Standing on the prow of his runabout, Don Little fires an arrow toward a 20-pound carp gliding lazily through the murk. With a splash and a thwack, the arrow finds its mark. The stricken fish barrels across the shallows like a pickup truck on a dirt road, clouds of silt roiling in its wake.
In the near distance, the Baltimore skyline looms. Overhead, the sky is ribboned by trestled highways. Little reels in the fish, hauling it to the surface just as a light-rail train crosses the water behind him. The passengers gape at the monstrous carp, gleaming golden in the sun, as if to exclaim, "That was living in this?"
This happens to be the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River, the lost world of the Baltimore waterfront. Part urban, part rural, part industrial, it is a mud-smelling zone of beached garbage and besieged wildlife, a place where the squawk of the heron competes daily with the wail of the freight train. Hidden from most, even as it is crossed hourly by thousands of cars far overhead, it is the city's biggest and greenest "inner harbor."
Yet, to traverse much of its shoreline you need a map, perseverance, a tolerance for poison ivy and a dose of lawlessness. Do so and you tread not only on the city's past - rubble from the great Baltimore Fire of 1904 is buried here - but on what might have been its future. If not for a single willful Englishman in 1724, the Middle Branch might now be Baltimore's centerpiece, host to Harborplace and visiting tall ships.
Instead, it has become a backwater, a virtually uninhabited place where a plastic foam tide laps against the former sites of grandiose beer gardens, boathouses, boardwalks, bathing beaches and summer resorts.
But search this forgotten landscape carefully and you will still find people, too - regular visitors such as Little, the bowfisherman who comes every May to stalk carp; and devoted fans such as Bob Anderson, director of the city animal shelter, who affectionately calls the Middle Branch "my swamp" after two years of working and birdwatching on its north shore.
Rarest of all, you will also find an actual resident, Robert Moses. By conventional definitions Moses is homeless, but for the past decade his base of operations has been a self-made shelter hidden in the underbrush of the Middle Branch shoreline.
Each of these three makes an apt tour guide to the Middle Branch. Spend time with all of them, as well as with a few yellowed volumes of city history, and you're soon immersed in a rich, quirky travelogue that extends centuries into the past.
More than a fish story
Exploring the upper reaches of the Middle Branch can be a solitary pursuit. When Little cruises his small boat beneath the highways, with PSINet Stadium on the near horizon, he is usually the only person in sight.
"This is like my little hidey-hole over here," he says on a warm sunny morning. Moments earlier he'd launched his green runabout, Carp Chaos, from a ramp near Harbor Hospital. He quickly heads north, toward a wooden railroad drawbridge that hasn't worked in years. Its two boat channels are locked in the open position. Its tracks and walkways are rotting, but that doesn't stop children and fishermen from climbing past the "No Trespassing" signs.
Bumping against the bridge's timbers this morning is a grounded cabin cruiser. Lettering on the stern says it's the Company's Coming from "Any Where USA." Within a week there will be a fresh hole in the hull and the boat will be stripped of equipment and sprayed with graffiti.
Little steers past the boat and through the drawbridge. Then he cuts the engine and climbs atop a homemade plywood platform across the prow, peering into the glare of the brown water for carp. He holds his bow and arrow at the ready while keeping a foot on the pedal of an electric trolling motor. A sawed-off, 50-gallon plastic barrel awaits the day's catch.
After only a few moments, Little spots the glint of a swishing tail and fires. The bow is strung to 200 pounds of tension, and the flying arrow pulls a neon yellow line in its wake. The shot is a direct hit, and Little reels in a skewered 16-pound carp. With the arrow poking from both sides it looks a little like a comedian's prop. He grabs a small aluminum bat to strike the squirming fish on the back of its head, which looks armor-plated. The impact sounds like a solid base hit in a game of slow-pitch, and the fish goes slack, landing at the bottom of the barrel with a wet slap.
Little is 34, a truck driver for Giant Food who first bowfished these waters on foot. He and a friend stood on a railroad bridge across the Gwynns Falls, a few hundred yards from where the muddy stream empties into Middle Branch, and waited for fish to swim within range.
