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Take a walk on the wild side of Baltimore on Gwynns Falls Trail

By Lara Lutz
Published October 2007
Copyright © 2007 Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network

In a small glen near a winding Baltimore road, a waterwheel sits in the woods.

Its iron skeleton arcs 20 feet into the air, a magnificent and unexpected presence. Stripped of its scuppers and suspended over a waterless channel, its formal geometry makes a strong contrast with the fluid lines of leaves and limbs surrounding it.

The wheel once pumped water on the historic Crimea estate, a country retreat for the Winans family in the 19th century. Today, the grounds are part of the city's Leakin Park, and the wheel is perhaps the most striking reminder of the continually transforming landscape along the Gwynns Falls Trail.

The Gwynns Falls Trail, a member of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network, is a 15-mile path through 2,000 acres of public park land in the western and southern parts of the city. The trail is designed to ultimately become part of the larger East Coast Greenway.

Owned by the city and managed in partnership with the Gwynns Falls Trail Council, the trail connects people to their local natural resources and to other parts of the city-without sitting in traffic.

It begins in lushly wooded parks at the heart of the Gwynns Fall stream, where mills and waterwheels were once a common sight. But the trail also moves through a wide range of scenery that includes historic sites, the Inner Harbor, magnificent views of the city and wildlife observation decks along the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River.

"The idea is to open access to natural resources in the city that had been walled off, and to help revitalize communities along the way," said Guy Hager, a senior manager at the Parks and People Foundation and member of the Gwynns Falls Trail Council.

New wayside panels, rich with historic photos, make the trail a storyteller, too, evoking the ways in which communities and natural resources have shaped each another through the centuries.

The Gwynns Falls stream flows to the Patapsco River and ultimately to the Chesapeake Bay. In the early 1600s, Capt. John Smith made a short tour of the stream until blocked by the "felles," or falls, for which the stream was named. The falls, and the rocky stream bed above them, made the stream useless for water commerce. But its fast-flowing waters boosted Baltimore industry by powering 26 mills that processed grain and cloth, some into the 20th century.

The old mill sites form many of the open spaces along the Gwynns Falls Trail, and their echoes are felt most strongly on its upper reaches. The Ellicott family, which owned much of the land and water rights during the 1800s, constructed an entire infrastructure to serve their mills. They built a privately owned toll road that ran from Frederick, past their mills, along the Gwynns Falls to the marshland that would later become the Inner Harbor. They also invented a machine to help clear silt from the marsh and backfill a bulkhead.

"You could say they were the first to dredge the Inner Harbor," Hager said.

The Ellicotts built a series of millraces along the Gwynns Falls stream that diverted water toward their mills. The diversion dam created a dramatic waterfall that was marketed as Baltimore's Niagara Falls. In 1917, a section of the millrace was filled in to create a streamside path and dubbed the Ellicott Driveway.

Roughly four miles of today's trail travel directly over the old millrace and driveway, now sheltered by a towering canopy of trees. The stone wall that defined the trough is still visible around its base.

"If there's a place along the trail that people are emotionally attached to, it's this millrace," Hager said.

The millrace section passes through Gwynns Falls Park and into Leakin Park. Together, the parks encompass 1,200 acres and create one of the largest wooded parks in an East Coast city. They encompass the Crimea estate and its original 1850s mansion built by Thomas de Kay Winans, who grew wealthy building railroads in Russia. It also includes 10 additional miles of hiking trails that are popular with area birders.

As the trail moves south, it merges with low-volume city streets and encounters the hum of nearby highways. The historic presence of railroads soon usurps the mills. The Carrollton Viaduct is a 300-foot stone bridge that carried trains west over the Gwynns Falls on the B&O Railroad. The trail goes through a small arch in the side of the bridge that once allowed wagons and cattle to pass through.

Visitors will also pass the Mount Clare mansion in Carroll Park, built in the 1790s by Charles Carroll, Barrister. Some of its grounds were donated for use by the railroad. The station, roundhouse and repair yard that resulted now house the B&O Railroad Museum.

But the Gwynns Falls Trail is more than secluded forest nooks and historic remnants. It also travels through 30 neighborhoods, including Franklintown and Dickeyville. Some of the neighborhoods were home to African Americans who championed improved housing, schools, and equal access to recreational opportunities like the Carroll Park Golf Course. The Leon Day Park is named for a southwest Baltimore native who played baseball in the Negro Leagues during the 1930s-40s, and was inducted into the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 1995. Frederick Douglass, an abolitionist and former slave, is said to have planted the English elm that still stands at the corner of Hill and Sharp streets.

After passing the M&T Bank Stadium, the trail emerges on the Inner Harbor Promenade, where the skyline rises and the waterfront spreads wide. The marsh is long gone. Modern life takes center stage. The Inner Harbor Visitors Center, a logical stop, can help sort through the options for food and entertainment. It also provides an intersection with the Jones Falls Trail, which in the future will approach the Inner Harbor from the north.

The trail loops through the Federal Hill and Otterbein districts, with views of the city, before turning south along the Patapsco River. The rush of sightseers fades away. And despite nearby homes and relicts of industrial use, the water dominates. A variety of birds and waterfowl visit the estuary as they migrate along the Atlantic Flyway. Visitors can launch a boat, picnic or enjoy the fishing pier along the trail in Middle Branch Park. There are plans for a water trail.

The shoreline will be changing here. Abandoned industrial buildings will be razed, and at least two waterfront communities are planned. Hager said the developers are eager to include the trail in their plans because it will be a draw for potential buyers. It's yet another sign that Baltimore is discovering renewed value in its own great outdoors.

"For so long, the streams and rivers were just used as open sewers," Hager said. "All of the buildings faced away from them, and urbanization hid them. People still say the Gwynns Falls can be hard to find. Well, we're trying to reorient them."

The trail has drawn attention to the stream, triggering tree plantings, cleanups and restoration projects. The Gwynns Falls Watershed Association, formed in 1997, works closely with the Trail Council, park friends groups, and Parks & People to advocate for cleaner streams.

"Trails can be the reason, the necessity to green it out," Hager said.

Eight police officers patrol the trail to ensure public safety. In the seven years since the trail opened, no problems have occurred.

"This is the largest mass of remaining wilderness in the city," Hager said. "We hope that people will come to explore it, and we hope they'll wonder about the things they see, the people who built them, and how it all came to be."

Gwynns Falls Trail

The Gwynns Falls Trail extends 15 miles through wooded parks in the western portion of the city, to the Inner Harbor and south along the Middle Branch of the Patapsco River. Nine trail heads with parking offer access near major roads. The relatively flat trail is paved except for two miles of crushed stone on the old millrace. A few sections with a grade of more than 5 percent are marked on the trail map. For a map or directions, visit, e-mail or call 410-448-5663.

Guided walking tours take place 9-10 a.m. Thursdays and 1-3 p.m. the second Sunday of the month, year-round, weather permitting, in Leakin and Gwynns Falls parks. Free. Registration is recommended; call 410-945-0586.

Saturday bike rides begin at 10 a.m. at the Interstate 70 Park and Ride, with lunch in Federal Hill before the return trip. The ride is about 22 miles long. Ages 16 and younger must be accompanied by an adult. Free. Call 410-435-6623 for details.

Learn more: Gwynns Falls Trail and Greenway

Lara Lutz is a writer and editor who lives on the South River in Mayo, MD.

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