Centre Market, aka Marsh Market, was the thriving heart of early Baltimore commerce, primarily due to its proximity to the docks and the cargo arriving regularly. Vendors filled the space along Market Place from Baltimore Street to Pratt Street at the harbor’s edge, offering everything from produce to livestock. Separate areas were devoted to particular products. For example, the area where Port Discovery is today was the fish market. Just north of that was where horses were sold. This horse market area was also where enslaved people were sold. Auctioneers would often hold court ordered sales here of people who may have been designated as unclaimed runaway slaves.
Due to the large number of shoppers attracted to the market, many other businesses grew up nearby, such as taverns and inns. There were also several estate auctioneers who operated nearby. Just like today, estate auctions included everything from furniture to linens. Prior to the Civil War, however, these auctions often included the sale of people. As the demand for enslaved labor increased in the 19th century, several slave traders also operated in the area west of this market area. They would meet at the nearby hotels and taverns, such as Garland Burnett’s Tavern, Mrs. Green’s Tavern (Sign of the Green Tree), and Sinners’s Hotel on Water Street. Eventually, a few slave jails were operated in the area by James Purvis and John Denning.
A major reconstruction of the market took place in 1851, which included a large, two-story building that took up an entire city block built over the market area. It was initially known as Maryland Institute Hall because it housed the Maryland Institute for the Promotion of the Mechanic Arts, which is now known as Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). The second floor housed the school classrooms, offices, and classrooms, as well as an assembly hall large enough to accommodate crowds attending two presidential nominating conventions and a speech by Abraham Lincoln. This entire area was destroyed by the Great Baltimore Fire in 1904.