Baltimore's Outer Harbor
Blue Goose Yacht Charter Service
by Marty Patrick
The City of Baltimore, dubbed the "Queen of the Chesapeake" as early as 1796, lies 14 miles from the mouth of the Patapsco River, fifth largest tributary of the Bay. The name "Patapsco" possibly comes from the Algonquin Indian "K'tchisipik," meaning "Great Water," or from "Potaskut," which means "jutting out place," a possible reference to the long shoal at its west entrance (now mostly underwater but shown on early maps as a land mass). Or perhaps it referred to the large outcroppings of rocks which grace the mouths of two of its creeks. Whichever it might be, the river was visited and charted by Captain John Smith in 1608 and has played an ongoing role in our history ever since. It was here that British troops, invading overland in an effort to reach Washington in the War of 1812, were soundly repulsed by Baltimore "irregulars" in the Battle of North Point. And here that Francis Scott Key, standing in the brig of a British ship the night of September 13, 1814, watched the dawn light up Ft. McHenry and wrote of his emotions in "The Star Spangled Banner." And it was also here that the Bethlehem Steel plant turned out a whopping 5O8 steel ships for World War I, then matched that achievement with 384 Liberty ships and 94 Victory ships for World War II.
Today the Patapsco River, to local boaters, is generally thought of as having three sections - Outside the Key Bridge, Inside the Key Bridge, and The Inner Harbor. The Key Bridge, built in the 1980s, spans the river at about midpoint; two tunnels also cross it, one above, one below the bridge, tying together the two sides of the horseshoe-shaped City of Baltimore.
At its mouth, the Patapsco River is about four miles wide. On its north shore (North Point), the entrance is graced by a large brick structure which is the Ft. Howard Veterans Administration Hospital. On the south side (Bodkin Point) lies an extensive but well marked shoal, usually decorated by numerous crabpots and a few small fishing boats. Between is the Seven Foot Knoll light, a tall red metal spire set in rip-rap. The handsome lighthouse which stood here for many years has been renovated and relocated as the frontispiece of an Inner- Harbor restaurant. It joins two other decorative but not-for-real-use lighthouses in the harbor.
The Patapsco, primarily a working river, as it has always been, provides ingress to Baltimore's docks for more than 25 million tons of commercial shipping each year. The shipping channels are well marked and speed limits are observed, but the transiting boater should keep a sharp lookout at all times for passing freighters, liners, and tugs and barges. Shipping comes up the Chesapeake from Norfolk and the ocean; the channels continue onward, through the Chesapeake and Delaware canal, to Philadelphia and points north, as well.
Dominating the Patapsco shoreline, "outside the bridge," is the huge Bethlehem Steel and Shipbuilding installation along the north shore. Purchased in l887 by the Pennsylvania Steel Co., the plant added shipbuilding in l891, and Bethlehem Steel acquired it in 1916. The area is also often called Sparrows Point after the original owner, Thomas Sparrow, (I regretted learning this fact - I had enjoyed believing sparrows may have once nested there). Across the river, near the south end of the Key Bridge, rise the stacks of the Wagner Station and Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., power plants which, together, provide for much of the electrical needs of the metropolis. The remainder of this outer area and the five creeks which feed the river (two to the north, three to the south) are residential.
A recent publication about Baltimore refers to these tributaries as "The Pleasure Creeks," and they're certainly that, for their shores are lined with the summer and/or year-round homes, condos, marinas, and yacht clubs of many of the water lovers, fishermen and crabbers, and boating fanatics of the Greater Baltimore area. Just inside the Patapsco's entrance, to the south, lies Bodkin Creek, sometimes described as like a "four-fingered hand" in shape. Its entrance lies through the notorious Bodkin Point (which shoals to both north and east) but is well marked and maintained and requires only a slow approach and an eye on the depth sounder for safe passage. The shores of this creek are mostly high banked and with many trees, the homes along them attractive and well kept. All three of its major branches carry deep water almost to the shore, and good anchorages abound. If you are running from a storm or looking for quick in-and-out access to the Bay, a good spot can be found in the small cove in the “thumb ” where 5 to 6 feet and good bottom prevail. This spot is less protected than some others, however, and the wakes from passing boats, especially on weekends, may be a problem.
