Lake Roland is a playground for dogs and owners

JACQUES KELLY

November 09, 1992|By JACQUES KELLY

Lake Roland goes to the dogs every morning and afternoon.

Just after dawn and an hour before dusk, dog walkers converge on Robert E. Lee Park, the old Lake Roland reservoir just off Falls Road in Baltimore County.

Within minutes, Conan the Rottweiler is running with Hannibal the yellow Labrador. Aloysius is battling with Finnian. Steamer and Clipper, the resident Chesapeake Bay Retrievers, are in the chilly water. Winston, Christobel, Dylan, Mookie, Digger, Elvis, DD, Giant, Casey and Jake are circling around the hillsides of what many believe is the area's finest greenswards.

"The dogs think this is their back yard," said Susan Snyder, a Lutherville resident who is a daily visitor to the park. Her Chesapeake Bay Retrievers learned to swim in the old reservoir.

"We've become a very close knit group. It's a great way to socialize your pet. And the people enjoy each other's company too," said Barbara Katz of Mount Washington.

The lake, created by an old dam soon to be rebuilt with $7 million worth of city, county and state money, wraps around lushly forested hills. The fall color has been so spectacular Lake Roland has looked more like Vermont than part of suburban Baltimore.

Tulip poplar, beech, maples and oaks are the most predominant trees. The west side of the park has a circle of maples and oaks planted many years ago. The site has been used for weddings.

The dog walkers held their first party a few weeks ago in the pavilion overlooking the lake, a chance for the people to have more fun than their pets.

The park, which is owned by Baltimore City but located in the county, was once the watershed for an early water supply system. The city dammed Jones Falls to create a reservoir, which was also fed by Roland and Towson runs. Soon a large curving pond was formed and linked to the city via a Jones Falls Valley tunnel.

The 1861 system operated by gravity and water pressure. Steam pumps helped boost the water to fill three smaller reservoirs (in Hampden, Druid Hill Park, and at Mount Royal Terrace and North Avenue). These basins distributed water into residential neighborhoods.

Dogs were not permitted at Lake Roland when its waters were likely to become the next morning's coffee. "Swimming, bathing or washing in this lake [are] strictly prohibited. Washing of any clothes, the skin of any dead animal or any impure or noxious animal, or vegetable matter in this lake is strictly prohibited. The erection of any privy, hog pen, bleaching or dyeing establishment . . . is strictly prohibited," noted a Water Board sign hung on the side of dam's 1861 gate house.

After the municipal water system was in operation, some people remained skeptical, especially those who lived nearby and who knew the content of its tributary streams. "Towsontowners never drink any water when they visit the city," The Sun reported on April 14, 1877.

Despite that reluctance to imbibe, city people connected up to Baltimore County water in such numbers that Lake Roland couldn't meet the demand. By 1880 the city installed steam pumps at the Gunpowder to push additional water over the hills until it reached Roland Run.

"It was an ingenious, half-baked system. Baltimore was always pinching pennies," said county historian John McGrain, who has often written about the lake and the old mills that once lined its tributaries.

Baltimore ultimately discovered it had picked the wrong place for water supply. The Gunpowder proved the better source. Baltimoreans voted funds in 1874 for a seven-mile tunnel connecting the Gunpowder with Lake Montebello.

The first Loch Raven Dam was dedicated in 1881. By 1915 Lake Roland had ceased to feed the city's water supply lines. It became an expensive ornament, popular with ice skaters, boaters and fishermen.

In 1944 the city received an $80,000 bequest from Elizabeth Garrett White to memorialize Lake Roland in the name of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. A boat house, rest rooms, walks, lights and pavilions went up.

But because the former reservoir does not front on any major thoroughfare, most people have no idea the park exists. Only a handful of casual anglers, bikers, hikers and dog wakers use the park. In summer, people use its picnic tables. A volunteer group, the Robert E. Lee Conservancy, looks after its best interests.

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