When the Smithsonian Institution looked for a first stop in Maryland for its traveling exhibit Water/Ways, it wisely chose Baltimore County.

The Phoenix Dam and reservoir was a popular bathing spot in Baltimore County, MD, before it was submerged under water with construction of the expanded Loch Raven Reservoir in 1914. (Historical Society of Baltimore County)

From the very beginning, water has shaped the area’s economy, transportation network and culture. And it still does — the Loch Raven, Prettyboy and Liberty reservoirs in the county provide drinking water to millions. Dam tailwaters are a mecca for trout fly fishers and whitewater tubers and paddlers. There are more than 100 roads in the county with “mill” in their names. The county has both freshwater and saltwater within its borders.

“Everyone in the county lives close to water and it’s part of their lives, whether they realize it or not,” said Tom Graf of the Historical Society of Baltimore County.

The Water/Ways exhibit is traveling to 30 states as part of the Smithsonian Institution’s Museum on Main Street program. Its aim is to raise awareness of water as a finite resource and as an element in U.S. culture. At each stop, the Smithsonian partners with local organizations to extend the exhibit in ways that tell the local story. The ambitious exploration of the history and influence of water on Baltimore County, prepared by the society, is now part of the Water/Ways exhibition through July 6 at the society’s headquarters in the historic county almshouse at 9811 Van Buren Lane in Cockeysville.

The old Loch Raven Bridge, removed in late 1970s, stood in front of the Loch Raven Reservoir dam in Baltimore County, MD. (Historical Society of Baltimore County)

But the experience extends well beyond those walls. More than 30 groups have joined forces to offer around 75 hands-on, water-themed events for the public around the county during the exhibit’s stay. You can go on a search for salamanders, help clean up a stream, participate in a sunset paddle, visit historic sites in the county, learn how to build your own rain barrel, become a caretaker of a stream and go on an interfaith spiritual nature walk.

Graf, a society board member and program manager of the Baltimore County effort, thinks the widespread involvement of so many groups and people in celebrating and making efforts to protect water in their midst speaks to a new determination to protect the resource.

“There’s not plenty of it. I’d like to think that it’s starting to sink in in our generation and certainly the next generation coming up to recognize that, too. There is hope for the future,” he said.

Native Americans were the first to use Baltimore County’s waterways. And when settlers moved in, water became their first power source.

To drive the agricultural community, mills sprung up along any stream that could be dammed. Mills that produced iron, flour, textiles, gunpowder and paper flourished. Towns grew up beside them. Many of them were destroyed by a devastating flood in 1868.

The Back and Middle rivers became the first versions of highways and allowed tobacco farmers to sell their crops domestically and even overseas. At the time, the Gunpowder River was navigable to the Chesapeake Bay.

Other streams and rivers in the county powered iron forges and furnaces, including one that produced guns during the American Revolution. Bloede’s Dam housed the nation’s first hydro-electric plant inside the shell of the dam.

The Bay Shore Amusement Park in Baltimore County, MD, was open from 1906-1947. It was one of the largest beaches on the Chesapeake Bay at the time. The site is now part of North Point State Park. (Historical Society of Baltimore County)

It wasn’t long before the wholesale clearing of trees and vegetation, the dumping of sewage, garbage and manufacturing waste into the nearest stream brought home the consequences of poor land management.

Damming streams and channeling currents to power mills changed the ecology of the waterways. By the late 1800s, Baltimore City was complaining about unrestricted development upstream causing flooding in the city.

The growing city needed a reliable source of water. The first reservoir in Baltimore County was built in 1807 but quickly proved inadequate. Lake Roland was erected along the Jones Falls in 1858 but, in another early example of “we all live downstream,” it was clogged within two years by sediment from upstream erosion. Later, Joppa Town, a major port on the Chesapeake Bay, would be rendered useless because of the same problem.

As the exhibit notes, “Our region’s centuries-old history is also the history of our water pollution.”

In 1881, the larger Loch Raven Reservoir was built and expanded in 1914, drowning the old mill town of Warren that was once home to 800 people. Still, the city needed more water. Pretty Boy Reservoir was completed in 1931. Liberty Reservoir, formed by damming the North Branch of the Patapsco River, completed the trifecta in 1956. Another mill town, Oakland Mill, was buried and the city purchased and closed the Melville Woolen Mills, idling workers.

Before reservoirs created drinking water, springs provided sustenance. Water from the Chattolanee Springs in the Green Spring Valley area of the county was bottled and dispersed by train and wagon, delivered to doorsteps just as milk later would be.

The Patapsco River’s mouth became the anchor for Bay Shore amusement park, the largest beach on the Chesapeake Bay. It operated from 1906 to 1947 and is now part of North Point State Park.

All this checkered use and history of water in Baltimore County surprised and enlightened Susan Graeber of Woodbrook, MD, visiting the exhibition on a recent Sunday.

The old Loch Raven pump house in Baltimore County, MD. (Historical Society of Baltimore County)

“I’ve been a lifelong resident of Maryland for five generations, but I didn’t realize the importance of water,” she said. “You just turn on your faucet and drink water. I just never thought about it.”

Thinking about it is precisely one of the goals of the exhibit, said Charlie Conklin, vice president of operations for the Gunpowder Valley Conservancy. “The whole thing is to engage the community to participate in best-management practices to reduce their water footprint.”

Added Graf, “We basically dominated the landscape and turned it into something that we wanted, and developed it and engineered the water. We reached the 20th century and kind of looked around and saw some of the damage to the landscape and to the environment.

“I’d like to think that we’ve reached the era now where we can find a balance between our needs and commitments and the natural resources, and find some long-term sustainable approach that both sides can grow and thrive so that our children and grandchildren and future generations here in the county can find that same kind of joy with water.”

Plan your visit

The Historical Society of Baltimore County’s Local History of Water exhibit runs through July 6 at society headquarters in the old county almshouse at 9811 Van Buren Lane, Cockeysville. Hours are 1-5 p.m. on Saturdays, Sundays and Wednesdays; and 1-8 p.m. Thursdays and Fridays.

Associated with the exhibit, 33 groups are providing water-themed family events around Baltimore County and surrounding area during the period. Check here for information on the specific events and the exhibit.

The Baltimore County exhibit accompanies the Smithsonian Institution’s traveling Water/Ways, a comprehensive multimedia, interactive display that looks at water’s impact on humans and the planet.

Through a collaboration with Maryland Humanities, the Water/Ways exhibit will make five other stops in Maryland into 2020. They are:

  • July 13-Aug. 24, The Oxford Museum, Oxford, Talbot County
  • Aug. 31-Oct. 12, Washington County Historical Society, Hagerstown
  • Oct. 19-Nov. 30, Cambridge Main Street, Cambridge, Dorchester County
  • Dec. 7-Jan. 18, 2020, Crisfield Heritage Foundation, Crisfield, Somerset County
  • Jan. 25, 2020-March 7, 2020, Calvert Library, Prince Frederick, Calvert County

Information and a list of community events in each place will be detailed here.