The area where the Jones Falls meets the northwest branch of the Patapsco River, known today as the Piers 5 and 6 in the Inner Harbor, became an essential part of Baltimore’s maritime landscape in the 19th century. An English merchant named Thomas Harrison purchased a 28-acre parcel of swampy land for 160 pounds sterling in 1747, building a home for himself between two distinct communities: Baltimore Town and Jones Town.
Nineteenth century historian J.T. Scharf recalled that the “spongy condition” of the area, “where the melodies of frogs and mosquitoes could always be heard,” often made residents ill. In 1776, the General Assembly directed Harrison and neighboring landowners to cover the marsh with stones, gravel, and dirt, to reduce the “nuisance” of the standing water and make the land suitable for development.
In the late 18th century, both private and public investors began dredging mud from the bottom of the harbor in an effort to deepen the port. Flour merchants John and Andrew Ellicott, who operated a large mill operation in the area now known as Ellicott City, sought to improve their wharf at Pratt and Light streets through small-scale dredging in 1783. That same year, the General Assembly created a board of port wardens to oversee public efforts to control the marshy area around the Jones Falls. They levied a fee of one cent per ton of cargo and began construction on a “mud machine” to complete this task in 1790.
The swampy confluence became the heart of the growing city’s commerce when the Marsh Market, later called the Centre Market, opened in 1784. Running parallel to the Jones Falls between Baltimore and Pratt Streets, the General Assembly authorized the construction of this marketplace as it was essential to sustain the city’s growing population. It became the largest market in the city around the Battle of Baltimore and spurred residential development in the area.
In addition to the construction of homes, Harrison’s Marsh attracted business ventures in the late 18th and early 19th century. Entrepreneurs named John Smith and William Buchanan purchased waterfront plots from Harrison in 1759 and built two wharves into the harbor. In the 1790s, flour merchants Thomas McElderry and Cumberland Dugan each constructed their own 1,600 foot docks lined with three-story brick warehouses. Commercial development continued along Harrison’s Marsh and into the harbor in the years leading up to the Battle of Baltimore, contributing to the targeting of the lucrative port city by British troops in the War of 1812.