VA Maryland Health Care System
History of the Fort Howard VA Campus
In 1673, Thomas Todd’s plantation of 300 acres on the lower Patapsco River is shown on the Famous Augustine Hermann’s map as “Dod.” This land, which was acquired by Todd in the year 1669, was on the present site of the Fort Howard campus (also known as the North Point Site). Obviously, all of the property in this area did not belong to the Todds. A deed dated January 31, 1679-1680, conveyed 100 acres called North Point on the north side of the Patapsco River from Solomon Thomas to Charles Gorsuch. The deed also shows that the 100 acres of land was originally owned by Thomas Thomas (the father of Solomon Thomas) and William Batten.
In 1790, Robert Hodgson and James Thompson were given an exclusion privilege to operate a transportation service from Delaware through Chestertown, Maryland, to the Chesapeake Bay in Kent County. A ferry ran from Kent County across the bay to Fort Howard, where a stage ran into Baltimore (a rather small city at the time). This was a very popular transportation route in the late 1700’s.
In 1793, the land that now comprises the Fort Howard campus was the place from which Captain Robert North sailed his ship “Content.” Captain North named the point after himself and started a vast and promising trade there on the Patapsco River.
Twenty-one years later, during the War of 1812, the British sailed 50 warships with 6 to 7 thousand troops up the river. The ships arrived on Sunday, September 11, 1814, at dusk just off the shores of Fort Howard, but they decided to disembark the next day at dawn. The boats were lowered at 3 a.m. on Monday, September 12, 1814, and by 7 a.m. the whole army and some sailors were ashore. The troops landed by wading ashore on the Fort Howard grounds in an attempt to regain the land England lost during the Revolutionary War of 1775-1781. The British troops met the American forces in the Battle of North Point about 10 miles outside of Baltimore and only four miles from the Fort Howard campus. The British troops were unprepared for the well-seasoned American Army they met, and the heavy naval guns of their fleet in the harbor were unable to assist their land forces.
On September 14, 1814, part of this same British fleet fought a losing battle with the American troops at Fort McHenry. Failing to capture Baltimore by the North Point route, they attempted to advance on the city by way of its inner harbor, on the Patapsco River upstream from North Point. They were again repulsed. While this was taking place, Francis Scott Key, an American prisoner on a British warship anchored in the harbor, watched the battle and inspired by the beauty of the American flag waving over Fort McHenry, wrote our National Anthem.
For many years, the Fort Howard campus housed a lookout station. Its object was to note the number of ships passing in and out of the harbor, their origin, and the firm to whom they belonged. In 1795, Judge Thomas Jones counted about 6,085 vessels passing the Fort Howard campus. In 1846, it was decided that the lookout station at the Fort Howard campus was unnecessary since there were two better situated stations and it was discontinued.
In 1898, the United States went to war with Spain. The following year, Fort Howard was established and was officially declared a Military Reservation on April 18, 1900. The post was named Fort Howard by General Order #43 of the War Department on April 4, 1900 in honor of Colonel John Eager Howard, a Baltimore philanthropist and a distinguished soldier of the Maryland Continental Line during the Revolutionary War.
In 1902, reinforced concrete coast batteries were erected at Fort Howard. The batteries were named in honor of famous Marylanders of the War of 1812. Fort Howard, called the “Bulldog at Baltimore’s Gate,” was manned by four companies of Coast Artillery Corps – the 21st, 40th, 103rd, and 140th. The guns at the Fort included 12-inch disappearing rifles, 12-inch mortars, 6-inch rifles, and 4.7 and 3-inch rapid-fire weapons. Each battery contained from two to four guns. The gunners who manned these batteries were among the best coast artillerymen in the world. In 1908 they were credited with setting a world’s record by hitting a moving target over 5,000 yards away, nine out of ten times. The shell that missed was defective.
In 1917, the troops at Fort Howard were doubled and its men were put on a wartime basis due to the concerns of an impending war. To keep in shape, the gunners drilled by mock firing on steamers which were the only crafts sighted in their waters. The artillerymen who lived on the base resided in what was like any ordinary small city. Along the main driveway were attractive officers’ cottages, one of which belonged to the commander of the Fort. The “Bachelors’ Quarters” was one of the four barracks housing single enlisted men, while married men were permitted to live outside of the gate.
Sources of recreation at Fort Howard were two tennis courts, a football field, a golf course, a moving picture parlor, and the Post Exchange, which also housed the Post Office. The buildings on the property at that time included a hospital, a clothing department where soldiers could buy their clothes, a food storage commissary, a wireless telegraph station, a machine shop, and a photographer’s building.
In 1926, the Secretary of War was authorized to dispose of the Fort Howard Military Reservation, but the reservation was not sold and continued as an active post of the Regular Army until August 1940. It was the first headquarters of the newly formed Third Corps Area in 1920, and became the Headquarters of the Coast Defenses of Baltimore in 1922.
In 1940, about 80 buildings were removed from the post when the VA planned to transfer their hospital work from Fort McHenry to Fort Howard. On August 2, 1940, the VA acquired the title to Fort Howard from the Army and began construction on a five-story, 377-bed hospital. The hospital was originally designated to handle general medical and surgical cases. In January 1941, the VA officially moved to the Fort Howard campus. At the time the VA took over Fort Howard, the Medical Corps Buildings of the 12th Infantry were renovated for the nurses’ home, infirmary, and attendants’ quarters. The nurses’ home was the headquarters of General Douglas MacArthur from 1925 to 1928. The 377-bed hospital building officially opened for patient care in 1943.
On June 20, 2000, the Secretary of Veterans Affairs approved the plans to change the mission of the Fort Howard VA Medical Center, a division of the VA Maryland Health Care System. The mission change was requested to address the numerous structural deficiencies within the facility’s main hospital building, as well as the continuing shift nationally from inpatient to outpatient care. The plans for the approved mission change included shifting inpatient programs and administrative functions from Fort Howard to other VA Maryland Health Care System facilities, and redeveloping the campus through Enhanced-Use legislation to make it a continuing care retirement community. The first phase of the mission change was completed in September 2002, with the relocation of Fort Howard’s inpatient programs and administrative functions to the Loch Raven VA Community Living & Rehabilitation Center and the Perry Point VA Medical Center.
The second phase of the mission change includes the redevelopment of the Fort Howard campus through Enhanced-Use legislation. The proposed Enhanced-Use project at Fort Howard envisions the development of a continuing care retirement community on the 94-acre campus that will provide discounts and priority placements for Veterans and their spouses. The retirement community will include affordable and market rate independent and assisted living units, in addition to a replacement facility for the Fort Howard VA Outpatient Clinic on the campus. The proposal also includes retaining 10 acres at Fort Howard for the possible future construction of a State Veterans Home.