Baltimore's Center for Urban Archaeology will launch an historical study of Federal Hill and may monitor the upcoming reconstruction work on the north slope of the park for clues to the landmark's early history.
"There are a lot of myths and stories" about the hill, said Louise E. Akerson, archaeological curator for the center, which is part of the City Life Museums.
"There are so many stories we don't know what's true and what's not. That's our task -- to try to sort out the truth from the untruth," she said.
The state and city governments are splitting the $1.5 million bill for installing a new drainage system under the sagging north face of the grassy hill, and then regrading the slope.
Gennady Schwartz, chief of capital development for the Department of Parks and Recreation, said the reconstruction work will be advertised shortly and work should begin in October.
"The slope is very unstable and all the old drainage system has probably collapsed," he said. The 12- to 18-month project will include installation of new drain pipes every 10 feet, and collector pipes to shunt the water into the storm sewer system.
The retaining wall will be rebuilt and the north face regraded and compacted to a uniform 2-to-1 slope, Schwartz said.
The archaeological work is required because the hill is on the National Register of Historic Places, he said.
Originally a natural clay hill, Federal Hill got its name when Baltimoreans threw an enormous party there on May 1, 1788, to celebrate the state's ratification of the U.S. Constitution.
It later served as the site of a shipping observatory, from which spotters used telescopes to watch approaching shipping. When an incoming ship was identified by its company flags, the observatory would raise a duplicate on the hill so that merchants would know whose ship was coming in.
During the Civil War, Federal Hill became a Union encampment, from which federal troops trained their guns on the city. It was meant as a warning to the city, which had Southern sympathies, not to join the rebellion. Had Maryland seceded, it would have left the Union government in Washington surrounded by enemy territory.
The city Board of Estimates this week approved nearly $5,000 to pay for a three-week archival survey of Federal Hill's history by the Center for Urban Archaeology. The work is to be done this month.
"It's unlikely we will be doing any digging," Akerson said.
"All we are going to be doing is archival work to identify and evaluate what potential archaeological resources might be up there. There is some possibility an archaeologist will monitor the construction. But we can't tell until we've done our homework," she said.
"One of the things we are concerned about is a structure [that stood] on the corner of Key Highway and Covington Street. We need to identify that," Akerson said.
Federal Hill was also mined for many years for its clay and sand content, an activity that has spawned many stories and legends about the presence of tunnels under the hill.
"There are some indications there were caves under the hill . . . related to the mining of sand and clay. There's a possibility there could be mining tools" on the site, she said.
By studying what historic documents exist pertaining to the area, she said, the researchers hope to be able to make some "educated recommendations" to the Maryland Historical Trust about how to proceed before and during the reconstruction of the hillside.
Schwartz said test pits and borings at the site on two previous occasions -- in 1978 during a search for the cause of the hill's instability, and in 1987 when the hill was sought as a site for a Vietnam memorial -- failed to turn up anything of archaeological interest.