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As Baltimore pools reopen during the coronavirus pandemic, a look back at their history

The first group of mixed swimmers at Druid Hill Park Pool No. 1 since integration. Date Created: 1956-06-23
The first group of mixed swimmers at Druid Hill Park Pool No. 1 since integration. Date Created: 1956-06-23 (Baltimore Sun staff/Check with Baltimore Sun Photo)

Baltimore City pools have long faced closures for all sorts of reasons: lifeguards on strike, maintenance issues, attendance woes and even clashes over integration in the 1960s.

One time in the summer of 1985, the Roosevelt Park pool in Hampden even closed after rowdy teenagers threw the manager into the water, according to a Baltimore Sun article.

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In the summer of 1987, Riverside Park pool closed for three days because someone tossed fluorescent green dye into the pool.

Patterson Park pool community aide Rona Brown checks the temperature of Elliot Martin, 1, as his mother, Brittany Martin of Highlandtown looks on. Baltimore City park pools reopened today, with many changes due to COVID-19. The pools are free, but have reduced hours and capacity, and visitors must register online for 90-minute sessions in advance. July 13, 2020
Patterson Park pool community aide Rona Brown checks the temperature of Elliot Martin, 1, as his mother, Brittany Martin of Highlandtown looks on. Baltimore City park pools reopened today, with many changes due to COVID-19. The pools are free, but have reduced hours and capacity, and visitors must register online for 90-minute sessions in advance. July 13, 2020 (Amy Davis / Baltimore Sun)

But this year’s pool closure as a result of the coronavirus pandemic may be among the most memorable, not least because when pools reopened this week, plenty of new restrictions were in place. Visitors have to sign up for 90-minute time slots to keep attendance low, get their temperatures checked at the gates and wear masks when they aren’t swimming.

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The closure is a key moment in the history of city pools, a history that entwines everything from Fort McHenry to “The Great Gatsby” and The Chicago Cubs.

At Baltimore’s pools of old, many of which looked more like beaches than the concrete pools of today, bathing suits were for rent and women and men swam separately.

One of those pools was at Fort McHenry, although thanks to the country’s entry into World War I in 1917, it was particularly short-lived.

Before the municipal bathing beach’s opening on July 4, 1915, the western corner of the park was completely transformed.

“The Civil War-era powder magazine was converted into a bathhouse, the courtyard area served as a changing area with showers, and sand was dumped along the seawall to provide an improvised beachfront,” reads a National Park Service report on the fort’s history.

The Lakewood pool, located at 26th and Charles streets, also had a short history.

The pool, which featured diving boards, a sandy beach, locker rooms and a snack bar, was open from 1932 to 1944. Today, office buildings stand in the area where the pool once was.

The pool even attracted entertainment greats, many of whom had come to Baltimore for performances at the Hippodrome, including Milton Berle and Leo Carillo.

Most notably, F. Scott Fitzgerald was a regular there in 1933.

“Considering his sad plight in those days, he had special reason for enjoying this improbable and idyllic aquamarine pool — surrounded by powder-white sand, nestled in soft shadows under tall trees in that long-ago quiet of the Charles and 25th neighborhood,” wrote historian Gilbert Sandler in a 1977 edition of The Evening Sun.

“Lakewood buffs” are convinced the title of his short story “Image on the Heart,” which was written a few years later, was inspired by his memories of Lakewood, Sandler wrote.

The Druid Hill Park Pool also caught a glimpse of celebrity.

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Hack Wilson, a baseball great who, at one time, rivaled Babe Ruth’s home run record before a slump at the plate ended his career, managed the pool during the 1940s, said Rob Schoeberlein, an archivist with Baltimore City Archives.

The center fielder, who hit 56 home runs as a Chicago Cub in 1930, four shy of Babe Ruth’s record at the time, still holds the major league record for RBIs with 190 that season.

Wilson, once the MLB’s highest-paid player, told New York’s Schenectady Gazette in 1948 that he’d blown his baseball money on things that were “not for publication.” He started working in Baltimore during the second World War as a tool checker at an airplane manufacturing plant.

Later on, after he approached city officials looking for “any kind of job,” he was put to work as a park laborer, and then promoted to pool manager at Druid Hill Park.

Back then, there were two pools at Druid Hill Park. The park’s “Pool No. 2” was at one point the only one designated for Black Baltimoreans.

In early July 1956, after racial bans were lifted and all city pools pools were integrated, attendance dropped 44%. Pool No. 2 was closed.

Years later, as problems with integration persisted, protesters threw rocks at Black children at Riverside Pool in August 1962.

Policemen and dogs were stationed at the pool, where groups of shouting demonstrators set up camp until Labor Day, many bearing signs with racist messages like “Swim With Your Own Race,” “Segregate Cop Killers,” “White People Have Rights Too,” and “Keep Our Pool Germ Free.”

The mob, which included members of a group called “The Fighting American Nationalists,” threw rocks at the black youths who entered the pool, striking one 15-year-old boy on the face and sending several others to the hospital with cuts and bruises, according to Sun articles from August and September 1962.

Since then, Druid Hill Park’s Pool No. 2 has been filled in. The site is now a memorial to the era of segregation in Baltimore, and visitors still can see the pool’s ladder jutting out from the grass.

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