In 1814, in the midst of fighting the British, Francis Scott Key's war-inspired tune went viral nationwide in a matter of weeks. And while it's yet to get a flashy YouTube video, "The Star-Spangled Banner" bests today's viral hits in three ways: it became our national anthem, Jimi Hendrix delivered a scorching cover of it at Woodstock and it's inspired a new boat tour of where it was composed 200 years ago.
Launched just last year in Baltimore, Maryland, the Fort McHenry Boat Tour traces Key's route on the Patapsco River on Sept. 14, 1814. Pass through the fort's visitor center and veer left to the dock to buy your ticket and board the Mildred Belle. The 45-minute ride features a pre-recorded audio explanation of what led to Key writing the song. In short:
A Washington, DC lawyer, Key had sailed out to the British fleet in the Chesapeake Bay to negotiate the release of one of his bros, Dr. William Beanes. While Key succeeded in that endeavor, his party caught wind of the British plan to attack Baltimore. So the Brits detained his crew until after the battle lest it warn the city (posting the news on Secret not being an option back then).
Life jackets aren't required on the Mildred Belle, but you'll want to request them for kids—especially as the boat doesn't have seats. And for really little ones, you may want to pack your own life jackets to ensure a snug, safe fit.
Of course, the troops at Fort McHenry didn't need a hot tip to win the Battle of Baltimore (which was part of the War of 1812, not an episode in "The Wire"). Key witnessed the fort withstanding the shock and awe from his own ship behind the British Royal Navy, about eight miles away from Fort McHenry. Inspired by the fort's flag still waving at dawn on Sept. 14, on his sloop’s way back to Baltimore—there, right on the river where the tour goes—he started writing a poem (because in 1814 that's what they did, rather than take a selfie with the flag in the background). Back on shore, he finished it a few days later and his brother-in-law quickly set it to an existing melody. In 1931, Key's "Star-Spangled Banner" became the United States's national anthem.
While Key dispatched his family to the countryside during his quest, you'll want to bring yours along for this boat ride. The rocket's red glare and bombs bursting in air have long since dissipated, so the biggest threat you may face is choppy water. If the sun’s not gleaming though, call 410-962-4290 to verify the tour is running that day.
The tour heads out under motor power on the northwest branch of the Patapsco River, tracing the shoreline before heading a bit further out, turning around and cruising back toward the fort. While a regular olde foot tour of Fort McHenry's grounds offers an expansive view of the river, the boat tour features a unique look back at the fort itself with broad stripes and bright stars flying high above it. So pack a camera. Or, better yet, write a poem about your experience.
MORE SUMMER TRAVEL QUESTS
44) Salute the 200th Anniversary of the 'Star-Spangled Banner'