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Jonestown, Baltimore: A History

By Lynne Ann Cullen

David Jones and Early Jonestown

        David Jones was the first European settler to establish himself in Jonestown. He was a Quaker who moved to Baltimore to create a better life for himself. In 1661, he paid Peter Carroll to survey two plots of land: Jones Chance (130 acres) and Jones Venture (250 acres). The plots together were called Jones Range. David built his house on Jones Street (now Front Street) at the intersection of French Street (now Hillen Street). On the north and east side of David’s house the land sloped, creating a deep valley. To the west across the stream, steep cliffs of red clay rose from the water, and to the south there were swamps and marshes filled with snipe, woodcock, terrapin and malaria carrying-mosquitos. The fertile soil, created by the stream, made tobacco farming the main source of income for David as well as other colonialists. David, because of his successful tobacco farming and social standing, became very wealthy in just a few years. In 1679, he purchased part of Cole Harbor (now the Inner Harbor) from Sarah and Charles Cole, expanding his property. The harbor was crystal clear, filled with oysters, crabs, crustaceans and hundreds of species of fish, making it a valuable property and a popular destination for colonists. In 1687, David Jones passed away and left a large plot of land to the city, which is now present day Jonestown. David’s legacy is still prominent today: the Jones Falls Expressway, Jones Falls Stream and Jonestown are all named after him.

        David Jones was one of the many colonists that settled into the Jonestown area. William Fell, a ship builder, settled east of the Jones Falls on a plot of land called “Corpus Harbor,” where he built a mansion on present day Lancaster Street. Thomas Cole, in 1668, received 300 acres of farmland where he farmed tobacco. As more colonists moved to the area, many tobacco plantations developed. Tobacco was a cash crop at the time and colonists depended on prosperous harvests to support their families. Tobacco was so prevalent that it became the currency, making tobacco production grow further. Farming tobacco, lead to the need for hard labor. In 1680, enslaved people from African countries began to be transported Baltimore to work on the tobacco farms. In addition, indentured servants--of both African and European origin--worked as laborers. By 1715, there were 3,000 people in Baltimore, one-fifth of them being of African descent.

        In 1732, Jonestown was officially established by five commissioners: Major Thomas Sheredine, Captain Robert North, Thomas Todd, John Cockey and John Boring. They had ten acres of land, which they turned into a riverine town shaped like a parallelogram. The planning of Jonestown had a lot to do with the geography of the neighborhood. The marshes, harbor farms, streams and swamps were utilized to create natural drainage. The Jones Falls was used for transportation and mills. The streets followed the contours of the stream. The swamps were drained within the first couple years of the establishment, because of the malaria-carrying mosquitos and flooding issues. However, even after the swamps were drained, the area still had issues with flooding. By 1741, all the lots were sold in Jonestown and the neighborhood began to flourish.

        Baltimore Town, originally called the "town to the east," and was settled in 1664 as a rival of Jonestown. It was officially established and recognized as a town on July 30th, 1729. The town was located on the west bank of the Jones Falls, separating the two towns. In addition, Steiger’s Meadow and Harrison’s Marsh added further separation. Baltimore town had much of the same geography of Jonestown. However, Baltimore Town severely suffered from flooding issues. The marshes were drained, harbor channels were deepened and storm sewers were constructed in response to the flooding issues. By 1741, its rival town had sold all their lots, but Baltimore Town had mostly vacancies. On September 28th, 1745, Jonestown and Baltimore Town merged to create "Old Town." However, the residents of the area referred to the neighborhood as "Jonestown." Following the new established town, the Gay Street Bridge was constructed, connecting the two towns together.

1750-1800, Booming Jonestown

        By 1750, the new town was booming with tobacco and wheat farming. The residents used their natural resources sparingly, creating a stable economy. Because of this, more and more people began to immigrate to Baltimore in search of work, better living environments and an overall better future.