But Little decided he'd rather not have to wait on the fish, so two years ago he got the boat, built the platform and headed into the unknown, gliding across shallows that were once bountiful with shad, herring, rockfish, perch and crab. He has ventured into the Middle Branch ever since, especially when the carp spawn arrives in May, although when he first mentioned his new hot spot to a buddy it seemed like just another outlandish fishing story.
"He said, 'Where?!' " Little recalls. " 'Over by the stadium,' I told him. 'Yeah, yeah. Right.' But he came over with me and flipped out. ... When the spawn kicks in, I've filled the whole barrel."
Little steers north through the channel of the drawbridge, and as he heads beneath the highway ramps the scenery takes on the feel of some futuristic movie about the aftermath of nuclear war.
The ramps, far overhead, virtually blot out the sky. Neo-Nazi graffiti cover some of the concrete pilings. The air smells of mud and damp cement, and the receding tide has exposed tires and old boots. A shopping cart juts from the water like a shipwreck. Floating along the shore is an apron of garbage, mostly plastic foam cups and plastic bottles. The bottles make popping noises as they expand in the heat of the sun.
But the wildlife soldiers on. On a sandbar where an old Christmas tree has washed up are two mallards and two geese. An osprey perches in its nest in a grove of vine-covered trees. A rookery of night herons is also nearby. A swan sails past. In a nearby cove, where the ribs of an old wharf poke from the shallows, a belted kingfisher dive-bombs for minnows, then chatters in alarm at the approach of the boat.
Little quickly nails two smaller carp before missing on his next several shots. After one miss the arrow surfaces in a tangle of silted plastic. It can be hard to tell whether you're aiming at a fish or at garbage.
"Sometimes the carp will be laying there right on the bottom. You'll think it's trash, and then they move a fin or something," he says. "Of course, sometimes I'll go 'Yeah!' and think I've got a big one, and pull up an old Michelin."
Moments later, he fires at a flash of brown and gold, landing his biggest catch of the day. It is a 27-pounder, fat and ugly, the curled mouth gasping slowly. At times like this, Little wishes more people were around.
"You'll be all pumped up, and there's nobody to show it to," he says, heaving the fish into the barrel. It reminds him of one his favorite moments, just before a big concert last year at the football stadium. When a northbound light rail train broke down over the water, the music fans emptied onto the tracks to walk north. They began applauding each catch, yelling for him to hold up the big ones.
Little steers the boat past the big smokestack of the Resco plant, where some of the city's garbage is converted to energy. Then he cruises up the mouth of the Gwynns Falls in search of the big "hammers" he says often lurk there.
But today the pickings are slim, so Little pauses for lunch - deer jerky and a Pepsi. Then he heads back under the highways, stopping at the sandbar where the Christmas tree rests, now partially submerged in the rising tide. An eerie sight comes into focus in the shallows as the boat glides to a halt -14 carp, barely moving, are moored along the bottom like an ambush fleet of submarines. Little watches for a moment, counting the dark shapes. He selects the biggest target within range, then fires, skewering a fish while the rest scatter. But they don't go far, and within a half-hour he has hunted down three more.
By now the barrel is about two-thirds full - 150 pounds of fat, scaly flesh writhing in the sunlight with a slippery, slurping sound, their round eyes rolled toward the sky. After four hours on the water, it is time to head back. Little will give the carp away to people fishing near Harbor Hospital, who never seem to mind where it came from. They tell him carp's not bad in a stew.
From resort to refuge
Had Little gone fishing in the 1890s he would have had plenty of company - boaters and swimmers, dancers and diners. The Middle Branch was thriving, and its most popular spot was at the mouth of the river, just east of what today is the north end of the Hanover Street Bridge. It was a spot called Ferry Bar, a spit of land jutting into the water.
Most of the bar has been dredged away, and vanishing with it were the boardwalks and two-story buildings of George Kahl's Ferry Bar Resort. Drive down to the point today and you'll find only a tiny public park with overgrown grass and a battered picnic table.
