The first aquarium

Baltimore Glimpses

January 22, 1991|By GILBERT SANDLER

LAST MONTH, Baltimore's National Aquarium was much in the news. It was celebrating the opening of its new Marine Mammal Pavilion.

In June of 1938 another Baltimore's aquarium was much in the news; it, too, was celebrating an opening, this one a grand opening -- of the whole place. It was a different Baltimore Aquarium, of course, and it wasn't next to the Inner Harbor.

Baltimore's first fish emporium was located in Druid Hill Park, not far from the Park Circle entrance, in what was then called the Pump House. Today, this same building sits beside a softball diamond, which occupies an area that was once a reservoir and which was leveled in 1950. The structure still stands, housing reptiles and amphibians.

At 3:30 p.m. June 1, 1938, Mayor Howard W. Jackson made a few welcoming remarks to a small group of well-wishers gathered on the lawn. He thanked the citizens and elected public officials present who had worked so hard to make it possible. Among them were David E. Weglein, Baltimore's superintendent of schools for a quarter of a century; Johns Hopkins official Howard Kelly, and J. Hammond Brown, aquarium curator. Jackson then invited everyone inside to tour Baltimore's first aquarium.

What they saw were tanks containing a complete lineup of Maryland food and game fish: trout, crappie, sunfish, perch, bass, pike, pickerel, carp, suckers, eels.

Included in the collection, too, were puffers, glass cats, head and tail lights, reeds, Chinese walking fish, neons, butterflies and piranhas.

The old aquarium was in its day the park's and city's pride. It was open seven days a week, and thousands of people passed through. The Baltimore Transit Company even ran Sunday excursions in response to the community's interest.

Unfortunately, Baltimore's first aquarium became a casualty of World War II. One of the volunteers, Fred Saffran, explained, "Our biologist was called into service and park laborers took over. Within a month the alligators and terrapins were all that was living."

The aquarium closed in 1943.

By today's standards, that first aquarium in Druid Hill Park seems so small, so modest an undertaking. It was all of 4,500 square feet; the newly expanded National Aquarium is 209,000.

And it all seemed to function so quietly.

No spectacular beluga whales. No performing bottlenosed dolphins. And no animal rights protests to enliven your visit.

But you did get an absolutely charming streetcar ride to the Park Circle entrance of Druid Hill Park.

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