Listen closely: these are the sounds of Bolton Hill

A northern cardinal

Before Canada’s smoke disrupted those crisp, pleasant late spring days when neither heat nor air conditioning were needed, seasonal sounds of the neighborhood drifted through open windows. Many city sounds are troubling or annoying: sirens at all hours; police helicopters drowning out a quiet outdoor dinner; barking dogs and unnerving booms (Was it a gun shot or fireworks? Do cars still backfire?).

But on a clear morning, step outside and listen to the sounds of Bolton Hill. Sounds don’t recognize boundaries, but collectively they are a blessing for those who notice them.

The Muslim Call to Prayer

Walking your dog at sunrise? You might catch the Call to Prayer (adhan) from the Masjid Ul-Haqq at 514 Islamic Way (between Etting Street and Druid Hill Avenue), a few blocks west. It’s one of many mosques in the city.

Muslim daily life is punctuated with five ritual prayers, or slat. In the early Muslin Community in Medina, according to tradition, faithful Muslims would gather around the Prophet Muhammad without any summons. One of his followers had a vision in a dream, in which a man taught him a way to call people to prayer. The Prophet confirmed the dream and appointed Bilal, a freed African slave, to be the first muezzin, to use his penetrating voice to sound the call to prayer from the mosque. From this time on, for thirteen centuries, the adhan has called the faithful all over the world to five daily prayers.

Mosque Six, the predecessor to Masjid Ul-Haqq, purchased a two-story brick garage on Wilson Street around 1958. The building, located within the Old West Baltimore Historic District, likely dates back to the 1870s and operated as part of the P. Bradley’s Livery Stables up to the early 1900s, according to Baltimore Heritage. The current building dates from the late 1950s.

These days the sound is electronic, not human. If the air is still and there is little traffic, you likely can hear the other adhan (Arabic for “announcement”) during the day and at dusk.

Morning bird calls

In the hour before dawn, there often is a cacophony of bird sounds. The birds most likely to be heard and seen in the early morning or evening in Bolton Hill in June include: the small brown chattering house sparrows; house finches (finch males have a red-tinged head and chest) and loud, scolding house wrens; the larger blackish starlings, grackles, and crows; and ubiquitous American robin (orange breast), mourning dove, and northern cardinal. (You can hear all these sounds by Googling, for example, northern cardinal sounds.)

These birds live in Bolton Hill year-round and nest and raise babies in the spring and summer – unlike many of the 10-plus migratory bird species which fly nightly over greater Baltimore each spring and fall. Of the migrants, some species alight only to briefly rest, while others spend the summer and reproduce once they find suitable Maryland habitat. Recent sightings of migrants by those who know in Bolton Hill include the Baltimore oriole, red-eyed vireo, great blue heron, American woodcock, yellow-rumped warbler, ovenbird and American coot.

Not sure which bird you are hearing? Go to

Corpus Christi’s bells

The Corpus Christi Catholic Church bells have sounded in Bolton Hill since the late nineteenth century. The first bell likely tolled for the first time on Jan. 1, 1891, when the church was completed and consecrated. The original church steeple of Corpus Christi, much smaller than the one we see now, held the first bell, which weighed 2,500 pounds and was tolled by a rope. It was about the size of the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia. A rich history about it appeared in The Bulletin in 2018.

A huge mechanical clock was installed in 1912, visible from all four sides of the church and a local landmark. It was run by weights and had to be hand-cranked. The clock’s mechanism activated the chiming of four new bells that were hung in the tower. The hand-cranking eventually gave way to automation but late into the twentieth century volunteers at the church regularly climbed up into the belfry to adjust the timing. A restoration of the church and tower in 2005 led to a silencing and then a reboot of the bells.

Today the Westminster chimes toll on the quarter hour from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. A separate ringing called the Angelus takes place three times daily. The De Profundi (“Out of the depths”) bells ring at 7:05 every evening. The sound of those chimes is unique and a reminder of the tragedy that befell the parishioners of Corpus Christi in 1883. Additionally, sometimes there is an “absolutely beautiful sounding for two minutes” – wedding bells at the end of a matrimonial ceremony, according to Father Marty Demek.

The bells as renovated are fully automated. They sync to an atomic clock by satellite once a day and automatically adjust themselves to keep on time (including daylight savings time).

Freight trains

Wake up around 4:30 a.m. or at random other hours and you’ll hear CSX trains rumbling through MICA’s Mount Royal Station, the beautiful former B&O passenger train station. Once you’ve lived here a while, those sounds become like wallpaper, just part of the atmosphere. But sometimes, no matter how long you’ve been in Bolton Hill, they can startle you with their gentle warnings.

Most freight trains that move through the city and on the tracks leading into the yards north of Penn Station are unscheduled. Train “whistles” long ago gave way to more dependable automated warning sounds, accompanied by various other safety steps taken to avoid crashes and fatalities as the trains cross public thoroughfares. The Association of American Railroads will tell you, rather defensively, that trains are safer than ever and that accidents and fatalities on the tracks largely are the fault of trespassers and suicide-seekers.

But that misses the point. Many a song and no few poems have been written about “lonely whistles” and hopping freight trains. So far no one has penned one about a Midnight Train to Bolton Hill.

–David Procter, Christine Smets, Lee Tawney, with Bill Hamilton