        Between 1750 and 1800, the first large wave of immigrants settled in Jonestown. The immigrants were wealthy English colonists, German immigrants and Europeans seeking religious freedom. Jonestown had many ports and ship-docking stations where immigrants could stroll off the ship and immediately walk into jobs. Most immigrants worked as builders and hard laborers. Immigrants lived in brick colonial style row houses, two to three stories high and cramped with little lighting. For the wealthier homeowners, keystones accented their doorways complementing the ironwork and peaked roofs. Bay houses were also common at the time, where sea captains and sailors resided. The tobacco fields were soon paved over to build more houses and industrial buildings for the incoming immigrants. Because Jonestown was in the process of being developed, there was little to do for entertainment. Families as well as all types of citizens attended church, the main pastime. The German Reformed Congregation was established in 1795, located on the north side of Baltimore Street. In addition, the First Baptist Church was established in 1773 on the corner of Wapping Street (now Fayette Street). Immigrants would attend services and community activities for their enjoyment. Many of the early European colonists became extremely wealthy, because of their successful businesses and social standing. They participated in the local government and community organizations. One of the most well known affluent colonists was Charles Carroll.

The Monuments of Jonestown

Charles Carroll & the Charles Carroll Mansion

        Charles Carroll of Carrollton was born on September 19, 1737, in Annapolis, Maryland. His parents were English, and they immigrated to Maryland a few years before Charles was born. Charles worked as a farm boy until his teens when he moved to England to receive a Catholic education. At this time in America, Catholicism was illegal in many places and many Catholics faced harsh discrimination. In 1765, he returned to Baltimore, received a job in the local government and married a woman named Mary Darnell. They soon built a family together, beginning the legacy of the Carroll Family in Baltimore. Though he travelled a lot, during the summers he spent most of his time at the Carroll Mansion, located in Jonestown. On July 4th, 1776, he was elected to represent the Maryland Continental Congress. Because of his prestige and higher education, Charles Carroll helped draft the Declaration of Independence and was the sole Catholic signer. He died on November 14th, 1832, the last to die among all signers of the Declaration of Independence.

        The Carroll Mansion was constructed between 1804 and 1808. Christopher Deshon owned the house from 1811-1818 and then sold the property to Richard Canton, the son in law of Charles Carroll. The Canton family lived in the house until 1856, when the house passed through inheritance to their daughter, Emily MacTavish. Emily deeded the house to the Sisters of Mercy, who rented the home to Irish immigrants. The first tenant was George Welter, who distributed alcohol and operated a distillery there. The second tenant was Charles Kaiser, who opened a saloon and restaurant. By 1890, the saloon had closed and the first floor was converted into a furniture store and the second floor was turned into to an immigrant home. The immigrants lived in small cramped rooms, with as many as fifteen people to a single room. At the turn of the century, most of the Irish immigrants had moved uptown and the Carroll Mansion was used as a sweatshop for an Italian tailoring business. By 1914, the sweatshop had shut down and the mansion was in dire need of repairs. In 1918, Baltimore City made efforts to restore the building. Once the restoration was completed a vocational school was opened. Arthur Bibbins founded the school and taught painting, electrical work, machine repair, car and automobile maintenance and printmaking. After ten years, the school closed and the Hampden Woodberry Neighborhood Association opened a recreational center in the mansion. The center served the children of Jonestown and the association made efforts to keep the children out of the slums. The City of Baltimore took over the center in 1940, eventually shutting it down due to needed repairs. In 1962, Mayor Theodore McKeldin planned to refurbish the mansion and by 1967 it was completed. Because of its historical significance, on January 11th, 1971 the mansion was officially named a Baltimore historical landmark. Now, the mansion is run by Carroll Museums, who offer tours and information sessions. The Carroll Mansion represents the ongoing changes Jonestown faced over the course of its history and the ever-changing communities moving in and out of Jonestown. The Carroll Mansion is one of the many buildings in Jonestown that was used in multiple ways to aid the citizens who lived in Jonestown.