A second decent anchorage lies just inside Back Creek before it begins to narrow, and a third exists in Wharf Creek where it forks to Locupt Cove. Our favorite, however, is in Main Creek, near Jubbs Cove, up against a high bank topped by magnificent homes. So protected is this spot that it is considered a safe "hurricane hole." The bottom, at 11 ft., offers good holding, and the area is nettle-free till late summer. Two major marinas, a sailing club and several smaller marinas offer service on Bodkin Creek (which locals call "The Bodkin"). The marina between Wharf and Main Creeks, at Graveyard Pt., pumps fuel even on weekends and holidays (and is just off the Bay); the one at the end of Main Creek offers a new crab-house-type restaurant with free docking while you dine. The Bodkin Yacht Club is adjacent.
About three miles up the Patapsco from The Bodkin, on the southern shore, Iies Rock Creek. Be careful rounding the long shoal which extends from Rock Pt, (it now reaches almost to the shipping channel), and look for a pile of large white rocks, which give this creek its name. Safe passage can be made on either side of the rocks in the wide entrance to this much-favored tributary. As you enter, to your port you will see - high on the hill - the handsome buildings of the Maryland Yacht Club with its moorings and blue-and-gold beach pavilion spread out below. Two large marinas (one in Wat Cove) follow immediately, and a sprinkling of others are located further up the creek. The second of these offers a fine restaurant; and another cafe, with docking, is located directly across the creek from it. The best anchorage in Rock Creek can be found in Tar Cove (just past the marinas on your port) where 11-13 ft., good holding, a long view, and a wooded backdrop beckon. Several other spots can be found further up creek, but traffic on this popular body of water is brisk; so get well in (plenty of depth here) and show your anchor light. Just under the shadow of the Wagner station power plant and cheek-by-jowl with Rock Creek is Stoney Creek (some charts spell it "Stony"), also with its pile of entrance rocks; but these are brown, not white. Its twisted entrance looks tougher than it is, and this popular crock offers deep water and good bottom all the way, The Stoney Creek drawbridge about a mile inside, has only an 18 ft. clearance. It opens an demand (April I to Nov 1) except for morning and evening rush hours. There is a small marina with a close-by restaurant just inside the bride and a larger one with restaurant and docking while-you-eat to your port about halfway into Nabbs Creek.
Best anchorages in Stoney Creek are also in Nabbs Creek and nearby Burley Cove. Back Cove is fine, too, but only large enough for a few boats. Stoney Creek, however, is full of small coves and generally deep to the shore, so space for a boat or two is not hard to find. Bear in mind that this creek, like its sister Rock Creek, is heavily traveled, so check your swing and show your light. One note of caution: a one time Stoney Creek was a mecca for speedsters and skiers, but recent placement of 6-knot buoys at the bridge should have alleviated this problem.
On the northern side of the Patapsco, two small "pleasure creeks" sandwich the Bethlehem Steel facility (if two little bodies of water can be said to "sandwich" the behemoth!). The first of these, tucked just inside North Point, is Old Road Bay. This small bowl of a tributary can provide shelter from an oncoming storm in or a quick in-and-out to the Bay overnight, but its wide-open mouth results in too much exposure for longer-term anchoring. There are marina facilities up the small northerly creek called Point Creek.
Last of the Patapsco's outer creeks, and perhaps the most populous, is Bear Creek, just west of the Bethlehem Steel plant. Its entrance is "guarded" by three bridges: a high-rise (53 ft.), a railroad bridge which usually stands open, and a drawbridge with a fixed clearance of 22-24 ft. (Your chart may say 25 ft., but we’ve never found it to have that much.) This bridge opens on demand, but the tender is not always on-site, and you may experience some delay. Just past the bridge, to your port, is a smallish marina which offers surprisingly complete services, an extensive store of parts and marine supplies, and reasonable rates for fuel. Bear Creek is quite deep (14 ft. or better), but we have not found the bottom to be too good for holding. The best anchorages seem to be in Lynch Cove or against the banks between the bridges. Beyond the bridges, the banks of Bear Creek are lined with small marinas and homes. Many of the latter are modest, but most are well kept, and the area provides access to the blessings of waterfront living to many of modest means.
