Since last month’s Hampden Reservoir post, I have taken more delight in my commute as I pass by Roosevelt Park, going to and returning from work via the Falls Road exit of the JFX; I can almost see the half moon shape of the reservoir on my left as I climb the hill approaching 36th Street. The commute home every day also served as a reminder that I needed to finish the story of the waterworks. The Hampden Reservoir was actually one of of a chain of three bodies of water, beginning with Lake Roland, and ending at the Mount Royal reservoir, where fresh water entered the city. As I began this installment of the waterworks series, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that this second forgotten reservoir in the system is also an integral part of my daily routine. My commute literally bisects its old location.
After an ordinance was passed by the City Council in 1857 to provide additional water to Baltimore City, there were two options for sources: (1) to increase the amount of water taken from the Jones Falls by damming further upstream, or (2) to introduce water from the Gunpowder Falls. The engineering costs of bringing water from the Gunpowder were estimated to cost over $2.1 million, compared to around $1.3 million for construction of new works on the Jones Falls.* The Gunpowder was estimated to produce 65 million gallons of water during the dry season, while the latter was believed to provide around 20 million gallons per day. The Council chose the cheaper option.
Construction of the new waterworks from the Jones Falls began in 1858, eight miles north of the city, at a narrow point near the North Central Railroad Station. What was formerly called Swann Lake was dammed up to become what we now know as Lake Roland. A massive conduit was concurrently built connecting it to the Hampden Reservoir. Shortly thereafter a conduit was also excavated going south to the Mount Royal Reservoir just north of the city boundary. The waterworks were completed and fully operational by 1862.
The site of the Mount Royal Reservoir lay just west of the Northern Central Railroad tracks on the former site of the Mount Royal Mill property (previously the tract had been owned by Charles Carroll of Carrollton who sold it to Solomon Birckhead in 1801). The most notable feature of the reservoir was a large central fountain (see image below), similar to the one in present day Druid Lake, ornamenting the center of the reservoir with a stream of water bubbling high into the air. By 1863 just over half of the city’s 38,881 buildings received water that was delivered from the Mount Royal Reservoir.
Even before the waterworks was fully operational it was discovered that this new source was once again insufficient for the growing population of the city. On top of the population boom during these decades, the Civil War resulted in a large number of Federal troops being stationed in, passing through, or being cared for in Baltimore hospitals. In addition to increasing the demand, sick soldiers carried typhoid, dysentery, and other diseases which were spread as a result of poor sanitation and sewage from cesspools leaching into city springs and neighborhood wells. During hot and dry periods of the summer the system would run short of supply. The Water Department’s response to the shortage was to cut down on demand by raising the price of water. The increase in cost resulted in contractors not connecting their working class tenements to the city mains, which forced tenants to rely on the same backyard pumps that had been poisoning them in the first place. As usual, the city’s low lying poor were hit hardest. Sewage from cesspools leached into neighborhood wells and polluted the springs of the city, increasing the demand for clean water from the mains.
Less than a year after the completion of the waterworks, the City Council passed an ordinance authorizing a $300,000 loan to purchase the land nearby at Lake Chapman to begin building what was to become Druid Lake. Even Druid Lake did not alleviate the supply problem when it was completed in 1865. It took severe droughts from 1869 through 1872 to finally get the city to seriously consider the Gunpowder as a permanent water source. The original price difference of $2.1 to $1.3 million payed a direct cost in human life and well-being.
In 1910 the Mount Royal Reservoir was abandoned by the City Water Department and transferred to the Parks Department. In 1924 the City Park Board demolished the reservoir and removed 50,000 cubic feet of earth, turning the site into park land. At various times proposals to turn the site into a stadium, a swimming pool, and an art museum were discussed, but due to overwhelming dissent the project never got underway. The site remained park land until 1959, when it was bisected by the northbound entrance to the new JFX highway off of North Avenue. Today you can still see the monumental entrance posts to Druid Park via Mount Royal Terrace that stand at the base of the reservoir’s original location as you drive past on North Avenue. The keen observer can glimpse the remains of the reservoir’s embankments as they pass by on the light rail. (Eben Dennis)
To be continued…next post – Conduit: Druid Park Lake, the Gunpowder, and Baltimore Waterworks 1860s- 1880s.
*This does not include the cost of purchasing real estate, water rights, or distribution of water mains inside the city.
** This system was upgraded to a steam pump system around the time of the annexation in 1886.
McCauley, Louis. Maryland Historical Prints. Baltimore, Md: Schneidereith and Sons, 1975.
Scharf, J. Thomas. History of Baltimore City and County. Baltimore, MD: Regional Publishing Company, 1971.
Passano File, H. Furlong Baldwin Library, Maryland Historical Society.
O’Neill, Francis. Index of Obituaries and Marriages in the Baltimore Sun, vol. 1, 1866-1870. Westminster, MD, 1996.
Mount Royal Reservoir and Its Surroundings From the Air. Baltimore Municipal Journal. Feb, 10, 1922.
Howard, William Travis. Public Health Administration and the Natural History of Disease in Baltimore, 1797-1920. Washington, DC: Carnegie Institution, 1924.
Bromley Atlas of Baltimore City and Vicinity, 1907.
Hopkins Atlas of Baltimore, 1877.