Late June, 1608. John Smith and his crew of discoverers have sailed:

“Thirty leagues more northwards not finding any inhabitants. … We passed many small shallow creeks , but the first we found navigable for a ship, we called Bolus, for that the clay in many places under the cliffs … which made us think of bole armeniac.”

(Bole clays are reddish, easily pulverized and were used in cosmetics. The clays were found in Armenia, a kingdom in southwest Asia in what is now known as Azerbaijan.)

Smith was probably in the Patapsco River, looking at Baltimore’s Federal Hill. Before long, these clays would be burned to produce brick, and tunneled to mine adjacent sand deposits, works that underlie the hill today.

Soon, more ships and people would be drawn to this river — and its resources — beginning a legacy of industrial power interwoven with a lingering environmental curse.

The Indian name “Patapsco” does not appear on colonial documents until about 44 years later. Author-historian Robert Keith says it is from “pota-psk-ut” a reference in an Algonkian dialect to the jutting “white rocks” near the river’s conjunction with the Bay, and also the Patapsco tributary, Rock Creek.

Smith’s chronicler, Walter Russell, and two colleagues describe another part of the shoreline: “… the rest of the earth on both sides being hard, sandy gravel.”

We think this was limonite ore, a concrete-like agglomeration of sand and gravels bound by dense, brown oxides, precipitated as dissolved iron salts percolated through groundwater. This was relatively rich ore — even Smith recognized its potential for smelting. Nineteenth century maps of the Baltimore region show a broad belt running southwest to northeast labeled “iron ore region.” Iron from coastal deposits like this and from bogs elsewhere on the East Coast started America’s iron industry.

John Smith would probably gasp with wonder if he were to see Bethlehem Steel’s vast facility at Sparrows Point, even more so if he had seen it during its heyday in the 1940s and ’50s, when it was one of industrial America’s power houses. Steel came out by the thousands of tons during World War II, supporting U.S. forces to victory and later feeding U.S. appetites during the post-war boom years.

Smith was correct about the Patapsco being “navigable for a ship.” The natural channel of the Patapsco was swept clear by two to four fathoms of water [12–24 feet]. Seagoing ships would later load tobacco at Elkridge Landing, far upstream. The average 17th century merchant ship might draw 12 feet, and carry 100 English tons of cargo. The Susan Constant, in which he’d arrived the previous year, probably displaced 275 tons and drew a bit less. Today’s ships can displace more than 100,000 tons.

Piers were extended from the shoreline, sometimes a thousand feet, to enable cargo to be loaded and unloaded directly. In the surrounding countryside, forests were stripped for shipbuilding and firewood for home and factory as far out of town as the carter’s wagons could travel. There was brick to burn and ore to smelt. As long as its fertility held, land was put to the plow for tobacco, and later for food crops.

The resulting erosion of soils into the Patapsco River and Jones Falls was rampant. [See Past is Prologue, Bay Journal, April 1998.] Sediment accumulated behind the Patapsco’s Illchester Dam. Flushed downstream, this sediment rapidly settled out on the harbor bottom.

The Inner Harbor was another matter. The city grew and rapid rainfall runoff was welcomed to rid the streets of mud, debris and sewage. The Chesapeake Bay was considered big enough to dilute the wastes being discharged into its waters.

By the 1780s, machines were dredging the accumulated sediments. A penny — and soon after, 2 cents — per ton levy was added to support this channel maintenance work which continues in gargantuan terms to the present.

Meanwhile, arriving ships simply discharged ballast, rock, soil and dunnage directly overboard before taking on new cargo, a practice that created hazardous ballast piles at some landings. Angered by the ballast problem, shippers lobbied the Maryland Assembly, and in 1791, a law was enacted that prohibited overboard discharge.

Throughout the remaining “age of sail,” which stretched over the next 160-170 years, with good pilotage up the Chesapeake Bay, great, blue-water square riggers came to Baltimore: clipper ships from the Orient, passenger packets from Europe, and nitrate ships bringing fertilizer — in the form of bird guano — from the west coast of South America.

Baltimore’s first steamer, the Chesapeake, was built in 1813. A novelty at first, steam inexorably replaced sail throughout the 19th century. Shipping and passenger transport could, for the first time, be scheduled with substantial certainty. And steel, as a shipbuilding material locally available from the mills at Sparrows Point, slowly replaced wood and gave Baltimore yet another booming industry.

Meanwhile, ships of iron and steel found it convenient to ballast using water in confining tanks. Trimming a vessel for sea or an unbalanced cargo became a matter of running pumps and was no longer exhausting and labor intensive.

As ships became faster and transoceanic passages fell from several months to several days, the downside of water ballasting came into sharp focus. Short voyages permitted marine organisms pumped in with the water of foreign ports to be discharged alive in U.S. waters. Literally hundreds of species have arrived this way.

The Chesapeake, alternately salty and fresh, and with broiling hot summer and freezing winter extremes, is not a hospitable environment for many of these unwelcome organisms. But ballast water introduction is a virtual daily Russian roulette and the gamble for survival is often won by non-native plants and animals, which can become ecological nuisances — or disasters — for the Chesapeake.

