Leakin Park, on Baltimore’s western fringe, is one of the largest urban woodland parks on the East Coast. It includes a 15-mile biking trail, a nature center, several restored historic structures and sweeping views of the Gywnns Falls. There is a mansion, art walk, old waterwheel and plenty of places to have a picnic or climb on the monkey bars.
But many residents of Baltimore know Leakin Park for something else — the bodies. From the 1940s until just a few years ago, dozens of corpses were dumped there. Headlines in the Baltimore Sun announced the bodies discovered in the park, many found in stages of gruesome decay as they were deep in a wilderness area where daylight visitors seldom roamed.
The crimes didn’t occur in Leakin Park, city officials are quick to say. And often, the bodies weren’t actually in the park. They were dumped on the side of the road in wooded areas in southwest Baltimore, along Weatheredsville and Windsor Mill and Franklintown roads — thoroughfares that run through the park but also through some of the city’s most forlorn neighborhoods. In other words, most of the crimes weren’t committed by people hiking in the park, and the victims weren’t those who had come to enjoy its beauty.
Still, the stigma of an unofficial graveyard didn’t endear Baltimore’s law-abiding residents to their largest park. Decades of neglect didn’t help. Leakin Park (pronounced Lin-coln Park by many) and the Gwynns Falls were often trash-strewn, worn-down wilderness patches with slim police presence and meager attractions. They smelled of sewage, too, thanks to the outfalls nearby that flowed into the stream.
It wasn’t as though Baltimoreans were desperate for yet another park. They already had Druid Hill Park in the city’s center, which included 745 acres filled with trails, a reservoir, a conservatory, and the Maryland Zoo, which is part of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network. If they lived closer to the leafy, well-heeled neighborhoods of Mt. Washington and Roland Park, they could visit Robert E. Lee Park, with its excellent hiking trails and dog runs. For bird watching, there was Patterson Park, which is home to more than three-dozen species of birds.
But for a small and feisty group of Baltimoreans, Leakin Park was a gem worth fighting for, and fight they did. Between the 1940s and the 1980, plans called for Interstate 70 to run through Leakin Park and connect with Interstates 95 and 83 in downtown Baltimore. But community opposition fought the road project. Specifically, a diminutive social worker named Barbara Mikulski railed against it. The city fought back, buying up properties along the route and keeping the alignment on the books. Many African-American neighborhoods were destroyed as construction began. But eventually, the opponents won out.
The battle saved the park as well as several Baltimore neighborhoods that would have been in the road’s path, including Fell’s Point, Federal Hill and Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. And Mikulski became the first woman in history to chair the U.S. Senate’s powerful appropriations committee.
Today, Baltimore City Parks employee Jared Lyles calls the park “an undiscovered treasure.”
Lyles, a native of West Baltimore, is well aware of the park’s reputation. And he acknowledges that the fear of its past keeps people away.
But he’s doing his part to change that. Lyles, along with Baltimore City Parks outdoor recreation programmer Molly Gallant, leads monthly bike trips on the Gwynns Falls Trail.
Once a month, volunteers at the park offer visitors rides on small steam trains for free. Hundreds wait in line for the chance to ride the locomotives around the park. For a small fee, visitors can also ride horses with a guide. On those days, Lyles can be found at the park, on his bicycle, riding up and down the line for the trains to remind visitors he’s offering free bicycle rides. Experienced riders can borrow a bicycle, and he’ll teach the new riders how to pedal.
When people bike the Gywnns Falls trail, Lyles said, they’re surprised. Like the newer Jones Falls Trail, which was still not finished last year when the Bay Journal wrote about it, the Gywnns plays peek-a-boo with many different landscapes: urban blight, working industry and breathtaking water views.
The Gwynns Trail feels more expansive than its newer cousin, though they’re both great places to bike. For long stretches of the Gwynns Falls, bikers can meander along a wide stream and watch water rush past boulders on its way to the Patapsco River. Like the Jones Falls, the Gwynns Falls Trail and its long stretch through Leakin Park are part of the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network.
The trail includes covered bridges reminiscent of Harper’s Ferry, WV. Indeed, the landscape for much of the trail looks like the Shenandoah Valley. Even the homes through historic Franklintown look like they could fit right in there. Riding along, with sticks and leaves underfoot, downtown Baltimore seems worlds away, though it is only a few miles to the skyscrapers on Pratt Street.
Because West Baltimore is in the midst of a sewage-upgrade project, the trail leaves the serenity of the falls for about a half-mile and winds through city streets. Here, bikers encounter fast cars, boarded-up sno-ball stands and swaths of trash. If not for the helpful “GF Trail” sidewalk markers, riders wouldn’t know where to go.
A couple of other spots in the middle of the trail require riding on city streets. But, if riders begin at Carroll Park Golf Course and take that stretch to the Interstate 70 Park and Ride, the trail’s official beginning, they will miss the last few miles, which ride through Baltimore
neighborhoods to the Inner Harbor. Riders will still get an 8-mile ride each way, and coming back is downhill most of the way.
Jo Orser, a longtime volunteer with the Friends group, said it’s not hard to bring people to the park for the train events. Getting people on the trails seems more of a challenge.
Part of the problem is the location; it’s not very atmospheric to start a bike ride at the Interstate 70 Park and Ride. Also, the Gwynns Falls is on the far west side of the city. Whereas, for Baltimoreans, most attractions in Baltimore and its suburbs are a 20-minute drive, Leakin Park is a smidge farther, maybe 25 or 30 minutes. It’s not a deal breaker; it just makes the park a little less appealing than one closer to home.
Orser knows the park has a past. She talks about it openly. She also says that Leakin Park’s days as an unofficial graveyard are behind it. The bike trail now loops through some of the secluded wilderness area and brought it into the light. Park police, who have an office there, patrol parts of the trail.
Baltimore is a city with a long memory. Old reputations take a long time to die. But Orser is hoping that word will spread that Leakin Park and Gwynns Falls are here for exploring, alive with the scents and sounds of a rare urban forest.