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Recalling the fluid history of Liberty Reservoir, Oakland Mill

In his talk this month regarding the history of Liberty Reservoir, James Slater Jr., water resources program manager for the Baltimore Metropolitan Council, said most of the water in Carroll County stays here a while, but not for long.

Slater, a Finksburg resident and former compliance and environmental programs director for the county, spoke Nov. 17 at the Finksburg Library, at the monthly meeting of the Finksburg Planning and Community Council.

He said Carroll's outward flow of water is because of a geological formation called Parr's Ridge, which intersects the county at a southwest by northwest angle. The upshot, he said, is that "almost everything in Carroll County drains into either Baltimore's water system, or the Monocacy River and Washington, D.C.'s water system."

"So, no matter what we do here, we affect other people," he said.

Using photos and historical data, Slater discussed the origins of Liberty Lake in the context of Baltimore's water system, which provides water to Baltimore and sections of five surrounding counties — about 1.8 million people, all told.

That system really began back around 1804, he said, when Baltimore launched efforts to develop a central water system. In 1807, Jones Falls Waterworks was constructed, and in 1810 officials began buying springs and fountains within the city limits. In 1875, the first dam was built across Gunpowder Falls, and in 1912 work began on Loch Raven Reservoir.

In 1915, Montebello Filtration Plan opened, and, in 1925, Baltimore's Department of Public Works was founded. Today that agency is responsible for a 215 square-mile watershed area fed by a 466-square-mile drainage area that includes three reservoirs — Prettyboy, Loch Raven and Liberty.

Slater said that, unlike areas like New York City and Boston, Baltimore's reservoirs and watersheds are relatively close to the metropolitan area they serve.

This paved the way for suburban development in the counties and presents "a real challenge to keeping the system functioning properly," he said.

He said Liberty and the region's other reservoirs face the same water quality problems as the Chesapeake Bay, such as algae blooms fed by nutrient run-off.

These environmental problems, he said, always translate into economic problems. Simply put, dirtier water is more expensive to treat.

Lost town of Oakland Mill

Liberty Reservoir's inception stretches back to Annapolis and the years 1931 and 1932, when the state passed legislation giving Baltimore City the right to impound and take water in South Carroll — paving the way for turning the basin of the east branch of the Patapsco River into a lake and watershed.

As post-World War II industrial and residential development ramped up, that water was needed.

Plans to build Liberty were made public in 1942, Slater said, "but not everyone in the river valley took it seriously."

They did five years later, when the first timber cutters arrived.

One of Baltimore's obstacles to building the reservoir was a thriving mill town called Oakland Mill, which stood in the path of the waters, a mile or so north of the present-day Liberty Road bridge that connects Baltimore and Carroll counties.

Oakland Mills' history is chronicled in a book, "Forgotten Corner: A History of Oakland Mill," by Eldersburg resident Diana Mills Scott. The book contains photos and former residents' recollections of a community that, along with the mill, had its own church, store, community hall and stately homes, mostly belonging to mill owners and their families.

According to Slater, Baltimore City paid $1.5 million to buy out the Melville Woollen Millworks. "It was the largest land purchase in state history," he said. Additional monies were paid out for farms and residences located in the future lake bed.

Ironically, improvements to Liberty Road and new bridges as part of the project would later pave the way for growth that would change the face of South Carroll from rural to suburban.

As for Oakland Mills, by the early 1950s it was abandoned … and under water.

And as the decades passed, it was almost forgotten, except by those who had lived there. That, said Slater, is perhaps the most significant part of the story, at least in human terms.

"Oakland Mills was the center of a community," he said, citing an old newspaper article that recounted a baseball game between a Westminster team and an Oakland Mills team held in Oakland Mill on Saturday, Aug. 26, 1924. It drew 5,000 spectators.

"This speaks to the fact that there was a thriving community there, a thriving business that supported many people," said Slater. "Obviously, there were a lot of people who were displaced and their lives were changed drastically."

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