If Baltimore city people are fascinated by stories of the tunnels in spots like Federal Hill, their counterparts in Baltimore County delight in the somber tale of Warren, the mill village now submerged under the waters of the Loch Raven Reservoir.
Authors Ann Royston Blouse and Cynthia Schafer Mann have a new book out that addresses the question of “What Lies Beneath — the farms, mills and towns under our reservoirs.” The book is a collaborative effort involving its publisher, the Historical Society of Baltimore County, the governmens of Baltimore City and County, and the city’s Department of Public Works.
The two jurisdictions share the same water supply system that includes the Loch Raven, Prettyboy and Liberty reservoirs. Depending on where you live in the region, you could be drinking, as the Baltimore saying goes, a Loch Raven cocktail or a Patapsco cocktail — water from either Loch Raven or Liberty Reservoir on the Patapsco River.
The one beverage you would not want to drink, the authors imply, was water from the old Lake Roland water system. In the 19th century, people who lived near it (today’s Towson, Bare Hills and the Lake Falls Village area) distrusted its waters so thoroughly they would not drink it when they visited downtown Baltimore.
The quest for a good water source began as soon as Baltimore grew as a city. Early on, the city had private water companies with mini-reservoirs, including one at Calvert and Madison streets.
The Jones Falls was tapped as Baltimore’s first major water supply. The Lake Roland dam was built and soon we had reservoirs at Druid Hill Park, Hampden, the aptly named Reservoir Hill, and at Lakes Montebello and Clifton.
Construction of the first tunnel from Loch Raven to Lake Montebello brought a heavy death toll. The authors wrote that 27 men died during its construction. Hand labor cut through five miles of a tough rock called blue gneiss.
When the Liberty Reservoir was created, it would flood out the old Melville Woolen Mill at Oakland in Carroll County. Its looms once supplied the Leonard Greif suit-making plant in Govans. The wool mill also spun the fabric for the nationally known Hart, Schafner and Marx men’s suit house in New York City.
Baltimore County’s flowing streams and runs spawned picturesque mill villages. These textile mills were early industrial beehives of employment, with rows of workers’ cottages, stores, a school and a couple of churches generally owned by one capitalist, who in one stroke of a pen could sell out.
This was the case with the village of Warren, in northern Baltimore County. When the city of Baltimore finally achieved clean water success with Loch Raven Reservoir (named, the authors assert, for Raven’s Rocks, a nesting place for crows and buzzards), additional Gunpowder Falls water was needed as Baltimore’s population increased.
Years before it was formerly acquired, the spot called Warren appeared doomed. It lay clearly in the path of expansion for the reservoir.
A prophetic 1921 article in The Sun forecast how the waters would rise, “in the valley of the shadow of the flood.” The anonymous reporter, walking through the Warren village, observed, “children about the road , thinking of Christmas, garments freezing stiff on the clothes lines, old settlers hobbling homeward, hot fires in the general stores, and leading citizens guarding the prune barrels, and the gray stone mills full of workers and humming with machinery spinning cotton duck and yarn.”
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The reporter was cannily prescient, as this book shows that nearly a century later, the story of Warren’s demise retains its fascination: “Yet, for 100 years to come, men will remember that at the bottom of a 45-foot lake a thriving settlement of mill workers once answered the factory whistle in the mornings, went to church, sent the youngsters to school, quarreled, voted, loved and died.”