But just listen to how the place looked in the 1890s. Besides a bar, a restaurant, banquet rooms and a waterside veranda, "there was a pavilion 30 yards out in the water that was connected to the shore by a pier. On Sunday, practically everyone sought out that pavilion - because, being 30 yards offshore, it was out of the city and therefore you were permitted to buy beer."
Those were the recollections of Benjamin A. Hooper, who in 1951, while in his 70s, wrote them down for The Sun.
"Inside the pavilion there was dancing to a good four-piece orchestra, and singing by a mustachioed, slick-haired quartet," he wrote. "Families used to sit outside the dance floor at tables on the shaded veranda. If the table was by the rail you could fish from it; the water was clear and pure and you could catch yellow and white perch, croakers, eels and catfish by the dozen. You could catch crabs, too; in an hour it was easy to fill a bushel basket with them. As you sat fishing - and as your parents sat drinking beer - you could see the scull races that began at the Arundel Boat Club, which was right next to the main part of the resort."
Steamed crabs were three for a quarter, or for 50 cents you could get the "shore dinner" - half a fried chicken, a soft crab, vegetables, muffins, fries and coffee.
The best way to Ferry Bar was by streetcar, and from there you could catch an "electric launch" ferry across the Middle Branch to other resorts at Westport - Starr & Klein's, O'Brien's, Meeter's Park - where beaches filled with hundreds of swimmers. Kids who wanted to save their fare for a fresh ginger cake scrambled across the same railroad drawbridge that kids scramble on today.
Go back a few decades further, to 1850, and you'd have found action further north, a few blocks south of Ostend Street, in an area now covered by industry. In the early 1800s a Mr. Fletcher opened a summer resort at the foot of Howard Street (which extended further south in those days) called Spring Gardens, named for the bubbling freshwater springs in the area. There were public beaches and places to eat, and soon people were referring to the whole Middle Branch as Spring Gardens, a label that would stick through World War II.
Much of the upper waters then, especially those near the mouth of the Gwynns Falls, were wider and deeper, and the shoreline was often sandy and marshy, covered with sea grasses and cattails, teeming with shorebirds.
If only Bob Anderson could have seen it then, because he thinks it's a pretty special place now, a flawed paradise in the heart of the city. Anderson, 53, is director of the city animal shelter, which, if you've never been there, seems almost lost down on Stockholm Street, convenient to little else but the backside of PSINet Stadium.
Drive into the parking lot and you immediately hear, and smell, the barking dogs in their pens. Step inside the office and you're greeted by Anderson, a big burly guy with a full beard and blue eyes. He seems the type who'd be more comfortable deep in the forest, which is exactly where he came from 2 1/2 years ago.
"I came up from the Tri-County Animal Shelter down in Charles County, out in the middle of the woods, and when I came up here I didn't think I'd see much wildlife," he says.
Then he got out of his car.
"I walk out to the end of the property," he says, "and there's this Great Dismal Swamp. You know, I was never interested in birding until I came here. Now I'm one of those crazy people you hear about. I call it 'My Swamp,' (he pronounces it "swomp") and I keep championing this area. They say I should call it 'an endangered sensitive wetland,' but I just call it My Swamp. It is beautiful out there."
You can see the waterfront from his office window through a veil of huckleberry and honeysuckle, a sunny glade where ducks land and heron stalk, thin legs bent, long beaks as nimble as tweezers.
"This is one of the best-kept secrets in Baltimore, and I'm not so sure I want it discovered," he says, smiling. It's a sentiment common to those few who have adopted the Middle Branch. "I sit in here at my window and laugh. I've got bosses that sit up at Guilford Street with no windows."
So, of course, he keeps binoculars handy, plus a guidebook on birds, and when the lunch hour beckons he heads for the picnic table out back, prowling the edges of weeds and poison ivy, knowing that his staff thinks this is all a bit loony.
When asked about recent and notable sightings, the memories flitter back like a darting tern on the hunt.
