Federal Hill Park, a Union outpost during the Civil War, is now the site of another battle -- this time between man and nature. So far, nature has the upper hand.
In 1995, $1.4 million was spent stabilizing Federal Hill, part of a face-lift of the landmark. A year later, engineers were back at work in the park, trying to figure out why a 90-foot fissure had opened on the slope overlooking the Inner Harbor.
The Department of Recreation and Parks originally blamed water for the erosion. But a more recent problem -- a gaping hole in the dirt under one of the pathways that circle the hill -- has led officials to conclude that poor soil conditions are to blame.
The current slippage is bordered with red fencing visible from Key Highway, which separates the Inner Harbor from the hill.
"The erosion is absolutely worse now than it's ever been," said Peggy Stansbury, a past president of the Federal Hill Garden Club. "It's an important landmark and I think it's very important we restore the hill to its original beauty."
The city Department of Public Works, which has been in charge of the project since December, said repairs should begin next spring.
Until then, the department will look for ways to cover the cost with a combination of local funds and state or federal money.
George G. Balog, the public works director, said the department first will try to restore the hillside by removing the poor-quality topsoil down to the clay base, which then will be cut to hold new topsoil. City officials estimate that will cost $500,000.
If that doesn't work, Balog said, workers will place plastic mats on the soil and let the grass grow through, at a cost of $1 million.
Balog said the eroding areas were not present before the stabilization work was done on the steep north slope. But some residents believe nature is to blame.
"I think this is something that has been a long-lasting problem," said Dick Leitch, a past president of the Federal Hill Neighborhood Association. "There's just something wrong with the geology of that section of the hill."
In 1608, Capt. John Smith, the English explorer, identified Federal Hill as "a great bank of red clay." For more than 200 years, the hill has been a gathering place for Baltimoreans who celebrated Maryland's ratification of the U.S. Constitution there in 1788.
The hill is honeycombed with tunnels that have been there since at least 1799 and are believed to have been mined by glass manufacturers and brick-makers. The erosion is not thought to be connected to the tunnels.
Whatever the cause, the erosion has been going on so long that a few residents aren't sure it can be stopped.
"A lot of smart people thought they had a solution [before], and that didn't work," said Leitch.
Pub Date: 7/08/97