Exotic species weren’t the only new arrivals. Ships, seamen and industrial enterprises have come to Baltimore Harbor for almost four centuries. Although many sailed outbound with cargo, others chose to stay. The ethnic mix of the Baltimore region reflects people whose ancestors arrived by sea, slave and free, lord or laborer, to live and work here. This growth would turn the rural port into one of the nation’s largest industrial cities, from 170,000 in 1850 to half a million people in 1879. The Bay, throughout her vast basin, has paid a tremendous price this growth, though.

The population soon overwhelmed the streets’ and harbor’s capacity to handle sewage runoff. Etchings, as late as 1915, show stepping stones that enabled pedestrians to cross downtown streets without wading in the effluvia.

Dr. Thomas Buckler claimed Baltimore Harbor in the 19th century to be “among the great stenches of the world” and recommended that the gases be collected for use in Congress.

In 1910, Abel Wolman (dean of Bay scientists well into his 90s) said that travelers on steamers from Tolchester on the Eastern Shore could smell putrid Baltimore harbor five miles distant, and knew that they were near home!

During the 1920s, Reginald Van Trump Truitt, then a professor at the University of Maryland and later founder and director of the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, was the first to recognize that the Bay’s capacity for waste was being exceeded. He said decades later that one could see its effects on life in the otherwise robust Chesapeake as you traveled past Baltimore on a north-south course.

Then there’s Baltimore Harbor — not the Inner Harbor, spruced up and people-friendly — but industrial Baltimore Harbor, and its tributary arms near Dundalk — the Patapsco and Curtis Creek. The undeparted relics of past industrial enterprise are amazing: huge facilities abandoned as their machinery stopped, immense loading and offloading machines looking for all the world like “Star Wars” weapons frozen in time.

Stealing along in a small skiff, one can still see front-end loaders come up near the water to deposit stuff, or watch clouds of unloaded gypsum trail a mile downwind. Hundreds of containers and lunchwagon-size bags from chips and cookies accumulate on a lee shore, released by careless eaters.

Some of these sites, like Fells Point, also have serious pollution histories. [See Past is Prologue, Bay Journal, 1997.] Some of these date to the early 19th century, decades before modern cleanup standards. Other sites are known through ex-employees’ or neighbors’ tales of midnight dumping. One hopes that like the former Allied Chemical site, Baltimore Harbor’s many pollution-compromised places will eventually be stabilized and the waterfront of this great water body will return to healthy public access.

And then, there are the ships …

During World War I, specifically in 1917–18, Baltimore experienced a final frenzy of wooden shipbuilding. Literally hundreds of thousand-ton vessels were built, rapidly, inadequately and of unseasoned lumber. They never served their intended purpose of helping to provision Europe during the war. Many of these 200 ships were burned at Mallows Bay on the Potomac for their metal scrap. That site — possibly the world’s largest concentration of shipwrecks — is under consideration as a Maryland State Park, and is the subject of fascinating research by marine historian Don Shomette.

A number of these ships, described by Robert Keith as a wartime “river of wood” flowing into Baltimore shipyards, were bought by the Davison Chemical Company immediately after the First World War to transport pyrite (a sulfur-rich compound with iron) from Cuba. Davison and Mathieson produced a lion’s share of the world’s industrial sulfuric acid. (The site today is an industrially active, landscaped subsidiary of W.R. Grace.)

These old ships, many of which remain, are the repositories for memories and stories of harbor history. You can see a surprising number of them along the Patapsco. Forming a mile-long phalanx against eroding northerly gales between Sledds and Leading Points, a score of great wooden ships lie sunken head to tail. Some are in the shallows, with sand and gravel accumulating in their ruined hulls. This permits some to host a disguising growth of shrubbery and small trees. From a great dike of deposited rubble lying inland, you can view the line of ships stretching off eastward, some still with decks of 4-inch-thick plank surviving, gray with age. The square black mouths of long-empty cargo hatches open into murky water beneath.

For some, only structural frames protrude above water to suggest the shape of a hull and the tangle of rusting steel and rotting wood beneath. Where the entire above-water hull and planking have fallen away, there is the odd hawse-pipe standing, in which the anchor cable was once conducted through the hull and deep into the vessel’s chain lockers.

At least another 10 ships lie ruined in Curtis Creek: Runner, Southern Dover, Ashland, Fort Scott … Two wooden hulks lie beside each other: The whole midsection of one has burned and collapsed, her bow standing high and proud, just as she was run ashore and abandoned. Her hawse holes are intact, but the anchors they once housed are gone. Her rudder is frozen in midturn, standing 10 feet out of the water. Some wag has added graffiti: “Free to a Good Home.”

Next to her are the remains of a famous Bay passenger steamer, Emma Giles, her bow still rising many feet as well. The rest of her was torn apart for scrap in 1959. There is the Portland, crumbled almost to water level. A steam boiler is lying adjacent, rising vertically from the creek, its firing door closed forever on the coal that once brought a commercial ship to life. The hull is overgrown with what amounts to a small scrub woodland. She is a dead wooden ship which is, in the words of Robert Keith, “becoming a tree again.”

Dr. Kent Mountford is senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Program in Annapolis.

Books on Baltimore

For a fascinating verbal account and visual journey see Robert C. Keith “Baltimore Harbor, a Pictorial History” (Johns Hopkins Univ. Press 1985).

For more about the policy and politics that have surrounded Baltimore, see Steven Davidson and Jay Merwin’s reworking of “Chesapeake Waters” originally by John Capper, Garrett Powers and Frank Shivers.