Old Town Friends Meetinghouse

        In addition to the Carroll Mansion, the Old Town Friends Quaker Meeting House also exemplifies the ongoing community changes and community organizations of Jonestown. The meetinghouse was built in 1781. The first Quaker congregation that worshiped there was known as the "Baltimore Meeting" or the "Aisquith Street Meeting." Old Town Meeting is the oldest religious building in Baltimore City. The cost to build this place of worship was $4500, constructed by George Matthews. The meetinghouse is two stories, with high vaulted ceilings. The interior is spacious with wooden pews and two balconies. Unlike many places of worship at the time, women were allowed to attend meetings, although there were sex-segregated entrances. The meetinghouse originally had a burial ground, where many Quaker activists were buried, one of whom was Johns Hopkins. In 1784, the Friends School of Baltimore built a small brick building on the east corner of the meeting's burial ground, making this building the first school in Baltimore. The meeting and the school worked closely together, ensuring that the core Quaker values, such as integrity, equality, stewardship, simplicity and peace, were appropriately integrated into the curriculum. By 1793, there were set monthly meetings and the congregation was recognized as an independent religious community. During the next twenty years, tensions began to rise within the congregation due to the worldwide internal conflicts in the Quaker community. In 1807, the congregation split into two meetings. One was the "Baltimore Monthly Meeting for the Eastern District" and the other was the "Baltimore Monthly Meeting for the Western District." As tensions continued to rise, the western district meeting moved to Bolton Hill, then to Stoney Run in 1944, to join the Friends School of Baltimore at its current location on Charles Street. The eastern district city meeting moved to a different location as well, naming themselves the “Lombard Meeting”. Due to the poverty Jonestown was facing during the 1900s, the last community of worshipers moved out of the meetinghouse and by 1926 the building was officially abandoned. Although the building was eventually sold to the City of Baltimore, due to the lack of funding the building was left abandoned until 1967 when private citizens, as well as the local government, worked to restore the building, costing more than $50,000. Now, the meeting is managed by the McKim Community Board and is leased, in part, to an African American congregation.

The Flag House

        One of the most well known landmarks in Jonestown is the Flag House, built in 1793. Mary Pickersgill, who helped sew the first American flag, owned the house. Mary, as well as her mother, Rebecca Young, was a talented seamstress and flag maker. Commissioned by the mayor in 1812, Mary and her mother designed what is now our nation's flag. The flag had to be large enough for the British to see from their ships far out at sea. In 1813, the masterpiece was hoisted above Fort McHenry, Baltimore's defensive fort at the time. One year later, during the Battle of Baltimore, the flag was flown over the Fort, reflecting the success of the defense of Baltimore. Francis Scott Key, a citizen of Baltimore, saw the large flag flying over the fort, which inspired him to write the "Star Spangled Banner," America’s national anthem. Today, the original flag house still exists in Jonestown and is run by the Flag House and Star Spangled Banner Museum. Tours and information sessions are available during the week.

McKim Free School

        The McKim Free School was opened in 1833, funded by the McKim family. The school was established to teach immigrant children of any religion. In 1891, the school was converted into a free kindergarten and a night school for boys, which continued to grow until the 1900s. The school then transitioned into a community center to serve the Jonestown neighborhood. Then center held community meetings, activities for kids and outreach programs. Today, the center continues to support the citizens of Jonestown, especially its youth.

Front Street Theatre

        The Front Street Theater was built in 1829, near Fayette Street. The theater was very large and was built in a Greek revival style. People all over Maryland as well as other states, attended the theater. John Breckinridge of Kentucky was nominated for Presidency in 1860 and Abraham Lincoln was nominated for his second term in 1864 in the theater. The theater served the community until the early 1900s.

Wrap Up

        From 1750 to 1800 the citizens of Jonestown organized, planned and developed their town. In a short amount of time, Jonestown transitioned from an agricultural neighborhood, to a growing commercial neighborhood. With the newly established nation and the large influx of immigrants, it was clear that Jonestown would soon be an industrial powerhouse.
Jonestown during the 1800s can be described in two words: industry and immigration. Because of its excellent geographic location, Jonestown had one of the highest populations of immigrants in Maryland. In fact, between 1820 and 1870 the population increased from 63,000 to 269,000 people.
The Industrial Revolution greatly impacted Jonestown. The streets, because of Jonestown’s central location, were constantly filled with wagons and people. In addition, the major turnpikes all ended at Jonestown, causing more congestion. Since then, Jonestown has continued to struggle with overcrowding issues in the streets.

