Visualizing Early Baltimore


Visualizing Early Baltimore is a fully three-dimensional, interactive digital model of Baltimore, circa 1815, that provides connections between the past and today. The IRC has been working on various aspects of this digital visualization since 2012, combining historical research with cutting-edge modeling and mapping technologies to re-create an accurate 3D model of the city, its terrain, land use, and buildings in the early 1800s. The Bicentennial of the War of 1812 provided a catalyst and funding for the IRC to use the experience gained from its Visualizing Early Washington, D.C. project to develop this accurate map and 3D depiction of the Baltimore cityscape shortly after the famous bombing of Fort McHenry that inspired the words of the Star-Spangled Banner.

With fundamental support from the Maryland Historical Society and its network of scholars, the IRC collected the data necessary to initiate the visualization. The research effort also received major support from the Maryland Division of Tourism’s 1812 Bicentennial Commission and the Robert W. Deutsch Foundation.

The IRC worked with GIS experts in UMBC’s Center for Urban Environmental Research and Education (CUERE) to create an accurate topography on which to build the city. The project team researched the correct maps to use, as verified by scholars, and geo-referenced them to existing coordinate systems. Along with a typical 2D map, this became the base map for creating the visualization. The six-month effort resulted in an accurate 3D digital elevation map (DEM) of the original landscape of the city in 1815. The IRC also consulted local historians and did extensive research to determine where specific buildings existed back then and how they would have appeared. With that information, a team of IRC artists modeled and textured the buildings, wharves, and other structures that defined Baltimore during the economic and population boom that accompanied the height of the harbor’s role in commerce, privateering, and shipbuilding.

In September 2014, the first and major phase of this effort opened to the public at the Maryland Historical Society during their bicentennial commemoration of Baltimore’s pivotal role in the War of 1812. The main feature was an interactive kiosk, entitled The BEARINGS of Baltimore, that anchored the Society’s exhibition In Full Glory Reflected: Maryland during the War of 1812.

The BEARINGS of Baltimore is a gigapixel (2.5 billion pixels) image of a bird’s eye view of early Baltimore. IRC computer programmers have made this scene navigable online and by touchscreen to zoom into the vast details of the city. Certain “hot spots,” such as the home of Mary Pickersgill, the seamstress who sewed the famous “Star Spangled Banner” for Fort McHenry, or the observatory atop of Federal Hill signaling which merchant ships were headed to dock, can be located by tapping thumbnails, and additional information and visuals provided by the Maryland Historical Society can be found by accessing pop-up windows.

Additionally, the first public utility company in the United States was formed in Baltimore in 1816. For the public launch 200 years ago, the company laid pipes and installed gas lights in the Peale Museum (the first science museum in the United States), the Holliday Street Theater, and a street light on Baltimore Street. In 2016, for the 200th anniversary of this event, the Baltimore Gas & Electric Company (BGE) commissioned the IRC to refine this area of the early city and create a night scene showing the first gas lights in Baltimore. This type of illustration work highlights the strength of this research effort: With a fully accurate 3D model of the early city, any content can be created and rendered from any viewpoint.

In 2018, Anne Sarah Rubin was awarded a UMBC Strategic Award for Research Transitions, which allowed our team to do preliminary work on Slave Streets, Free Streets. This included pulling together databases of newspaper advertisements, census data, tax records, and city directories. It also allowed us to build the preliminary website which is our work sample. To date we have been focusing on the Fells Point neighborhood, and we have placed dozens of re-discovered free blacks and enslaved workers on the map. We have also begun mapping sites of the slave trade, drawn from a sample of newspaper advertisements. Finally, we have begun mapping locations associated with fugitive slaves. This work has enabled us to identify our prototype narrative threads, and we look forward to continuing to build our databases and tell new stories.