"I've had cormorants, mergansers ... the other day I saw a bittern in the middle of the rushes, his head was poking out. ID'd him on his color. He stuck out like a sore thumb. ... I saw an American kestrel hit a songbird in flight. It was just little feathers coming down. ... I'm still learning ducks. We had a black duck, a wood duck, a lot of mallards. ... We've had a red-tailed hawk, a nest of redwing blackbirds. We had seven immature cardinals in a tree ... mute swans. I love the swans. They dip their heads down into the water, their tails come up and it looks like sails going across the swamp. ... Last night we had killdeer. The mom was up on the roof and the kids were running all over the parking lot."
Other birdwatchers, he says, "keep telling me I should go to Delaware and all these other places. But I'm still learning all the birds here, so why should I go anywhere else?"
It's not just birds, either.
"The other day a nutria came right across. It's swimming 15 feet away from me in this swampy water. Swam right up on the bank. Now you can't tell me that's not exciting."
His Swamp, he realizes, is actually quite a mess, not at all a thing of beauty if you focus for long on its problems. There is all that garbage, for starters. After a hard rain, the storm drains empty into Middle Branch with a harvest scoured from half the gutters of Baltimore, and one of the biggest entries is right next to the animal shelter, coursing along the former path of a long-buried stream.
Anderson also can't help but wonder what sort of godawful stuff is down in the gummy silt beneath the surface. An animal shelter worker chased a loose dog into the water one day, and both he and the dog were soon mired hip deep. Getting them out wasn't easy.
"I look at all this crap and say, 'How can anything live in here?' I've constantly got my hand out like this saying, 'Hey, c'mon, help me, help me clean this place up.' "
But then, along comes spring after a hard gray winter, and the sounds of newborn wildlife blow to Anderson on the soft evening air.
"You ought to hear the frogs and stuff out here," he says. "It is music."
It might have all been so different, though. Instead of herons and garbage there might be tourists and tall-masted ships. Instead of a city garage and an empty power plant, there might be an aquarium and a science center.
Blame it on John Moale.
Moale was an Englishman, a merchant who arrived from Devonshire in 1719, seeking his fortune at age 22. He bought up land around the Middle Branch. One plot was on the south side, running out to Moale's Point (near what is currently the south end of the Hanover Street Bridge). The other was in the Spring Gardens area, a parcel called David's Fancy that extended up into what is now the Federal Hill neighborhood.
In 1724, settlers in the area wanted to start a town, and they approached the colonial legislature with their street grids and plans. According to Thomas Scharf's 1881 "History of Baltimore City and County," they "fixed upon the north side of the Middle Branch, the 'Spring Gardens' property." It was a deeper anchorage than the harbor to the north, where a stream called the Jones Falls often silted up the bottom.
"But John Moale was the owner of the land," Scharf continues, "and believing that it was rich in iron ore, used his influence to defeat the bill. The projectors then turned their attention to the North Branch."
Moale mined the land until his death in 1740, and an iron furnace near the mouth of the Gwynns Falls kept running until the end of the 19th century. Clay in the area was dug up to make many of the bricks used to build Baltimore's rowhouses in the early 1800s.
But planners persisted in trying to put houses on the Middle Branch. One 1833 map, marketed as a "Complete View of Baltimore," showed a vast grid of 130 blocks laid out below the Gwynns Falls right up to the western and southern shorelines, with the fanciful name "South Baltimore." It never happened. Neither did another proposed community called Portland.
And as the city to the north grew, the Middle Branch became a natural area for commercial expansion. On came the factories and the rail yards, and by the time the Westport and Cherry Hill communities were built, they were set back from the waterfront to make way for industry and other interests.
In 1855, the company that would become BGE opened a gas-making plant at Spring Gardens. The Carr-Lowery Glass Co., still around, took up residence on Westport's waterfront in 1889. Then, after the catastrophic fire of 1904 burned the heart of downtown Baltimore, cleanup crews shoved much of the rubble right into the Middle Branch, filling marshes and narrowing the shoreline.
But the surest sign that the Middle Branch's Age of Industry had arrived came two years later, when BGE (then known as Consolidated Gas Electric Light and Power Company of Baltimore) threw the switch on its new coal-burning power station next door to Carr-Lowery.
