Decades before the badly polluted Cuyahoga River in Cleveland became a national laughingstock by catching fire in 1969, Baltimore's humble Jones Falls made its own environmental bad news. It blew up.
The incident, 65 years ago this June, started fires, shattered windows and injured at least one man. It was only the most spectacular in a series of little ecological tragedies that have degraded the stream, which teemed with life when David Jones first settled along its banks in 1661.
It was early afternoon on June 8, 1926, when something -- a spark perhaps, or a lit cigarette -- touched off petroleum fumes in the underground conduits built in 1914 to contain the stream, which had become a stinking open sewer. In a series of explosions, manhole covers were blown into the air all along the Fallsway from Baltimore Street north to Madison Avenue. The blast shattered nearby windows, and one man was cut by flying glass.
A sheet of flame 40 feet high in places spread along the open portion of the river from Baltimore Street to Pratt Street, setting fire to the roof of the Folly burlesque theater, the wooden understructure of the Lombard Street Bridge, and the abutments of the Pratt Street Bridge. Heavy smoke filled downtown streets. City firefighters battled the six-alarm river fire with chemicals, fireboats and by flushing water through the conduits.
In the investigation that followed, fire and sewer officials determined that grease, oil and gasoline were being dumped regularly into the river. Two garage owners and two employees were arrested. But that didn't end the threat. The city had a series of scares in the ensuing years. When grease and oil built up in the stream, police would be stationed nearby to warn
people not to toss their cigarettes into the river. It was a sad footnote in the history of the lower Jones Falls, which once held so much life that dolphins were drawn there to feed. But the stream had always been a mixed blessing at best to those who lived or worked beside it.
During the city's earliest years, the Jones Falls was navigable as far north as the horseshoe bend that once curved west from what is now the Fallsway to the foot of the high bluff at Calvert and Lexington streets. The bluff then was 40 feet higher than it is now, and crowned by the original Baltimore courthouse that stood where the Battle Monument now stands. The boats would tie up below the powder house, close to the courthouse. The water there was a good place to swim and catch crabs, and deep enough to drown a man -- which it did at least once.
Enclosed in the horseshoe was Steiger's Meadow, east of what is now Mercy Hospital. Steiger was a butcher who bought the wooded marsh in 1759. At the time, it was a haven for mosquitoes and frogs, but Steiger cleared and drained it for pasture for his cattle. Farther south, east of Holliday Street and including land where the city police headquarters building and the Community College of Baltimore's Harbor Campus now stand, was Harrison's Swamp, home to more mosquitoes, woodcock and snipe.
But the Jones Falls and its swamps divided young Baltimore on the west from Jones Town, east of the stream. So in 1776, the state assembly ordered Harrison's Swamp filled. In 1789,
Englehart Yeiser dug a canal east of Steiger's Meadow, cutting off the river's old course around the horseshoe bend, which gradually filled in.
Draining the swamps did nothing to end the stream's disastrous habit of flooding. A 1786 flood killed several residents and destroyed or damaged many houses, stores and bridges. In 1837, the Jones Falls rose 20 feet above its banks, flooding some homes to the second story. Nineteen people, 40 horses and 60 cows died, and all but one bridge were destroyed. Farther upstream, most of the mill dams were washed away. Fifty people died in an 1868 flood that followed a 7-inch, one-day rainfall. Two thousand cellars were filled to the ceiling.
The city's growth turned the Jones Falls into another kind of killer. Raw sewage flowed freely into the stream, and by the mid-19th century Baltimore had the highest typhoid rate of any big city in the nation. Even as late as 1947, city health officials warned residents against swimming or wading in the stream and routinely administered typhoid vaccinations to anyone who fell in.
Pollution and dry spells also ended the Jones Falls' value as a source of drinking water by the end of the Civil War. Recommendations beginning in the 1830s that the Gunpowder River be tapped as a safer, more abundant water source were ignored too long.