Decades before the badly polluted Cuyahoga River in Cleveland became a national laughingstock by catching fire in 1969, Baltimore's humble Jones Falls made its own environmental bad news. It blew up.
The incident, 65 years ago this June, started fires, shattered windows and injured at least one man. It was only the most spectacular in a series of little ecological tragedies that have degraded the stream, which teemed with life when David Jones first settled along its banks in 1661.
It was early afternoon on June 8, 1926, when something -- a spark perhaps, or a lit cigarette -- touched off petroleum fumes in the underground conduits built in 1914 to contain the stream, which had become a stinking open sewer. In a series of explosions, manhole covers were blown into the air all along the Fallsway from Baltimore Street north to Madison Avenue. The blast shattered nearby windows, and one man was cut by flying glass.
A sheet of flame 40 feet high in places spread along the open portion of the river from Baltimore Street to Pratt Street, setting fire to the roof of the Folly burlesque theater, the wooden understructure of the Lombard Street Bridge, and the abutments of the Pratt Street Bridge. Heavy smoke filled downtown streets. City firefighters battled the six-alarm river fire with chemicals, fireboats and by flushing water through the conduits.
In the investigation that followed, fire and sewer officials determined that grease, oil and gasoline were being dumped regularly into the river. Two garage owners and two employees were arrested. But that didn't end the threat. The city had a series of scares in the ensuing years. When grease and oil built up in the stream, police would be stationed nearby to warn
people not to toss their cigarettes into the river. It was a sad footnote in the history of the lower Jones Falls, which once held so much life that dolphins were drawn there to feed. But the stream had always been a mixed blessing at best to those who lived or worked beside it.
During the city's earliest years, the Jones Falls was navigable as far north as the horseshoe bend that once curved west from what is now the Fallsway to the foot of the high bluff at Calvert and Lexington streets. The bluff then was 40 feet higher than it is now, and crowned by the original Baltimore courthouse that stood where the Battle Monument now stands. The boats would tie up below the powder house, close to the courthouse. The water there was a good place to swim and catch crabs, and deep enough to drown a man -- which it did at least once.
Enclosed in the horseshoe was Steiger's Meadow, east of what is now Mercy Hospital. Steiger was a butcher who bought the wooded marsh in 1759. At the time, it was a haven for mosquitoes and frogs, but Steiger cleared and drained it for pasture for his cattle. Farther south, east of Holliday Street and including land where the city police headquarters building and the Community College of Baltimore's Harbor Campus now stand, was Harrison's Swamp, home to more mosquitoes, woodcock and snipe.
But the Jones Falls and its swamps divided young Baltimore on the west from Jones Town, east of the stream. So in 1776, the state assembly ordered Harrison's Swamp filled. In 1789,
Englehart Yeiser dug a canal east of Steiger's Meadow, cutting off the river's old course around the horseshoe bend, which gradually filled in.
Draining the swamps did nothing to end the stream's disastrous habit of flooding. A 1786 flood killed several residents and destroyed or damaged many houses, stores and bridges. In 1837, the Jones Falls rose 20 feet above its banks, flooding some homes to the second story. Nineteen people, 40 horses and 60 cows died, and all but one bridge were destroyed. Farther upstream, most of the mill dams were washed away. Fifty people died in an 1868 flood that followed a 7-inch, one-day rainfall. Two thousand cellars were filled to the ceiling.
The city's growth turned the Jones Falls into another kind of killer. Raw sewage flowed freely into the stream, and by the mid-19th century Baltimore had the highest typhoid rate of any big city in the nation. Even as late as 1947, city health officials warned residents against swimming or wading in the stream and routinely administered typhoid vaccinations to anyone who fell in.
Pollution and dry spells also ended the Jones Falls' value as a source of drinking water by the end of the Civil War. Recommendations beginning in the 1830s that the Gunpowder River be tapped as a safer, more abundant water source were ignored too long.