A 10-car train ferried 1,200 guests from Camden Station to the hulking new building with its 200-foot smokestack. There was no more room on the beach for swimmers.
"New Power Station Opened, BIGGEST IN THE WORLD," stated the June 20 issue of The Sun. "In the party were bankers, brokers, capitalists, tradesmen and representatives of all lines of business who use electricity for any purpose. ... The company's officers had prepared a substantial lunch for the guests, and the rush to get at it was something awful."
By the time World War I ended in 1918, most of the Middle Branch's fun spots were gone, although marinas and boathouses remained. One beer garden site became the city garage. Railroad tracks now blanketed the peninsula leading to Ferry Bar.
Ferry Bar's eventual demise merited only a single paragraph in The Sun of April 18, 1971:
"The old sandheap at the foot of Light Street, known as Ferry Bar and freighted with memories of shore dinners and gay parties, is to be sold to the federal government and dredged away under the terms of an ordinance introduced in the first branch City Council last night. It will become part of the new ship channel."
Today just about the only reminder of the past is a restored wooden boathouse that sits grandly - but all by itself - along the grassy strip of Middle Branch Park just north of Cherry Hill. Racing sculls again take to the water, but there is no 50-cent shore dinner waiting when they're done.
At home by the water
So, for now, the Middle Branch after dark is left to the likes of Robert Moses, who may be the only person left who actually calls the place home.
It is not easy finding Moses. To reach his house at the height of a lush and rainy summer you must slip through a chain-link fence, negotiate a small but steep hill and wade through hip-deep weeds, pushing back briars and poison ivy hanging across a loamy path. Sometimes a black snake slithers past, or a fox trots for cover.
Some 15 feet short of the waterfront you'll find it, a shack hammered together from old doors. Beyond that it is best to keep directions vague, because Moses doesn't want visitors. He has worked too hard to keep the place secluded and neat, and the effort shows.
The ceiling is only three feet high; the place is built for sleeping, not standing. A sheet of plastic is anchored across the top by bricks to keep the rain out. The plastic also drapes across the entrance as a front door.
The floor, with about 40 square feet of space, is covered with a spotless scrap of carpeting. A thin, clean mattress is covered neatly with a wool blanket, next to a stack of folded clothes and a can of scouring cleanser.
Moses has scattered white gravel outside the entrance, where an old lawn chair sits before a campfire ring built of stones and bricks. Propped next to it is a cooking grate fashioned from refrigerator shelving. Three blackened cooking pots hang from the branches of a sapling. A clothesline stretches between two trees behind the shelter.
Only a few feet through the trees is a fine view across the dark water, out where the light-rail trains glide by. A swan is out for a swim.
Moses can be even harder to track down than his home, or "camp," as he calls it. But he answers a note left for him with a telephone call, inviting his visitor to meet at a friend's place on South Stricker Street.
It is a rowhouse that has seen better days, and on a muggy summer evening the front door is thrown open to a living room strewn with clothes, toys and boat equipment. Two women sit on the couch watching a blaring television. One of them calls upstairs for Moses.
He is 54, but looks older. His gray-blue eyes are bloodshot, and a two-day stubble sprinkles his ruddy face with gray. Moses announces that it is time to head out to the camp, but first he has to collect another quarter to round out the $1.35 he needs for a quart bottle of Cobra malt liquor. His breath says that it won't be the first of the day, and Moses cuts straight to the point.
"I'm a drunk," he says, looking you in the eye. "An alcoholic. You know?"
He gets the money up on Pratt Street from a pal, a homeless guy named Lee whose face is as red as raw meat. On the way to the camp, Moses supplies his vital statistics. His full name is Robert Leland Moses, he says, offering a veteran's health card, a Social Security card and other papers from his wallet, as if to prove that his identity has not been lost to the streets.
He has had the camp for 10 years, he says, and once lived there almost continuously for five. When we arrive he sits in the battered lawn chair to describe how he ended up living like this, his scratchy voice accompanied by the trill of a red-winged blackbird.