And the fishing is reported to be great in the mouth of Bear Creek!
The Francis Scott Key Bridge was built in the 1980s to span the Patapsco and tie the eastern Baltimore suburbs to the western side. It has a clearance of just under 2OO ft., and it carries Route 695, the Baltimore Beltway. At its base, just east of the center span, squats Ft. Carroll, built about 1850 and one of five forts designed to protect Baltimore harbor from attack by sea. (The others are Fort Howard at North Point, Ft. Smallwood at Rock Point, Ft. Armistead at the western end of the bridge, and Ft. McHenry.) Carroll is the only "island" fort and now lies in ruins. Several attempts have been made to reconstitute it as a destination for the tour boats, a restaurant, etc., but all have failed. Today, it is overgrown with vegetation and strewn with broken embattlements. Mariners are warned away.
Just on the other side of the bridge, however, and a bit to starboard from the shipping channel, is a different kind of historical marker - a nun-shaped buoy painted with red-and-white stripes and a blue field with white stars. It marks the approximate site where Francis Scott Key stood vigil aboard the British fighting ship. (Not a prisoner as the story goes; he had rowed to the ship to plead the cause of a local doctor who had been taken prisoner the previous day, and he was later politely put ashore.) The fate of the doctor is unknown.
Inside the Key Bridge
Once inside the Key Bridge, you will find that the commerce and industry of a busy port take over. Except for Ft. McHenry, which is at the end of Locust Point, a central peninsula dividing the Middle Branch of the Patapsco from the Northern Branch, everything your eye can see is industrial or commercial. To your port are chemical and cement factories, docks for the transport of automobiles (incoming, mostly from Japan), and a facility which reduces large ships to scrap (the skeleton of the once-proud Coral Sea battleship stands at these docks, as we write), Midst this, if you look closely, you will find the entrance to Curtis Bay - home to even more industry and a large Coast Guard installation. Turn left just under the highway bridges here (58 and 38 ft. clearance, to join Marley Creek, a small residential creeklet offering a few very-close-in anchoring possibilities.
Continuing up the west side of the Patapsco, past the Harbor View Hospital, will bring you into the Middle Branch and to the historic Hanover Street Bridge (25 ft. clearance). A small marina sits just east of the bridge, a larger one to port on the western side of it. Beyond the bridge, there is also an area large enough for anchoring; but watch your depth here - it tapers down to about 5 ft. If you overnight in Middle Branch, you are likely to wake to the whisper of oars and the megaphone calls of the sculling master, since the Baltimore Rowing Club maintains its quarters in the lovely pavilion in Middle Branch Park, on the western shore - and begins its weekend races at daybreak!
Back out to the dividing point at Ft. McHenry, you may next head up the Northern Branch, or right fork, of the river, again with industry and shipping docks to your starboard. Dundalk Marine Terminal, the heart of the modern-day Port of Baltimore, lies here. Covering 600 acres, this facility can handle as many as thirteen unloading and loading ships at a time.
Here you may also see the white-and-red-crossed hospital ship Comfort. It last served in the Persian Gulf during Desert Storm, although it was also alerted for the Bosnian conflict. And to your port, just beyond Ft. McHenry, is a small enclave of Navy ships, Army tugs, and the Baltimore fireboats!
Shortly, the river curves a bit and widens; and you will begin to see high-rise condos and major marinas - the initial attractions of the Inner Harbor! Some industry persists, too, and the smell of fresh soap emanating from Proctor and Gamble may mix with the sweet scent of cooking molasses from Domino Sugar to tease your nose. Time was they'd have been joined by pepper or cinnamon from McCormick's, but that plant, alas, moved to the suburbs a few years back.
But the industrial and commercial stretches are slipping behind you now, and you can already feel the drumbeat of activity that marks the Inner Harbor of the most exciting port on the East Coast! (You will forgive my bias, I hope?)