Reminders of Baltimore's underground waterways

July 31, 2004|By JACQUES KELLY

AN OLD publication once called Baltimore the Liverpool of America, a reference to our harbor, shipping and industry. There are times, however, when I prefer to compare our city to Venice, because of all the water underfoot. I'm serious.

This summer, we've seen an apparently sound chunk of Cathedral Street collapse. Another urban sink hole, suspiciously close to the Walters Art Museum. Some 35 years ago, when construction crews labored and labored to build its back addition (at the time, I thought the pyramids went up faster), the blame for the delays went to Baltimore's ever gurgling, but unseen, underground streams that so tormented the foundation builders.

It was only three years ago that a CSX train caught on fire in the Howard Street Tunnel, that marvelous subterranean cavern that often floods out near Lombard Street because of its proximity to the harbor, which at one time extended beyond its present, much-tinkered-with boundaries.

I guess I've been fascinated by Baltimore's occasionally maddening geography since I was a child and had the temerity to complain to my elders that we lived in a hot and overly asphalted neighborhood without the benefit of the gurgling streams that my O'Hare cousins had on seemingly bucolic Weatherbee Road south of Towson. (A destination that required taking the McMahon suburban bus seemed wildly exotic to a city child.)

To this, my grandmother and her sister, Great Aunt Cora, had a few things to say. They reminded me that there were indeed streams all around me - they just couldn't be seen. They spoke, as they reminded me, from experience.

When they left Broadway and moved to their Guilford Avenue home in 1915, the urban world stopped, they assured me, at 31st Street. Beyond this line were streams, woodlands and the occasional chicken. Now, in 1955, when I was being lectured, 31st Street was nothing but cement sidewalks, rowhouses, garages. Even the streetcar rails had disappeared.

The two sisters had a pit bull named Bill (he had his own embroidered sleeping pillow and a custom leather collar with an engraved sterling silver name plate) who liked to chase wildlife in the neighborhood of today's 33rd Street. He also liked to go after frogs in the streams that were later channeled into buried pipes. I was told the streams were all in big pipes reached by iron manhole covers.

But increasingly, the streams come back to remind us that Baltimore is one watery city. Streets fall in; summertime construction crews labor over waterways known as Moore's Run in Northeast Baltimore and the depressingly named Dead Run in West Baltimore. There are hidden canals and waterways everywhere. And this wet summer, they are overflowing, much to the delight of our mosquito population.

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