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Uncovering the History of Pier 4

Centuries ago, the site of the National Aquarium was a stop on the road to freedom for one enslaved woman.

In a place as old as Baltimore, every block has a story. From the Revolutionary War to the civil rights movement and beyond, this city has witnessed the tumultuous path of American history unwind through its streets.

Although Baltimore was home to one of the largest free Black communities in any American city prior to the institution of the 13th Amendment in 1865, slavery remained legal in Maryland until its abolition in 1864. By 1831, over 17,000 free people of color and 10,000 slaves lived in Baltimore; for a short period of time, Blacks and whites worked alongside one another at the city’s industrial epicenter, the Inner Harbor.

A prime waterfront location solidified Baltimore as an industrial haven; shipbuilding, steel mills and oyster canneries provided ample employment to the city’s inhabitants throughout the 19th century. Hundreds of years before the National Aquarium came to town, the location we occupy—Pier 4 of the Inner Harbor—was known as Dugan’s Wharf, a commercial hotspot that serviced passenger and merchant vessels until the early 20th century.

The steamboat Kent docked at Dugan’s Wharf throughout the 1800s and made weekly trips between Baltimore and the Eastern Shore. On October 21, 1856, Maryland native and famed abolitionist Harriet Tubman helped a young woman named Tilly escape enslavement in Baltimore by leaving the city on the Kent.

A bond of $500 or a certificate of freedom was required to travel north from Baltimore to Philadelphia, neither of which Tilly nor Tubman possessed. Because two Black women traveling south did not raise the same suspicion, Tubman opted to travel south to go north by sailing through the Chesapeake and then up the Nanticoke River to Seaford, Delaware.

With the help of the Kent’s captain, who provided a travel pass to the young woman, Tubman was able to safely deliver Tilly to Underground Railroad associates in Wilmington, Delaware, who then helped her reach Philadelphia. It is still unknown whether the captain was aiding Tubman intentionally, or if he was unaware of her intentions.

Historians believe that Tubman collected Tilly while on a mission to retrieve two young children in Baltimore; the young woman’s fiancé asked her to bring Tilly over the border and into Canada, where he had previously fled. This story of this innovative escape was used to inspire financial donations to the cause from affluent abolitionists abroad, but it’s also indicative of Harriet Tubman’s resilient spirit. We are honored to be a small part of a footnote in her life’s story.

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