The Canton Company: Industry Comes to the Plantation

O'Donnell Square, Canton

Captain John O’Donnell, the 18th century seafaring merchant, founded the Baltimore community of Canton on a fortune made through trade – including Turkish opium, according to historians – in the Chinese port of the same name.

O’Donnell, who brought cattle to Baltimore and goods from the Orient peculiar enough to attract George Washington’s wallet, died a rich man in 1805, long before the legacy of his estate would employ tens of thousands of laborers while making many men much richer than he.

Early development in Canton included tracks for horse racing, one on the north side of Boston Street at Clinton in 1820 and another, in 1823, called “Potters Course” (later Kendall Track) on the south side of Boston and Clinton.

Peter Cooper
Peter Cooper
Near the foot of Clinton Street, in 1831, rose the 34-foot tall Lazaretto Lighthouse, with detached light keeper’s house.

In May of 1840, the Whig party endorsed William Henry Harrison for president of the United States at the Kendall Track. Harrison was elected the ninth U.S. president, serving a mere month – the shortest term in American history – before succumbing to pneumonia.

Canton’s transformation from agrarian to a slow but steady (and eventual roaring) industrialization proceeded from the 1828 formation of the Canton Company, which coincided with the founding of the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad.

In time, the combination of rails and docks would make the southeast Baltimore waterfront one of the greatest industrial and commercial powerhouses in the world.

A half-century after the Canton Company was chartered, historian James Thomas Scharf wrote, “The scheme indicated a comprehensive insight into the future greatness of Baltimore as a commercial emporium.”

In his signal, 1874 work – The Chronicles of Baltimore: Being a Complete History of “Baltimore Town” and Baltimore City from the Earliest Period to the Present Time – Scharf observed that the Canton Company had been “attended with wonderful success.

“Wharves have been built, elevators constructed, railroads find their tide-water terminals, factories flourish and enterprise in a thousand different employments find encouragement and compensation.”

A growing population of skilled and unskilled labor lived close enough to walk to work at broom factories, oyster shucking plants (Chesapeake bounty shipped in cans made nearby) and lumber yards.

The need for skilled craftsmen became so great that representatives of various Canton industries – particularly copper smelting – traveled through Europe enticing workers to move to Baltimore.

Which led to several blocks of Welsh families on South Clinton street to be known as “Copper Row.”

Canton and its working class residents prospered from the vision of the Canton Company for well more than 100 years. At first, it was mere speculation viewed by some as a quick-buck “humbug.”

Before long, the enterprise would become a darling of Wall Street, paying handsome dividends many times over initial investment for shares.

“A perfect storm of timing,” said Raymond Bahr, a retired cardiologist who grew up in Canton and is keen to let others know how significant the neighborhood is to the growth of Baltimore. “It all came together because of the Canton Company.”

It began with Peter Cooper (1791-to-1883), the New York industrialist who tweaked a prototype of the steam locomotive to suit the needs of the B&O, whose financial promise had lured Cooper to Baltimore.

The Tom Thumb
The Tom Thumb
“Cooper came up with a version that had a vertical boiler and a short wheel base that was able to negotiate the sharp curves of the line between Baltimore and Ellicott City,” said James D. Dilts, author of The Great Road: The Building of the Baltimore and Ohio.

“It helped convince the company that steam power was appropriate for their railroad.”
Cooper went in with two others on a 3,000 acre, $105,000 bite out of southeast Baltimore shoreline, much of it within the O’Donnell estate. According to reports of the time, the sale netted Cooper “the whole shore from the Fells Point Dock for three miles.”

Following Cooper came a coalition of businessmen determined to develop the land the New Yorker had bought. The group included some of the biggest names of the era, names which still reverberate in Baltimore. These men created the Canton Company, a real estate corporation chartered by the General Assembly in December, 1828.

The charter specified that a majority of the company’s directors be citizens of Baltimore.

In addition to Cooper, the company was launched by Columbus O’Donnell, the ambitious and hard-working first son and heir of Canton founder John O’Donnell and a War of 1812 veteran; William Patterson, the international trader for whom Patterson Park (and whose daughter married Napoleon’s little brother), Francis Price, Ely Moore, future New York City mayor Gideon Lee and a gentleman named John Ramsey.

At a time when planned development was rare – if not non-existent – the group’s stated objective was to “improve the land, lay out streets, erect wharves, docks, slips, factories, stores and personal dwellings.”

And make a pretty penny while doing so.

One of the first things Cooper did was drain the “swamp” and level hills along the shoreline. Ore was found in the muck, lots of it. Being a man of opportunity, Cooper established rolling mills and kilns – the Canton Iron Works – near Harris Creek on Boston Street near Hudson Street.

In 1830, Cooper designed and supervised the building of the Tom Thumb, the first American-built steam locomotive. It was an immediate sensation, made famous by its race with a horse. Because of its ability to navigate sharp curves and steep hills, Cooper’s engine persuaded the B&O to commit to steam power.

Investors bought stock in the railroad and the relationship earned Cooper – a shrewd visionary of prodigious whiskers – the first of several fortunes.

Describing Canton as the perfect depot for coal from Pennsylvania and grain from Western Maryland and distant farms, Scharf wrote “the vast plains of the great West must find their outlet to the sea over railroads that center here …”

And over time created the manufacturing colossus of recent memory, the Canton your grandmother remembers if she was born between Boston Street and Eastern Avenue during the Great Depression.
A place of good jobs for the whole family if you knew the right people or lived around the corner.

“The American Can Company was a magical place to work,” said Andy Mezensky, a kid from East Pratt Street who worked summers at the factory in the 1960s to pay for college. “Everyone made money and everyone was happy. It was the focal point of our lives.”

Andy Mezensky
Andy Mezensky
Mezensky’s father had already worked at the can company for more than a decade. The way that the younger Mezensky landed his well-paying union job at the corner of Boston and Hudson streets was both simple and symbolic of the way most industries did business in the provincial village on the southeast Baltimore waterfront: nepotism.

“They didn’t hire off the street,” you had to know someone,” said Mezensky, now 71 and an established sculptor. “My father sent me in to get a job and I didn’t tell them he already worked there. They wouldn’t even talk to me. So I went back with my father and they hired me on the spot.”

And that’s how it rolled – like miles of tin sheets – for more than a century; a miracle neighborhood of bars and churches, factories, social clubs and ballfields enduring community born of the foresight of the Canton Company.

Photo of Andy Mezensky: Macon Street Books

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