"I was born in Harrisburg (Pa.) and moved to Baltimore at age 9," he says. "Now here's something you've got to understand. My brother Wayne was 2 months old and in the crib then. My daddy took a gun out." Moses points a finger at his head, then flips the thumb down. "He pulled the trigger right in front of me. And then later they sent me to Vietnam, where I seen some more of that s---. I got a letter telling me to report to Fort Holabird in January '66. I stayed in the Army eight years, two of them in Vietnam.
"Last time I heard, my brother Wayne was back in North Carolina. My mom died in 1986. And that's the last time I saw Wayne Russell Moses."
After his Army days, Moses married Patricia Kohler, who went by Patsy. It was in the '70s, when he worked at the A&P; Bakery down on Franklintown Road. He did some drinking then, too.
"We had two children, Kristy and Corrina." Corrina was born at South Baltimore General, he says, which is now Harbor Hospital. "Over there," he says, pointing toward the water. With a canoe you could paddle to it in 10 minutes, reaching the building where he first saw his daughter. He seems to ponder that a moment before continuing.
"I ain't seen or heard from my children since the day 20 years ago when [Patsy] walked out of the house," he says. "Last I hear Kristy was in Texas. Her mother's in Georgia."
To get by, he picks up jobs for days or weeks at a time - painting, or hanging drywall, staying sober long enough to make some cash. When he's working he often sleeps over at his friend's house on South Stricker. When he's not working, life gets tougher.
"I know how to panhandle," he says. "And if all else fails, I know what a dumpster looks like."
In the winter, the police sometimes check on him back here in the woods, making sure he's all right. Sometimes they bring him hot coffee. Otherwise, he says, "I just put another log on the fire."
This isn't his only shelter, he wants you to know. He is well traveled, having lived in similar places on rivers in Alabama and Ohio. In Pennsylvania, he has a shelter along the Susquehanna, near Harrisburg.
How does he get there?
"Hear that?" he asks. A train whistle is blowing, a freighter rattling down tracks a few blocks away. He hops empty cars, he says. "I take the 37. I travel when I feel like it. You look for me when you see me, 'cause I'll jump on that train in a heartbeat."
Where does he catch the trains?
"Hey," he says, smiling. "I don't want to tell you all my secrets."
By the weekend, he is gone.
Pondering the horizon
Two weeks later, Moses agrees to meet again on South Stricker. Out on the sidewalk a young man is preparing to go crabbing, tying chicken necks onto a trot line that extends 20 feet down the block. Moses emerges from the rowhouse looking different - scrubbed, shaven, eyes clear. He's working again, painting houses for $30 a day, getting up at 7 every morning. Flecks of white paint dot his jeans. He hitches a ride to his camp.
"I want to get a Coleman lantern and bring it out here," he says a few minutes later, seated again in the lawn chair. It is a warm night with a breeze, and the mosquitoes are beginning to gather, buzzing around your ears. "I had some ants so I went and got me a can of that spray there, and sprayed my hooch."
He looks around, then gazes into the green canopy of trees, where the breeze is stirring the leaves, showing their pale undersides. Moses seems calmer when he's sober, more attuned to his surroundings. His conversation is slower, quieter, less insistent.
"I haven't seen my fox around here lately," he says. "About a month ago was the last time. She had a big hole over there." He points to his right. "She had a litter of pups there last year."
What will become of him if people start coming here to the Middle Branch, he is asked. The light-rail line down to Westport has already drawn extra attention to the place since it opened a few years ago, offering vistas on a once-hidden waterfront, and Moses knows as well as anyone the way a rail line can lure people in its wake. A new trail along the Gwynns Falls will someday come here as well, bringing hikers and bicyclists. The proposed route passes within sight of his camp.
Moses takes the news in stride.
"If that happens," he says, "I'll just move to camp four," the one on the Susquehanna.
"Hey," he adds, a gleam in his eye, speaking as the only known resident of the Middle Branch. "If it ain't waterfront property, I ain't interested."
Tomorrow: Imagining the Middle Branch as a wild and natural "inner harbor." In the Today section.