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Baltimore’s Formative Water Issues
Three Water Controversies Created and Shaped Baltimore
by Paul H. Belz, January 2018
Baltimoreans take their water for granted. It tastes good, usually looks good, is almost always plentiful, is inexpensive relative to numerous cities, and many believe it to be tooth-healthy. But for the city’s first two centuries water issues, not crime, education or jobs, were the primary worry of residents.
Three 18th and 19th century water controversies molded the Baltimore we know today: where should the city be located; which source offered the largest, purest, softest and most economical water supply, and; how should sewage and storm water be eliminated. The debates were public and intense, to the degree that a hardcover book was published in 1875 with letters-to-the-editor as its sole content.
The first issue did not end well. In 1724 the Maryland legislature was presented with street grids laying out the town of Baltimore on the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River. Six miles of shoreline and 415 acres of water surface make it twenty times the size of the Northwest Branch. It was the logical choice for siting the city and its harbor. Unfortunately for Baltimoreans the property was owned by John Moale, an English immigrant who believed his land was rich in iron ore. He defeated the plan in Annapolis, leaving Baltimore to take root around the Northwest Branch, a harbor prone to silting and pollution from the Jones Falls with insufficient tidal cleansing. The city was then laid out in its “Original Survey” on January 12, 1730. The chronically filthy Inner Harbor basin eventually became a prolific incubator of disease.
The second issue took an expensive wrong turn before city leaders settled on the difficult but correct solution. In 1804 Alexander Brown had led a group that formed the Baltimore Water Company. Using hemlock mains and cedar service pipes the firm delivered a meager supply of clean water in the center-city to those wealthy enough to buy it. Nearly a half century of inadequate water service followed.
Then in 1852 a water commission was appointed to devise a plan to provide a municipal fresh water supply of 30 gallons a day per person for the projected 1870 population of 461,000 with expansion potential to 60-90 gallons per day. With one exception, the six commissioners approved an aqueduct system drawing water from Jones Falls, Gwynns Falls, the Patapsco River, and the Gunpowder River with the Gunpowder as the focal point. Ross Winans was the lone dissenter. He wanted Jones Falls to be primary.
Winans conceded that Jones Falls’ harder water would contribute more soap pollutants to the harbor than the Gunpowder. But he maintained that the Gunpowder’s superior cleanliness was negligible at 4.41 grams of solid matter per gallon to 5.40 considering London’s was 21 and New York’s 10.93. He argued that without a sewerage system residents had trouble disposing of 14 gallons of water a day. How would they manage 30, 60, or 90 gallons? The commission’s cost/benefit study promoting the Gunpowder included income from factories it assumed would locate along the river’s banks. Winans argued that there were many empty sites along streams closer to railway lines and the center city. How would the commissioners suggest the city attract businesses to the more remote Gunpowder locations?
After excoriating the imprecise findings in the study done by city surveyor Thomas P. Chiffelleꟷespecially regarding the GunpowderꟷWinans’ view prevailed. The Jones Falls was chosen.
At the direction of the water commission the city bought the Baltimore Water Company in 1854 for $1.3 million. Construction of three reservoirs on the Jones Falls began in 1858, including Lake Roland, Roosevelt Park and Mount Royal. Lake Roland Dam stored 400 million gallons and the Jones Falls began supplying Baltimoreans with their first true municipal water supply in 1861. From the beginning the system exceeded cost expectations and couldn’t meet demand as population growth far exceeded projections due to immigration and job-seekers migrating from the south. A fourth reservoir had to be planned in 1862 at Druid Hill Park. Then the drought of 1872 conclusively proved that the instincts of the water commission majority had been correct and Winans had been wrong. The Jones Falls supply was not only inadequate, it was suspected as a source for typhoid epidemics.
The city turned to the Gunpowder River for fresh water, opening Loch Raven Dam in 1881 and adding a larger dam upstream in 1912. Prettyboy Dam opened on the Gunpowder in 1936 and Liberty Dam on the Patapsco River was added twenty years later. Those reservoirs store a combined 86 billion gallons. The failed Lake Roland/Jones Falls system was taken off-line in 1915. Today, Baltimore’s municipal water system dispenses 360 million gallons per day to 1.8 million Baltimore area residents and businesses; theoretically 200 gallons per day per person. That’s robust.
The third issue presented the most vexing problems; how to alleviate harbor pollution and dispose of storm water and sewage. It elicited some draconian proposals.
In 1859 the city hired Dr. Thomas H. Buckler to find a solution to summer-centric epidemics of cholera, scarlet fever, typhus, and typhoid. Human waste was being dumped from ships, washed into tributaries and carried from cesspools to the harbor during floods. Women carried nosegays during summer months to mask the horrific odors. The rich escaped prevailing winds and water flows by building summer homes on the north and west sides beyond the pollution.
Buckler partnered with Tom Winans and they hired Benjamin Latrobe, Jr. to provide engineering estimates to level Federal Hill’s three-million cubic yards of soil. They would use the giant trench-digging machine Winans had invented for use when he helped build Russia’s first public railroad in the 1840s. The soil would fill in the Northwest Branch, shifting the port to the Middle Branch. Harbor merchants, including Johns Hopkins, opposed the idea and its $750,000 price tag. Just before the city council was scheduled to vote on the issue the engineering reports mysteriously disappeared from council desks. The project was abandoned. Buckler was embittered.
A three-man sewerage commission was then formed but it took the great flood of July 24, 1868 to provoke a serious discussion of options. The harbor had never experienced such an onslaught of debris and silt. Every bridge along the Jones Falls except Eager Street’s was washed away.
Several ideas were presented and dismissed.
One plan suggested diverting the Jones Falls at Belvedere (now Northern Parkway) to tidal waters at Back River via Herring Run. It would have eliminated the harbor’s problems from the Falls but it was dismissed because the price tag was $5.5 million. Another plan suggested raising the banks of the Jones Falls and straightening the channel. It too was dismissed because it would have required taking private property and rendering east/west roads across the north/south channel unusable. Benjamin Latrobe, Jr. pointed out in a letter-to-the-editor that while the plan would have alleviated flooding along the Jones Falls, it would have worsened it at the floodwaters’ harbor destination.
The city settled on a seven reservoir system to hold water and control runoff into the Jones Falls. The channel was widened to 140 feet from Monument Street to the harbor. It was straightened below Eager Street, paved and raised just enough to eliminate back-flushing and flood dangers without compromising crossing roadways.
On the underground storm-water/sewerage system the city dawdled until the turn of the century.
It was the Great Fire of 1904 that was the catalyst spurring Baltimore’s procrastinating populace into demanding a modern storm water/sewage treatment system. It was completed between 1906 and 1916, more than a half century behind port competitors New York, Philadelphia, and Boston.
The city’s water and sewerage infrastructure is now over 100 years old and crying for help. Unlike most things that age it’s performing at a high enough level to tempt revisiting 19th century procrastination in lieu of costly refurbishing.
This time the problem will not confront pestilence or primitive science and hopefully not require an environmental catastrophe to spur resolution. Congress is poised in 2018 to address a growing infrastructure refurbishment crisis that’s nationwide. This time Baltimore’s water and sewage problems will challenge leadership, federalism, and bipartisanship.
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