        Still, many of the famous buildings in Jonestown were built during this time, such as the Phoenix Shot Tower, McKim Free School and Front Street Theater. Jacob Wolfe built the Phoenix Shot Tower, also known as the “Old Baltimore Shot Tower,” in 1828. It took over one million bricks to complete the tower. The tower was used for shotgun pellet manufacturing. Molten lead was dropped from the top of the tower, through a sieve-like device, into a cold vat of water at the bottom of the tower. When the pellets were dry and hardened they were sorted into twenty-five pound bags and distributed all over Maryland. The tower was manufacturing pellets until the beginning of the 1900s.

        Although the neighborhood prospered during this period, flooding continued to be a major issue. In 1837, a flood engulfed the area, sweeping away all city bridges, which were made of stone and wood. The bridges were soon rebuilt with iron. In 1867, another flood damaged Jonestown. Because of this, the government decided that the Falls had to be altered. This led to the reconstruction of the neighborhood, which began in 1873. The improvements consisted of widening the channels and building storm drains on the west side of the Jones Falls. Flooding was still an issue until 1896, when the entire stream was covered by streets and other urban improvements.

Immigration in Jonestown

The Irish

        When the last of the German immigrants moved out of Jonestown, the Irish immigrants began to arrive. They immigrated in the late 1830s due to the Potato Famine that dislocated much of Ireland. The Potato Famine killed over one million people and forced another one million out of the country. Potatoes were the staple crop of Ireland and the main source of income for poor citizens. Behind New York and Boston, Baltimore was the third most popular city for European immigrants. Once in Jonestown, Irish men took jobs as stable men, drayman, haulers and laborers. The women worked domestic jobs or ran the household. The Irish had the lowest paying jobs of any immigrant community that moved to Jonestown. Their jobs were extremely labor intensive and the conditions in which the laborers worked were unsanitary and dangerous. However, the lives they faced in Jonestown were far better than the lives back in their homeland. Almost 100% of the Irish immigrants were Catholic, which was illegal to practice in many parts of the US at the time. Irish immigrants faced extreme discrimination. Because of their religious background, the Irish community in Jonestown was very close and secluded. Irish churches, schools and stores were developed and only used by Irish immigrants. By the 1860s, the Irish community had doubled in size and continued to grow. During this time, the Industrial Revolution had taken over Baltimore and companies were in desperate need of laborers. In 1867, the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad Company (B&O Railroad) partnered with the North German Lloyd Steamship Line and built a pier at Locust Point so Irish immigrants could easily get off the ship and start working for the B&O line. In addition by 1865, the Irish in Baltimore completely monopolized the horse occupations, including stable hands and horse trainers, until the late 1900s.

        The Irish community greatly impacted Jonestown, and all of Baltimore. The Irish immigrants were responsible for much of the B&O line and the industrialization of Baltimore. After working for many years, the Irish community eventually moved out of Jonestown in the early 1900s, into the suburbs. In addition to the Irish immigrant community in Baltimore, there were other immigrant groups who moved to Jonestown in the 1800s including the Bavarian and German Jews and Italians. The first Jewish immigrants to arrive in Baltimore were Ben Levy in 1773, widow Shinah Etting in 1780, and widow Judith Cohen in 1803. Both widows arrived with their children and settled into Jonestown. While they were the first Jewish immigrants to arrive in Baltimore, they were extremely wealthy, very unusual at the time among new immigrants. Throughout the early 1800s, Jewish immigrants flooded into Baltimore, in search of a better life and fleeing persecution in their home countries. When the Maryland State Senate passed the Jew Bill in 1826, there was a large increase in the Jewish population, because the bill granted Maryland citizenship to Jews. By 1847, there were one thousand five hundred Jews in Baltimore and by 1880 there were over ten thousand. Most of the Jewish immigrants who arrived in the 1800s were Bavarian or Hessian. Later, German Jews immigrated to Jonestown.

