Trouble In Paradise

November 01, 1992|By Bruce Reid

Walk to the edge of Black Marsh near the southeastern Baltimore County village of Edgemere, in the shadow of Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s smoke-belching Sparrows Point plant.

As you break through the forest of sweet gums, oaks and poplars that surrounds the marsh, see the baseball-size blooms of the brilliant white mallows. See the tree swallows coursing over the chest-high grasses. See the osprey rising from the water, grasping its first fish of the day with its powerful talons.

Early on this clear, cool morning, ask Steve Takos what he likes about Black Marsh.

As he cautions visitors to watch their footing on the narrow wooden planks that take them across the black mud for which the marsh is named, he gives a simple answer.

"Just the beautiful things that happen in marshes," he says, surveying the landscape he calls his second home. "Every day, you see something different about this marsh."

Mr. Takos, 69, is retired and lives about two miles from the marsh, which hugs the shoreline in North Point State Park, part of the Gunpowder Falls State Park system. Since he was a boy of 14, he has come here -- trapping minnows for bait shops, crabbing, hunting and just enjoying the marsh's serenity. When he was working in a high-pressure job as a hospital administrator, Mr. Takos would be drawn to the marsh at the end of a long workday.

"When I would leave the office, I'd start taking my tie off when I got to Eastpoint," says Mr. Takos. "I'd always have a fishing pole in the car. . . . I have a real close kinship with this place."

Since 1987, the 1,310-acre tract that includes the marsh and surrounding land has belonged to all Marylanders.

The state bought it from Bethlehem Steel for more than $5 million. The deal represented one of the largest purchases made through the state's Program Open Space, a land-preservation and park-development fund.

A little more than half of the tract -- about 660 acres -- is covered by the marsh and its adjoining woodlands. Open to bird-watchers and others on foot since 1989, it has remained relatively undisturbed since its purchase. The state designated it a "wildland," meaning motorized vehicles are prohibited and no additional buildings and roads can be constructed on the property. In the "wildland," hunting and trapping are no longer allowed; Mr. Takos, now a park volunteer, used to act as a hunting guide there for Bethlehem Steel executives. The trappers caught muskrats and hunters took waterfowl.

Much of the rest of the tract, about 650 acres of uplands adjoining the marsh, has been farmed for more than 300 years. During the War of 1812, thousands of British soldiers marched through the property en route to their unsuccessful assault on the city of Baltimore. Earlier, the land had been occupied by Indians for at least 8,000 years. But many Baltimoreans remember this portion of North Point State Park for scenes from the more recent past.

From 1906 to 1947, on summer days, thousands of people rode the "Red Rocket," a trolley that began its run at Howard and Fayette streets in the city, through the property to the Bay Shore amusement park at the Chesapeake's edge.

A May 27, 1922, advertisement in The Sun, trumpeting the opening of Bay Shore's summer season, described the old park with as much hyperbole as the copy writer could muster:

"Beautiful white temples of recreation, set in the green frame of friendly trees; cooled by the vagrant north winds; courted by the great Chesapeake which, better to win your heart, puts on the white plumage of breaking surf -- Bay Shore, the heart of Baltimore's heart; renewer of youth -- the promise of summer."

The full-page ad also touted a new beach and a boardwalk from the bathhouse to a pier ("so ladies with pumps will not have to walk through the sand . . . "); dinners for $1.50; a music pavilion and dance hall; and amusements and water rides with evocative names such as "people dipper" and "sea swing."

In his early teens, Mr. Takos was a pinsetter at Bay Shore's bowling alley. He earned 5 cents a game. Today, he's among those who'd like to see Bay Shore restored to some of its former glory.

"It was more than just an amusement park," says Mr. Takos. "It had beautiful architecture."

The dilapidated structures of the historic amusement park, the wildlife-rich marsh and the open fields and woodlands of the adjoining uplands make the Black Marsh site ripe with potential.

The question is, what kind of park should it be?

To Department of Natural Resources planners and a citizen advisory committee appointed by the agency, it is a place that offers tremendous potential as a relatively conventional state park. Their plan calls for a paved parking lot, boat tie-ups, a wading beach and buildings for environmental education.

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