a dusty history of the cities they dissect – in our case, Baltimore – looming over us at every traffic light.
[The idiotic street names in the faux villages of Columbia and the blandly christened cul-de-sacs in farmland-to-McMansion ex-burbs do not qualify as gateways to knowledge.]
It’s different in cities like Crabtown with roots deep in colonial America, where the Limey shipbuilders who named a narrow lane in Fells Point “Shakespeare Street” did so about 100 years after the Bard’s death.
The 11-miles of Charles Street, named for Charles Calvert [1699-to-1751], the fifth Lord Baltimore, was once Forest Street.
Hendler Lane in Reservoir Hill was named for the ice cream family, whose creamery – the first fully automated ice cream factory in the United States – churned out half-gallons of happiness at 1100 East Baltimore Street.
And Gibbons Avenue in Hamilton was named for the Ninth Archbishop of Baltimore, a local Irish boy named James who received the red hat of a Catholic cardinal in 1886.
Here’s an important one: the long boulevard of bars, churches, restaurants, rowhouses, a radio repair shop, cemeteries, and more bars; a street named for the Irish-born sea captain who made a gift of a hookah (likely found in more than one private home on O’Donnell Street today) to George Washington.
O’Donnell Street begins at St. Casimir Roman Catholic church in Canton – a sharp left as you are heading east on Boston Street – and ends about three-and-a-half miles away near Oak Lawn cemetery in Dundalk.
If you asked a random sampling of late night revelers within spitting distance of the statue in Canton Square on the street named in that man’s honor – “Hey dude, do you know who that dude is?” – it is unlikely many would know.
[But could probably tell you about the time some knucklehead wedged a lime green tennis ball in the statue’s crotch.]
For if John Cain and Raymond Bahr – true sons of the Old Canton – spent much of their young lives without understanding how O’Donnell Street got its name, it would be a stretch to expect beer-swilling carpetbaggers from beyond the Beltway to know.
[“Old” Canton is extraordinarily relative. The area was founded in 1796 as a plantation of nearly 2,000 acres, a spread ornamented by an “Oriental mansion” in 1796. The port city for which it was named is the third largest metropolis in China and properly called Guangzhou.]
“They never taught us anything about our own neighborhood in school,” said Cain, who attended Baltimore City public schools. “Nothing.”
“I always wondered about it,” added Bahr, who played a lot of 1940s curb ball, an approximation of baseball in which a rubber ball is thrown against the edge of a curb, around O’Donnell and Bouldin streets.
John Lawrence Cain, Jr. would grow up to represent his neighborhood in the Baltimore City Council from 1991 to 2004. He was born at 3114 Dillon Street near Ellwood Avenue in October of 1939. At age five he moved to South Conkling Street and now lives over the city line near Eastpoint, not far from the eastern terminus of O’Donnell Street.
One of Cain’s more Baltimore-centric jobs (cool now, but not such a big deal when manufacturing was king) was working at the Cat’s Paw rubber heel company at Warner and Ostend streets in South Baltimore.
Dr. Raymond D. Bahr, a retired St. Agnes Hospital cardiologist, was born in Canton 80 years ago and grew up hopping freight trains that crossed the neighborhood and skinny dipping in the industrially compromised waters at the foot of Clinton Street.
Both men lived their early lives in the shadow of the Gunther Brewery – now part of the Brewer’s Hill commercial complex – yet neither learned the history of O’Donnell Street until they were well into adulthood.
The answer (like all knowledge, if you believe Borges) is easily found at the library, particularly the Canton branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library, the first of four neighborhood branches built in 1886 by the hardware tycoon and philanthropist.
Born in Limerick, Ireland in 1749, John O’Donnell sailed the globe, docking in Baltimore in 1785 after 16 years with the British East India Company. He landed as the owner and captain of the vessel Pallas with a cargo from China, which he sold to great profit in his adopted country.
At first a mere 11 acres, O’Donnell named his estate Canton. In 1785, he married Sarah Chew Elliott (whose maiden name graces Elliott Street, a brief east/west road two blocks south of O’Donnell). In 1792, O’Donnell fathered his first male heir – which he named in honor of Christopher Columbus – the second of his seven children.
During the War of 1812, U.S. Army General Columbus O’Donnell, fought in the crucial Battle of North Point, a decisive turning point in favor of the Americans.
“I began my own research with the life of Columbus O’Donnell,” said Bahr, who accompanied former Mayor William Donald Schaefer on tours of the Boston Street waterfront in the 1970s when it had fallen to ruin as one industry after another closed or moved away.
Bahr’s education started with Historic Canton, Baltimore’s Industrial Heartland  by waterfront warehouse owner Norman G. Rukert.
Cain began accumulating knowledge about John O’Donnell when he returned to Baltimore from New York City and got involved in planning the celebration for the 100th anniversary of the Canton library in 1986.
Where Bahr was edified by the Rukert book, Cain found more detailed information in a 1934 volume published by the Favil Press of London called John O’Donnell of Baltimore: His Forebears and Descendents.
The O’Donnell family papers – a hundred years of documents from 1831 to 1932 – are housed in the Kuhn Library at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. They consist almost entirely of correspondence written to or from the descendants of John O’Donnell and, in the wake of the captain’s death, include a lot of family squabbling over money.
It was quite a lot to fight over. By 1796, when Baltimore was the third-largest port in the United States, O’Donnell had amassed 1,942 acres, from the current site of the Safeway Supermarket at Boston Street and Lakewood Avenue east to Colgate Creek near Eastpoint Mall.
The following year – 1797 – the City of Baltimore was incorporated, bringing together the communities of Jones Town, Fells Point and Baltimore Town, and O’Donnell was an important player in the commerce and politics of the burgeoning city.
O’Donnell died in 1805 at age 56 and is buried around the corner from Edgar Allan Poe in the Westminster Churchyard, Fayette and Greene Streets downtown.
Born a Presbyterian, he belonged to the Rosicrucian fraternity – a secret philosophical group founded in the early 17th century on a doctrine of “esoteric truths of the ancient past” – that is still active today. Thus, O’Donnell was buried in an elaborate Egyptian-inspired tomb near local heroes of both the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 as well as that of John Calhoun, first mayor of Baltimore.
[Just west of the Hollins Market, Calhoun Street runs north and south and passes through the Union Square neighborhood.]
In 1828, a little more than two decades after O’Donnell’s death, the family would sell off large swaths of his property from which the Canton Company would be created.
The development made way for a racetrack which hosted presidential conventions, some big moments in 19th century national politics and the industrial might of 20th century Canton detailed in the Rukert book.
The City of Baltimore’s municipal boundary was extended from East Avenue to the western edge of Dundalk in 1918 bringing all of Canton within the city limits.
One more thing about the gift of the hookah to the Father of our Country.
O’Donnell had the privilege of meeting George Washington in 1785, four years before the Commander of the Continental Army was sworn in as the first president of the United States. The introduction was made by Tench Tilghman, the aide-to-camp to Washington during the American Revolution.
[Tilghman apparently has no streets named for him in Baltimore, but there is a grade school in his honor at 600 North Patterson Park Avenue on the eastside.]
According to newspaper reports of August, 1785, Tilghman told General Washington of O’Donnell, “He is a gentleman of large fortune and polished manners.”
Five years later, in 1790, a hookah from Baltimore by-way-of-India appeared among various parcels forwarded to the first great hero of our nation.
Photo of John Cain and Raymond Bahr: Macon Street Books. Photos of O’Donnell Square by Bruce Goldfarb.