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Portion of Federal Hill slides onto street; residents say they've been noticing problems for years

Donna Sylvester, whose house at the edge of Warren Street overlooks the east side of Federal Hill, said the hillside has been deteriorating for the last three years, and its degradation accelerated during the last month. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun video)

City crews were working Friday to shore up Baltimore’s Federal Hill after a portion of it went sliding onto the road, the latest example in a decades-long history of erosion on its steep slopes.

Amid heavy rains, mud and grass from the iconic hill started slipping Thursday onto the 900 block of Covington Street, near the American Visionary Art Museum.

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Federal Hill Park, perched atop the hill overlooking the Inner Harbor, is a popular destination for tourists and locals alike.

The city’s recreation and parks department said it was laying down more than 200 sandbags to direct water away from the slipping area of the hill as it worked to stabilize the embankment.

“Together with our engineers and partnering agencies, we are implementing a short-term stabilization plan as we work toward a long-term solution,” the agency said in a statement

Sinkholes and buckled sidewalks atop the hill were the first signs of problems residents noticed.

Mud and grass from the iconic Federal Hill had slipped onto the 900 block of Covington Street, near the American Visionary Art Museum.
Mud and grass from the iconic Federal Hill had slipped onto the 900 block of Covington Street, near the American Visionary Art Museum. (Jerry Jackson/Baltimore Sun)

Donna Sylvester, whose house at the edge of Warren Street overlooks the east side of the hill, said the hillside has been deteriorating for the last three years, and its degradation accelerated during the last month.

A crumbling sidewalk along the edge of the hill appeared on the verge of sliding down the steep grade, and sinkholes within yards of her house were deepening, she said. She said she’s worried about the effect of the hill’s deterioration on her house, which dates to 1888, noting she already has noticed some cracks in the brickwork.

“The corrosion of the hill is affecting the structure of the landscape, and that does affect our house,” she said. “I hope this can all be fixed before more serious damage happens to our home.”

Hilary Lefebvre, a Maine resident, was visiting her mother, Michela Gallagher, who also lives above the slide on Hamburg Street. Lefebvre said her family, too, has watched as conditions on the hill have worsened over the years.

“I don’t think anyone realized what those were when they first started to appear,” Lefebvre said of the sinkholes.

More sinkholes appeared this fall, she said.

“We’re obviously worried about our property and worried about the people who are walking around and trying to enjoy the park,” Lefebvre said. “The main concern at this point is property damage and lasting property damage, at least for us. It’s also pretty hideous to look at.”

The terraced hill originally was a large bluff of red clay standing over the Patapsco River’s natural harbor basin. Over the years, it was mined for that clay and sand, used as a maritime observatory, armed with artillery during the War of 1812 and the Civil War, and turned into a city park after 1880.

Made up of clay, sand, silt and topsoil, Federal Hill has long faced erosion problems related to rain and the aged mining — and rumored military — tunnels within it.

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Millions have been spent over several decades to stabilize its steep slopes, including a $1.9 million project that was celebrated in 2000. Cases of landslides go back to at least 1846 and 1859, when The Sun reported one that piled earth 6 or 8 feet deep at the bottom of the hill’s north side. In 1916, The Sun reported heavy rain caused an “avalanche” of earth to spill onto the street in the same area as Thursday’s landslide.

“The community here has put a lot into the park,” Lefebvre said. “I think this is just a little frustrating for residents.”

But, she said, she was impressed at the speed with which the city addressed the slide.

Councilman Eric Costello said in an interview his office has been working for more than a year on long-term stabilization plans for the hill.

“Obviously this necessitates an emergency response,” he said. “We’ve been working with recreation and parks on a long-term plan, which we think might be implemented by the end of 2019.”

Sylvester hopes to see a design that reinforces the hill and restores its beauty.

“We have to have structural stability so that the park can continue to be used for generations to come, as it has been,” she said. “And it has to be beautiful — it has to look relevant to the rest of the park and it has to look like the jewel that it actually is in our community.”

Thursday’s slide came during another stretch of wet weather as the Baltimore area’s record rain total climbed closer to 70 inches for the year.

It also comes weeks after a portion of a sidewalk on East 26th Street in Charles Village partially collapsed amid heavy rains. Another block on the street had completely collapsed onto the rail line below in 2014.

Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Dance and librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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