Water for sale

James M. Merritt

September 11, 1990|By James M. Merritt

AS A CHILD of row house and cobblestoned Baltimore, I lived within easy walking distance of one of the nation's great municipal parks, Druid Hill. When I was about 10, the 17-year locusts emerged, and I can still hear the roar of their love song sweeping across Druid Lake and rebounding off the high-rise apartments along Lake Drive.

When as a youngster I went to the park in summer, I would be hurrying to play tennis on the courts adjoining the big glass conservatory or hastening with my teammates to a diamond for a game with a team from Woodberry or Hampden. In the fall the football field just north of the lake would be our objective and, in winter, we would be bound for the boat lake to see if it had been declared safe for ice skating.

Each time we penetrated the park's remote valleys on our bicycles, it was to determine who could pedal up the steep hairpin turns of "Mountain Pass" without rising from the saddle. Every auto salesman in town brought his prospects to this hill to show off his car's climbing ability.

Then, as a teen-ager, I went to the park daily on business. By that time I owned the last "water route" in Baltimore, which meant that I served pure, clear water from one of Druid Hill's several natural springs to my customers in what are now Reservoir Hill and Bolton Hill.

My wagon, partitioned to transport 48 gallons, was 10 feet long, riding on sturdy carriage wheels and pulled by two of us. Our price was 10 cents a gallon delivered.

Coming along Callow Avenue, we would often see Lou Clarke and Ben Lyon, residents of the 2400 block, jogging toward the park. Clarke was the national collegiate 100-yard -- champion and half of the famous Hopkins two-man track team that competed in all the big meets. Lyon aspired to be a movie star and succeeded admirably well in Hollywood and, later, in England where he and his wife, Bebe Daniels, became the king and queen of the British cinema.

Then when we passed a home in the 2100 block, we would usually hear the lovely soprano voice of Mabel Garrison, Baltimore's gift to the Metropolitan Opera, trilling the scales.

Turning east on Lennox Street to the 700 block, if we were lucky on the days the Yankees were here for an exhibition game, we would see Babe Ruth playing catch with the Steinman boys, Johnny and Louie, in the alley alongside their house. Next door lived affable Paul Wolman, assistant state's attorney for Baltimore and national president of the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

Turning up Park Avenue to the 2000 block, we had a distinguished customer at the corner of Newington, Judge John C. Rose of the U.S. District Court, a leading light of the federal bench. A few doors south lived his good friend and fellow mathematician, Frank Morley, professor of mathematics at Hopkins.

Twice a week we served our customers who lived below North Avenue in the Bolton Hill area. A portion of this "lower route" once belonged to Alger Hiss. It was anchored on the Marlborough Apartments at Eutaw Place and Wilson Street, home of the famous Cone sisters, and the residences of the well-known doctors and merchant princes along Eutaw Place.

We were sure of cheerful greetings from all of these native and nationally known celebrities because they saw us as the fading symbols of a traditional neighborhood industry. But as city water became more palatable, our patrons began to give termination notices, and their number soon dwindled to an unprofitable few.

We would have had to quit anyway, because the Druid Hill Park springs were being sealed off one by one. The improvement in the quality of the city water was due to the diligence of men who were simultaneously allowing the wonderful natural springs of the park to become polluted.

But perhaps they are not to be blamed. Environmentalism was an embryonic science in those days. Most people never heard of it and could not spell it if they had. And trying to pronounce it with an old-time Baltimore accent, well . . .

James M. Merritt writes from Baltimore.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.