Jones Falls winds its way under city Environmentalists get darkened glimpse of degraded city stream.

March 13, 1991|By Timothy B. Wheeler | Timothy B. Wheeler,Evening Sun Staff

Cars and trucks rumbled overhead on the Fallsway as the canoe floated in pitch-black darkness beneath the city.

The only other sound penetrating the muffled roar of traffic was the occasional plink of water dripping. A flashlight revealed the source -- moisture was seeping through cracks in the concrete ceiling of the flooded, box-like tunnel in which we sat. The light beam also caught a bag drifting by on the greenish,

musty-smelling water.

A flotilla of six canoes manned by environmentalists from the ZTC Chesapeake Bay Foundation paddled into the darkened mouth of the Jones Falls yesterday to get an inside look at perhaps the most degraded stretch of stream in Maryland.

To get there, first they had to cross a red plastic boom strung across the stream like a necklace. Behind it was a collection of foam cups, candy wrappers, snack bags and empty glass and plastic bottles that had been carried downstream.

"It's hard to imagine this was a pristine stream with trees," said Chuck Foster, an educator with the Annapolis-based environmental group.

It might have been a babbling brook more than 300 years ago, but today the lower Jones Falls is a modern-day Styx.

Out of sight and largely out of mind, it flows underground through a three-pronged concrete tunnel for about two miles beneath the Fallsway, past Union Station and the State Penitentiary, south to Lombard Street.

There it resurfaces and drifts 500 yards to the Inner Harbor. Confined by stone walls, it passes the shuttered Fish Market restaurant complex, the hulking Scarlett Place condominium tower and the parking lot on Pier 6.

It was not always so. Baltimore began on the banks of the Jones Falls, and for more than two centuries the stream was the heart of the city.

The Falls got its name from David Jones, who settled 380 acres on the eastern shore in 1661. That settlement, known as Jones Town, became Baltimore Town in 1745 when it was merged with the area west of the stream.

The Falls was the town's first major source of drinking water, according to a brief history by the Baltimore Public Works Museum. Boats could come as far north as Lexington Street, and the waters farther upstream by Hampden powered flour and textile mills and foundries.

But the Falls also was plagued by constant flooding and by pollution. Cesspools and old drains dumped raw sewage and industrial waste, fouling the waters and stirring a stench that drove people to leave the city for fresher air in the summertime.

H.L. Mencken once referred to the Falls as "that ancient and slandered stream."

Fed up with the flooding, city officials decided 80 years ago to enclose the lower Falls in a tunnel and build the Fallsway atop it. They celebrated the project's completion in 1914 by lunching inside the finished tube before it was flooded.

Later, in the late 1950s, the city buried still more of the Falls, extending the tunnel nearly to North Avenue.

"This was an incredible accomplishment," said Mike DiMisa, the bay foundation educator who organized the stream tour. "They just didn't know it was bad."

The tunnels cured the Falls of its flooding, but in the process deprived it of light and life.

North of Cold Spring Lane, the Jones Falls still can sustain fish, according to surveys done by Save Our Streams, a nonprofit group that trains and organizes citizens to protect waterways.

But the only life apparent at the mouth of the Falls yesterday was a startled-looking pigeon perched in the darkness inside one of the many openings in the tunnel walls through which storm water drains directly from the streets above.

"Rapid rainwater removal -- that was their goal, and they accomplished it" DiMisa said of the city's engineers. They built thousands of storm drains to funnel rainwater from city streets into streams like the Jones Falls.

"Unfortunately, they didn't have the knowledge we do today," DiMisa said.

Storm-water runoff is the major source of pollution for urban streams like the Jones Falls. Studies have found runoff from city streets is laced with organic matter, nitrogen and phosphorus -- the nutrients blamed for degrading the Chesapeake Bay. The runoff also contains such toxic contaminants as lead, copper and zinc.

Though industrial pollution of the Falls has been largely curbed, the threat still is real enough that city officials only allowed the bay foundation expedition to penetrate 200 yards into the tunnels. City officials feared the canoeists might be overcome by toxic fumes that could collect underground, DiMisa said.

The canoeists reported no bad air, though one did disembark because he didn't care for paddling into a darkened channel 17 feet wide with barely eight feet of clearance. The water in the channel was about 4 1/2 feet deep.

"It's kind of nice seeing this part of the city again," said Steve Bunker, who runs a marine trading company in nearby Fells Point. Bunker said he had ventured into the tunnels before on his own, and about 15 years ago had even suggested, to no avail, that the city disinter the stream.

Though tempted by a faint glimmer of light far up the tunnel, the canoes turned back yesterday and returned to the sunlight in the harbor.

Later in the afternoon, the bay foundation staff drove up the Fallsway to Horseshoe Falls, a man-made relic of an old gristmill near Druid Hill Park. There, they planted 35 pine and locust seedlings on a steep, litter-strewn bank in hopes the trees would soak up some of the nutrients spilling out of the storm drain there.

"You can't undo 80 years worth of infrastructure already in place," DiMisa concluded. "But maybe we can learn from this and plan alternatives."

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