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Baltimore's Stream of History

By Antero Pietila
Published July 23, 2008
Copyright © 2008 The Examiner

BALTIMORE - There is no better walk in Baltimore than along the Gwynns Falls Trail through Leakin Park. Past towering tulip poplars that form a shady canopy on a hot summer day; past the lazy stream that played such a crucial role in the city’s industrial and residential development.          

I walked most of the recently completed 15-mile Gwynns Falls Trail that extends from the Interstate 70 Park and Ride at Security Boulevard to the Inner Harbor. Hikers and bikers are reclaiming that urban trail, including Leakin Park, which once held a reputation as a dumping ground for executed drug dealers.

I particularly like the section from the Windsor Mill Road trailhead (near the Talbot Road bridge) to Hilton Parkway, a level, surfaced path that demonstrates why Leakin Park is recognized as America’s largest urban forest. The surrounding old growth is so tall that one really has a feeling of walking in an ancient forest. Yet the sounds of the city — the roar of cars and trucks, the clang of an occasional freight train — are inescapable.

This is the topic of UMBC historian W. Edward Orser’s new book, “The Gwynns Falls: Baltimore Greenway to the Chesapeake Bay.”

It says something about the importance of the Gwynns Falls valley that much of Baltimore’s history can be told through its evolution. This is what Orser and five contributors do. Theirs is as useful an introduction to the city as a newcomer can get.

The book covers the gamut, from streetcars to the east-west highway battles to the development of the port. It tells the story of the dollar-house program, through which the city auctioned vacant buildings near the Inner Harbor to urban pioneers who pledged to rehabilitate and occupy them. The result is Otterbein.

Orser, the author of “Blockbusting in Baltimore: The Edmondson Village Story,” does not ignore lightning-speed racial change. In the 1950s and 1960s, Gwynns Falls neighborhoods were among the first to change, going from all-white to black within one decade.

Orser is a collector of intriguing facts. I never knew Dickeyville went through five names or that its textile mills were confiscated by Union troops during the Civil War after they discovered the mills produced material for both “Union blue” and “Confederate gray” military uniforms.

The book does not ignore slaughterhouses, or the curled-hair factory that William Wilkens established. A thousand people processed horsehair for mattresses and upholstery in the factory, which existed until the 1920s at the site currently occupied by Westside Shopping Center. The Wilkens Avenue area was dotted by neighborhoods like Pigtown and Cowtown, where animals ran on the streets to slaughterhouses.

This recounting of industrial history does not forget pianos. The trail passes the site of Knabe’s factory, now the site of the Orioles stadium. Its old cupola is now part of the Museum of Industry. (The city’s other piano maker was Stieff, a relative of the silver king).

The city spent millions of dollars on new bridges, pathways and picnic areas along the Gwynns Falls Trail. On a recent walk to the Carrie Murray Nature Center, which houses an exhibit of tropical birds and reptiles, I found some little-used trails blocked by huge trees felled during storms. They were no real obstacles, just reminders of the life cycle in a natural forest.

The Gwynns Falls Trail fulfills the vision of Frederick Law Olmsted, who proposed turning all Baltimore stream valleys into greenways. The trail is among Baltimore’s best-kept secrets. A ranger estimated that about 100 people use it during a typical weekend.

As high gas prices force people to look for recreational alternatives close to home, the trail is likely to increase its popularity. I certainly will go back.

Antero Pietila is a Baltimore Examiner columnist. He can be reached at

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