Pipes, plumbing give tourists an odd trip Works museum: It's a pint-sized Disney World for those curious about the subterranean city, for 'pipe people.'

January 05, 1996|By Rob Hiaasen | Rob Hiaasen,SUN STAFF

Headlines squealed: SHUTDOWN REROUTES TOURISTS TO TOWN. With many attractions closed in Washington because of the partial federal shutdown, tourists flock to Baltimore.

At the Inner Harbor, flockage can be found at the National Aquarium and Maryland Science Center. The new kid on the museum block, the American Visionary Arts Museum, has good company, too. But what's this? A sign off President Street reads: HOLIDAY OPEN HOUSE. The words on the building say, SEWAGE PUMPING PLANT. Open House. Sewage Plant. Now that could be an odd alternative to the Smithsonian's spaceship supply.

The Open House -- now closed -- was at the Baltimore Public Works Museum, a pint-sized Disney World for subterranean souls, lovers of the underground, indoor-plumbing fanatics, pipe people. People mysteriously drawn to the word "sludge."

The museum inside the big Sewage Pumping Plant is the first of its kind in the country. It opened in 1982, was just renovated, and even has a souvenir shop.

Approaching it from East Falls Avenue, a whiff of sewage is noted. Disney would have manufactured the scent, but the Public Works Museum believes in authenticity.

"Before Indoor Plumbing" and "The Rotten Truth" and "Down the Drain" are the featured exhibits. Inside, the museum is quiet; churches make more noise. A plaque on the wall introduces visitors to a Dr. Abel Wolman, "Friend of the Thirsty." The man was a world-renowned sanitary engineer from Baltimore who helped develop water chlorination. Many have given to the hungry, but few have earned the right to be called "Friend of the Thirsty."

"Hi!" says Barbara Quirk, taking the $2.50 admission. "You're just in time for the slide show!"

Well, could we look around first? What time would the next show be?

"Any time you want."

The mini-theater has actual theater-goers: a mom, a dad and two small boys. The boys slither down, then off their chairs, as the show's narrator says the Jones Falls once served as Baltimore's plumbing system. Those were the good ol' days of yellow fever and cholera and outdoor privies draining into the streets "and other refuse consumed by roving dogs and pigs," says the narrator. Consumed by roving dogs and pigs. The image does cling to the mind.

Moving on, the museum also features many, many pipes. Wooden water pipes from 1804. Clay sewer pipes. Pictures of small, tough men inside big pipes. You want viaducts, they got stuff on viaducts.

There are pictures of poor women and children hauling water six, seven times a day. The oldest artifact is a wooden water drain from 1790, unearthed years later at Pratt and Calvert.

"We don't have all the facts about the drain at this time. Researchers and scholars continue their detective-like work in putting together the story," the exhibit reads.

The theater-goers, Artie Chen and his family, rove the rest of the museum.

"We read about the museum many, many times in brochures," says Mr. Chen, visiting from New Jersey. "It's one of the things you always wanted to do. Now you have the opportunity." Wait a second, fella. What's your profession?

"Chemical engineer."

'Before Indoor Plumbing'

Mr. Chen ducks into the restroom to use the modern plumbing, while his son playfully flips the lid to a privy at the "Before Indoor Plumbing" exhibit. It's a father-son scene you won't see anywhere else. He then reads about an upcoming exhibit, "It's a Grate Life."

"Mommy, look! Legos!" their son says. In the middle of the museum is a large display encasing a Lego City -- Lego planes and boats and buildings, etc. Researchers and scholars have yet to determine the historic link between Legos and Public Works, but Lego City is a museum draw. Go with it.

"My son loves the Lego display," says Elizabeth Morris of Laurel. She and her husband wanted to take advantage of the few days off they have. They did the Aquarium and Science Center, and logically, the next stop is the Public Works Museum.

"It was my wife's idea," says husband Fred Morris. "Sewers are not something you think of. But the 'Friend of the Thirsty' wants us to be aware."

Kids want to know

Have your fun, but kids always want to know what happens when you flush a toilet, Mrs. Morris says. "Did you show Eliot this old toilet?" she asks her husband. Eliot, however, is not leaving Lego City.

"Would you like to use a toilet like that?" he asks his son, in another special father-son moment.

"No," Eliot says.

After rigorous questioning, Elizabeth Morris confesses. The family's primary destination was not the Public Works Museum, but Lexington Market. "And it's too cold for Fort McHenry."

Back at the front desk, Barbara Quirk waits for someone to come in. She's worked here for more than a year and says the museum is not really a hard sell. Really. People mainly walk by and wonder what is this? and is it open?

The odor is from a nearby pumping station, "and today is a good day," she says. And on a good day, maybe 20 people come to the museum, not counting the school groups. "It's a mad rush today."

A man rushes in -- and asks to use the restroom. Barbara directs him toward the modern plumbing.

"As soon as you get back," she says, "we'll start the slide show."

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