When the city fathers finally wrote in 1873 to public works engineer Thomas Beckler in Paris asking for advice, he responded that, while he loved Baltimore and its people, " . . . past experience has taught me that, in their collective or municipal capacity, they are the most silly, unreflective, procrastinating, impracticable and perverse congregation of bipeds to be found anywhere under the sun. . . . The result is that city improvements are never, or next to never done as they should be at first, and consequently are required to be done at great cost, again, and sometimes over and over again."
It was 1910 before the "do-it-later" city began building a sewer system to separate sanitary waste from storm water and keep it out of the city's streams. The flooding problem was addressed after each of the river's rampages by building stronger, higher bridges and higher walls to contain the river. But it remained a noxious, trash-filled public nuisance.
Rather than clean up the river, a succession of city leaders proposed to bury it. The idea of covering over the worst downtown portions of the stream was first proposed in 1817, but -- as Beckler might have predicted -- it was 1912 before the City Council and the state legislature finally agreed to do it.
Calvin W. Hendrick, chief engineer of the city sewer commission and father of the $1.6 million plan, said it would "abolish one of the greatest eyesores a city ever had to endure." It called for the construction of three huge pipes -- 20 feet wide and 12 feet high -- in the riverbed from Baltimore Street to a point between Biddle and Chase streets. A single tunnel 21 feet wide would carry the river to that point from a spot near Mount Royal and Guilford avenues. The pipes were buried, and a new thoroughfare called the Fallsway was built on top of them. At least four workers died on the job.
But when it was nearly done, on June 4, 1914, Mayor James Preston and city officials threw a party in the tunnel that would have pleased the showman in former Mayor William Donald Schaefer. They installed a temporary plank floor and electric lights, draped the walls and ceiling with flags and bunting and laid out 20 tables with white linen, crystal, silver and fine china. Then they invited members of the American Society of Engineers, who happened to be meeting in Baltimore at the time, into the pipes for a banquet of Smithfield ham, salad, chicken and ice cream. Preston called it the "most beautiful and useful public improvement ever constructed in Baltimore."
Four months later he set off the dynamite charge that broke a coffer dam and diverted the lower Jones Falls forever into its dark underground tomb. "I have come to bury the Jones Falls, not to praise it," said Henry Barto Jacobs, master of ceremonies at the 1915 dedication of the Fallsway.
What open stream remained below Baltimore Street continued to attract fishermen, and enterprising young boys who would "fish" for balls that washed through storm drains and into the river after rainstorms and resell them at half their original cost.
Upstream, the assault on the Falls continued after World War II when city planners proposed that a highway be built in the Jones Falls Valley to modernize access to the city from the north. In the bargain, planners said, "the eyesore caused by the stream cutting through the city would be removed."
Ignoring recommendations by famed park designers Frederick and John Olmstead that the relatively unspoiled upper Jones Falls Valley be preserved and developed as a scenic park for "slow pleasure traffic," the city buried another stretch of open stream between Guilford Avenue and Howard Street, and built the Jones Falls Expressway on top of it.
From Howard Street north to Mount Washington, the highway marched up the stream bed atop a series of bridges. With much of Jones Falls' length in the city now buried or obscured, most city residents -- even as they point proudly to the rebirth of Baltimore's once smelly and dilapidated Inner Harbor -- have forgotten the river.
As it flows south from Lake Roland toward the Inner Harbor, waters that support trout farther upstream are assaulted by chemicals and lawn fertilizers, sewage leaks, silt, oil and dog feces from storm water runoff, and acid rain. Long stretches of the stream's banks south of the city line have been channelized, chewed up by expressway construction and lined by concrete or stone gabions, obliterating the deep pools or overhanging trees needed to keep its waters cool enough to sustain fish.
Still, a few sanctuaries remain hidden amid the century-old mills and historic stone buildings along the lower Falls Road, like the old dam and millrace opposite the Streetcar Museum near Hampden, where migrating ducks often stop for a rest, and where in summer the tangle of weeds, wildflowers and trees hides the trash and shelters the spot from the city above.
FRANK D. ROYLANCE is a science writer for The Evening Sun.