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Why do sinkholes seem so common in Baltimore? The city has a long history of unpredictable infrastructure.

Why do sinkholes seem so common in Baltimore? The city has a long history of unpredictable infrastructure.
A sinkhole developed along the 2300 block of E. Monument St. in East Baltimore in August 2012. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

Patrons at the Royal Farms Arena had a preview of the trouble that soon followed as they crossed the corner of Howard and Baltimore streets this week for Cirque du Soleil performances. The bricks around the light rail tracks had broken loose and Howard Street seemed to be in need of repairs.

By Monday, it was obvious that Baltimore had another big sinkhole. Pratt and Howard streets were shut. Puzzled light rail passengers walked past the walls of Camden Station after they had been forced off their trains and seemed to wonder, what’s the matter this time?

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Under the hole is the 1890s Howard Street Tunnel. It’s another piece of Baltimore’s engineering history, and just because you don’t see it doesn’t mean it’s not a busy artery.

Soon the lengthy freight trains operated by the CSX Railroad stopped making their northbound and southbound trips through the tunnel, which itself suffered a major incident in 2001, when a train derailed and freight car full of tightly packed computer paper caught fire. The smoke cloud made national news; when the freight car was dislodged and allowed to burn itself out in the Remington neighborhood, that paper cargo burned for another week.

Baltimore puts on a grand show of spectacular infrastructure crackups. A water main break at Pratt and Light streets nearly 40 years ago showed how vulnerable this part of the city is. The Patapsco River once stretched farther west than its present bulkhead at Light Street. The river may be contained by modern engineering and infilling, but the old harbor waters still play tricks on land thought to be high and dry.

Call it urban myth, or urban reality — Baltimore is also crisscrossed by what we call underground springs. They are actually real, free-flowing natural streams that were tied into the sewer network long ago. The stream water continues to flow.

In the spring of 2016, parts of Franklin or Mulberry streets, not far from this week’s collapse, fell in. Parts of of an old sewer failed in April and developed a second crack in July. This mess involved a fix with large black temporary pipes, known as bypass mains, that were basket-weaved through the west side of downtown, including the Seton Hill and Mount Vernon neighborhoods.

Baltimore was one of the last large cities to build a comprehensive sewer system. Its main component, an 80-inch-diameter tube constructed of bricks and mortar about 1906, has often revealed its age and fragile condition. It’s now 113 years years old.

In 1997 the corner of Park Avenue and Franklin Street developed a sinkhole that might have been created by a Hollywood disaster designer. It had been a rainy fall with a storm the Friday before the Saturday morning that the asphalt caved. Soon there was a deep hole and even the old Park Avenue streetcar tracks popped out. It looked as if Baltimore’s mechanical intestines had ruptured.

The Sun reported that a fractured gas line exploded, “producing a spectacular 40-foot column of flame that burned for more than five hours, forcing the evacuation of about 265 residents from nearby buildings and promising to inconvenience downtown residents and commuters for several days.”

Weeks of spring rain also preceded the collapse of the stone retaining wall along the first block of East 26th Street in Charles Village in 2014. Concerned residents had been warning city officials about this one — the pavement adjacent to the wall had been buckling.

One rainy afternoon it became obvious that the stone wall was beginning to collapse into a deep railroad cut. A resident videotaped the dramatic event that caused a handful of parked cars to be sucked into the resulting landslide.

As if the cautionary lesson was not learned, a block to the east, at the corner of Calvert and 26th, another section of wall collapsed into the rail line in 2018.

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