        The culture that the Jewish immigrants created in Jonestown is still very evident today. The Jewish immigrants lived on Lombard, Exeter, Asquith and Lloyd Streets. Lombard Street, because of its central location, became one of the busiest streets in Maryland. The street was lined with markets, delis, row houses and shopkeepers, who would stand on their storefronts and talk to anyone who walked by. Lombard Street, at the time, was called “Corn Beef Row,” after the delicious corn beef sandwiches available at any deli. During this time, Jews faced discrimination, much like the Irish immigrants. Jews faced discrimination from all types of people, especially the police. Because of this, the Jewish community in Baltimore was tightly knit and everyone new each other. In addition, Jewish schools were built around Jonestown, with the first Hebrew school opening in 1842 and operated by the Jonestown Jewish community.

        With the large influx of Bavarian Jews to Jonestown, the Jewish community was in desperate need of a place of worship. At first, they worshiped on storefronts or in homes. But in 1845, a community of worshipers, called the “Baltimore Hebrew Congregation,” decided to build their own place of worship, called the “Lloyd Street Synagogue.” The synagogue was built by the architect, Robert Cary Long Jr., in a Greek revival style, like many buildings of the time. This was the first synagogue erected in Maryland and is third oldest in the country. In 1861, William H. Reasin, enlarged the building to accommodate the growing number of worshipers. The Baltimore Hebrew Congregation used the building until 1889, when many Jewish immigrants had moved north, out of Jonestown. St. John the Baptist Roman Catholic Church used the building from 1889 to 1905 - the first African American parish in the United States. Shomrei Mishmeres Hakodesh, the leading orthodox congregation of Eastern Europeans used the building from 1905 to 1963. By the early 1960s, Jonestown was a dangerous and run down area. Because of this, the synagogue was not utilized for many years. However, once the neighborhood began to revitalize, the synagogue was used again. Today, the Lloyd Street Synagogue is owned by the Jewish Museum of Maryland. Tours of the synagogue are available and some worship services still take place there.

        In 1878, members of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation withdrew from the Lloyd Street Synagogue, because of the lack of reform and established B’nai Israel Synagogue. The synagogue was built by the congregation Chizuk Amuno, which consisted of German Jews. The synagogue is orthodox and the architecture is in a Moorish revival style. The first floor holds books, plaques and garments and the sanctuary is located on the second floor. Chizuk Amuno used the synagogue until 1895, when they sold it to the B’nai Israel Congregation, comprised of Russian Jews. Today, B’nai Israel Congregation continues to own the synagogue and holds regular services there at the location in Jonestown.

        In addition to the immigrant communities, there was a small population of African Americans living in Jonestown. There is little known about the African American community in Jonestown during the 1800s because no records were kept at the time. African Americans were treated poorly and had no legal rights. Under Maryland law, they could not attend school, own property, vote, legally marry or be heard in court. The only jobs available to them were manual hard labor. In addition, they were relegated to small cramped houses, with no ventilation, light or water. In 1866, originating from Biddle Alley, typhus broke out, killing much of the African American population. In addition during the 1870s and 1880s, smallpox and cholera affected their community, killing even more of the population. The African American community in Jonestown was not recognized during the 1800s, because of the discrimination they faced nationwide.

        The Depression of 1890 significantly affected the immigrants and African Americans in Jonestown. They lost their jobs and soon became street peddlers. Many immigrant communities starved and died because of the lack of resources and money. Humanitarian groups such as the Hebrew Relief Committee and church groups aided the poor in Jonestown, providing food, water and shelter. The economic downturn only lasted a few years and by 1900 Jonestown was thriving again.

        At the turn of the century, as the Irish and Jewish immigrants transitioned out of Jonestown, Italian immigrants began to move to the area. The first Italian immigrants came to Baltimore in the late 1840s, when the construction of the President Street Station was underway. The Italians came to Baltimore in search of better opportunities as a result of overcrowding in their home cities and lack of fertile soil. They were mostly poor peasants and lived along Front and Grand Street. The Italians worked as sailors or textile workers, making little money. Sweatshops were soon developed across Jonestown, where Italians immigrants worked twelve-hour shifts, manufacturing garments and textiles. Following the patterns of the past immigrants in Jonestown, the Italians were a religious, close-knit community.

