A classroom in the wild Pristine oasis: Baltimore County is preserving a 500-acre wilderness between two creeks running into the Chesapeake in hopes it will become a living textbook for area youngsters.

March 24, 1996|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,SUN STAFF

Beginning more than a century ago, a handful of America's elite, including President Benjamin Harrison and Babe Ruth, frolicked with shotguns and champagne along two bountiful tributaries of the Chesapeake Bay -- Dundee and Saltpeter creeks.

Today, this still-pristine site in eastern Baltimore County is being dedicated to a far more serious undertaking -- teaching children to preserve nature's beauty and delicate balance.

As part of the Eastside revitalization, the county plans a 500-acre park, including a state-of-the-art nature learning center, 50-foot observation tower, canoe docks, a model organic farm and seven miles of trails.

And if educators, parks leaders and community residents have their way, students countywide will study bald eagles, bass, insects, heron, ducks, wild celery, gum trees -- and how each relates to the nearby rivers and bay.

"This is one of the county's best-kept secrets," says Richard Fox, principal at Oliver Beach Elementary School. "I'm moving toward the park being in my school's curriculum, it's that promising."

"Coming back here, it's like you step into a different world," adds Mike Jones, who worked eight years as a leader in Bengies-Chase to have the area designated a nature park. "It is our identity."

County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III, who is pushing to revive the Eastside, is only the latest in a succession of officials to see the importance of preserving Dundee-Saltpeter, once an exclusive hunting club for the rich and powerful, known as Marshy Point.

The land and surrounding waters abounded with game, fish and fowl. According to a diary kept by the family of Carroll Brown, an 1855 entry noted 233 ducks killed at Marshy Point in nine days -- an era when there was no bag limit on wildfowl.

In 1894, President Harrison shivered in one of the creek's duck blinds while bagging his share of fowl. Baseball legend Babe Ruth, after retiring in 1935, hunted and cavorted along the shores of the creeks. Guests stayed either at the Marshy Point Hunting Club or a hotel near where the Bengies Drive-In now stands on Eastern Boulevard, and took a horse and buggy to the hunting ground.

"There was a large clubhouse here, burned down when I was a boy," says Harry Weiskittel III, whose family sold 240 acres to the county for the park. He still lives on a protected 100-acre tract with his family, and operates a florist business.

Mr. Weiskittel has a hunting log that dates to 1850. "They talk about how many cases of champagne were brought down, who had too much to drink," he says.

A notation from 1874 notes: "The reputation for hospitality at Marshy Point is not what it was. No scotch whiskey for lunch."

The family, known for its pipe foundry and stove factory in Baltimore, also raised championship Chesapeake Bay retrievers, several of whom are buried in the woods near the water. The epitaph for one, Sammy Green, reads: "Born a dog, died a gentleman."

Donald P. Hutchinson, county executive from 1978 to 1986, says he toured the woods, marshy areas and water in 1979, when developers were casting covetous eyes at the land. He came away impressed.

"I grew up in Essex and never knew this wonderful place existed," says Mr. Hutchinson, now president of the Greater Baltimore Committee. "We captured the land with state and county funds because we feared the wetlands would be developed. It was not my plan to develop it, only preserve it."

Fifth District Councilman Vincent J. Gardina says the idea to develop Dundee-Saltpeter into a nature park followed the success of Oregon Ridge Park in Hunt Valley.

Former County Executive Roger B. Hayden, he says, "put the plan to develop the area on the back burner. Dutch brought it back, gave it the grease. Our goal is to start construction by next July."

This month, the County Council approved a $555,000 contract ** with RTKL Associates Inc. to prepare architectural drawings for the nature center.

Before the $3.5 million park is completed -- estimates have phase one finished in less than two years -- officials must satisfy no less than 10 federal, state and county regulatory agencies. There is ,, little concern, however, that the environment-sensitive project will be blocked.

"The park is better than houses or apartments," says Andrew Zielinski, 75, whose family sold 120 acres to the county in the early 1980s and like Mr. Weiskittel, will remain on a protected section of the park.

"I've been here since 1930 and we used to tell what time it was by the arrival of the trains when we were in the fields," he says, adding, "I hope they don't throw trash. We still live here."

In addition to the working farm at the park, a barn will be constructed on the northeast side for fresh produce to be sold.

Robert W. Stanhope, chief naturalist for the county Department of Recreation and Parks, hopes Dundee-Saltpeter will be as successful as the 1,000-acre park at Oregon Ridge, where schoolchildren from Maryland and Pennsylvania study the environment.

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