A particularly bad anglicization (kan-tón) for the Chinese city Guangzhou, made by 18th century sea captains confusing the city with the province in which it lay, Guangdong
In the late 18th Century a certain Irish sea captain named John O'Donnell earned a fortune by being the first person to establish trade between China and the United States. In 1785, O'Donnell purchased a large estate east of Baltimore along the Northwest Branch of the Patapsco River. He named the estate "Canton" (kán-tən) after the origin of the goods that made him rich. His estate eventually stretched along the Patapsco from Fell's Point all the way to Colgate Creek.

In 1828, O'Donnell's son Columbus O'Donnell turned his father's estate into a land development scheme, forming the "Canton Company" with two other men. Their timing was good. The Baltimore and Ohio Railroad opened the same year (the famous locomotive "Tom Thumb" was made in a foundry on Canton Company property) and wharves and industrial concerns began to spring up along the waterfront.

As the 19th Century progressed, immigrants from Eastern Europe moved to Baltimore in greater numbers, and the western part of Canton filled in with rowhouses, becoming continuous with Baltimore itself.

Meanwhile, industry began to fill in the eastern part of the property, becoming one of the principal concentrations of industry in the city. The Canton Company itself went into railroad ventures, building a tunnel1 linking East Baltimore with the city's national railroad links.

Around 1907, the last piece of undeveloped land in Canton was developed. Around the same time, The Company formed another railroad, the Canton Railroad, which distributed cargo from the main lines to specific industrial customers.

Several expansions of the city eventually put all of the Canton Company's property inside the city of Baltimore. In the eastern portion, north-south street names still carry the Company's original name designations, Baylis St, Conkling St, Dean St, and so on, cycling through the alphabet twice before ending at the city's eastern edge.

The 20th Century saw Canton evolving much like the rest of the City. Very little housing in the residential area being replaced, and suburban flight beginning in the 1950's turned Canton into an area of urban decay much like the rest of inner-city Baltimore. However, the core area around O'Donnell Street remained fairly stable. The industrial section of Canton followed the century's booms and busts. Since 1980 this has been mostly bust, with many of the city's most famous industrial names having fled or gone out of business.

Throughout the 1990's, the western part of Canton has become a hotspot for development. The factories along the waterfront have been razed and replaced with high-rise apartments, townhouses, marinas, and nightspots. A wide swath of land set aside for a never-built portion of I-83 has been filled in with commerical and and residential development. Even the more blighted areas of Canton have become a target for gentrification. This, of course, is a mixed blessing, as higher rents force longtime residents out of their homes, and waterfront development blocks a view of the harbor that residents had taken for granted.

Several descendant businesses of The Canton Company exist to this day, the best-known being the Canton Railroad.

1 the Hoffman Street Tunnel, not the now-infamous Howard Street Tunnel.