        The parish St. Vincent de Paul was established in 1840 and still serves the Jonestown community, making it the longest running parish in Baltimore. The first pastor and architect was Fr. John Baptist Gildea, who opened the doors to worshipers in 1841. Many community groups met at the church, serving as entertainment for the neighborhood citizens. The church soon worked with one of the neighborhood schools to build an orphanage. By the 1880s, it was the largest parish in the Archdiocese, having over 7000 communicants. At the beginning of its existence, Irish immigrants worshiped at the church, but when the Italian immigrants moved to Jonestown, the Irish were quickly pushed out, and the Italian immigrants became the majority of worshipers. In 1890, various renovations took place, but were not maintained, because of the poverty that struck Jonestown in the mid 1900s. The orphanage was eventually shut down and the attendance at the services dropped. In 1960, the church began to thrive again and it continues to serve the Jonestown community. The Italians lived in Jonestown until 1920, when they relocated to what is now known as “Little Italy.” They moved because their community was overpopulated and they needed more space for the expansion of their community. The Italians were not the only people to move out of Jonestown: most immigrants moved out of the neighborhood by 1930. As immigrants moved to the suburbs, many African American communities moved to Jonestown. They soon occupied the small row houses where immigrant families once lived. The new residents of Jonestown face severe discrimination and could only obtain the lowest paying jobs. This led to extreme poverty throughout the community. Due to the lack of education and job opportunities, the poverty increased and many youth dropped out of school. Some turned to the illegal drug trade in Baltimore as a response to the lack of opportunity.

        By 1950, Jonestown had transitioned from a prosperous commercial and industrial area to an impoverished dangerous area. As time when on, more African Americans were forced to move to Jonestown because of the segregation laws in Maryland. Most of the residents had faced discrimination and unequal opportunity, causing a culture of violence to develop in the neighborhood. The crime rate drastically increased and Jonestown became a place to be avoided. In 1955 and 1958 two government-sponsored public housing projects were developed on the east side of Jonestown. One was called the “Lafayette Courts” and the other was the “Flag House Courts.” This project cost the city millions of dollars and was considered a huge failure. The government moved people from the scattered tenement houses, to more modern high-rise tenement buildings, which were close together. This created even more issues for Jonestown, because it concentrated many participants in the drug culture and violence in one place. In addition, it forced rival gangs to live in the same place, further increasing the crime. By 1979, Jonestown was a neighborhood that was avoided by the citizens of Baltimore. The streets were deserted at night, and the only time people felt safe to go out was during the daytime.

        However, during this same year, neighbors came together to form community organizations. These organizations made it their goal to revitalize Jonestown. The citizens constructed formal plans to rebuild their neighborhood, and gave the plans to the City of Baltimore. The plans included building community parks, community centers, childcare centers and inexpensive housing. In addition, the plans suggested that the projects should be demolished to decrease the drug violence. Many of the plans were successful and over the course of the next twenty years, the projects were closed and Jonestown began to thrive again.

        Since the plans were constructed to rehabilitate Jonestown, the citizens have continued to work hard to recreate their neighborhood. Community centers were established, getting the kids off the street and out of the drug culture in the neighborhood. New inexpensive houses were built to move people out of the public houses and into homes of their own. The Carroll Museums established the historical Jonestown walking tour, attracting more people to the area. The historical landmarks were renovated and plaques were built to explain the historical significance of each landmark. Urban green spaces were built in an attempt to create a safe area for the community. The Jonestown Planning Council was established in the early 2000s, to further develop Jonestown. The Council consists of local business owners, residents, religious leaders and museum owners. It has recently developed a ten-year plan to turn Jonestown into a thriving historical neighborhood. There are ongoing discussions and fundraisers to help ensure the continuation of redevelopment in the community. From the early colonists seeking religious freedom, to waves of immigrants in search of a new life, to the activist, African American community of today, Jonestown has been a home for minority communities in Baltimore for centuries. Consistently, every fifty years, a new community of residents would move to Jonestown, bringing activist groups into the community. These groups worked to create positive change and many of them are still present in Jonestown today. Jonestown’s ethnic, racial, cultural, religious and social diversity throughout its history makes it a unique and historically significant community in our city, state and the country.