By John McGrain
August 2018


Sherry H. Olson in her 1980 Baltimore the Building of an American City, noted that in 1850, all the local services involving horses were in the hands of Irish immigrants, including “night work” and livery stables, draymen work, etc. (p. 166). “Night work” was the euphemism for pumping the vaults of home privies or out houses. The people who performed this necessary service were “night men.” We find in the Sun that municipal regulations restricted the service to night time, and it was not allowed during the summer (Sun, April 14, 1874}.

Olson reported that around 1870, there were 200 to 300 private contractors hauling night soil; some 100 city employees were taking garbage and ashes about two miles out from the city. During the 1870s, the volume of refuse increased 40 percent.

In 1872, a machine was invented to pump out the vaults by an air pump with a deodorizing device coupled to a flexible tube; that was the Odorless Excavating Apparatus, which was patented. Any number of people claimed its invention, and the dispute made it to the Supreme Court. Apparently it was odorless at the point of use and it could be used in the day time.

When the mechanized device was first marketed, the night men petitioned the City Council to prevent its use. It was a “great wrong” on their “ancient rights” (Sun, April 14, 1874). They hoped to continue by the “bucket and cart” technique. The Sun reminded them that the Luddites of old England had wanted to stop weaving and spinning machines, and were of course fighting the tide of modernism (Sun, January 21, 1873). The City Council gave a monopoly to George Padgett for using the new invention. The carts normally carried the pumpings out to dumping sites beyond the city limits. Sometimes the muck was mixed with the powdery yellow ashes from furnaces and coal stoves which made it less offensive. The natural fertilizer was normally used by truck farms on Patapsco Neck. Those leafy heads of bright green lettuce and the bright glowing carrots in the city market stalls could probably trace their ancestry to the nitrogenous garden patches on North Point Road. In the city, boys had a little folk song, “Wagon full of barrels; barrels full of What? O. E. A.; O. E. A.” Of course, the odorless tank had to be emptied a safe distance from built up neighborhoods.

None of the literature on Irish upward mobility in Baltimore acknowledges that anyone’s 19th Century ancestors had ever worked in the ooze industry. Oddly enough, the useful services were not listed in the 1873 Baltimore city directory. The 1900 Polk directory showed a number of companies licensed to use the invention but none of the names seemed to be Irish, except for a Larkin.

The local branch of the pump service had its headquarters at 44 North Holliday Street as shown on a surviving pamphlet. William B. Marye, who enjoyed telling tales on the nouveau riche of Saint Paul and Charles Streets recalled that one family was just seated for a formal dinner when the O. E. A. service showed up to empty the servants’ privy in the back yard. The lady of the house ordered all the windows put down.

As Baltimore finally got around to building a sewer system, there was less, and finally no, work for people with the pumping apparatus. Frank A. Furst, a Baltimore tycoon who enjoyed the support of both the ethnics and the downtown business elite, organized the Baltimore Sanitary Collection Company and as Sherry H. Olson told it, apparently hired the former night men. The new company had a plant at Locust Point, Winans Cove, where Thomas DeKay Winans had built his “cigar boat.” Each new lot of garbage was cooked in one of 28 tanks for 8 hours, then squeezed dry in a press, to produce something that resembled coffee or chicory. The end product was “aromatic” rather than offensive. The works could process three lots of garbage per day. The expelled juice apparently drained into the Patapsco upstream of the Hanover Street Bridge. The company stable was located in part of the Pratt Street power plant of the transit company (Sun, February 23, 1902). Sherry H. Olson noted that Furst and his partners hired Loyola College men as managers.

In the 1840s the city and county operated a joint Almshouse west of the city line at Calverton. It was fairly well organized and sheltered elderly ladies, paupers, sick people, infants, and those classified as “lunatics,” who were housed in the cellar. There was even a mill on a side stream. When an epidemic struck in the summer of 1849, Dr. Thomas H. Buckler, a progressive scientist, reported on it in great detail. His report was harrowing. He found that no abandoned infant had ever lived to age three. All expectant mothers had died. Most of the horrors involved drains from the water closets which poured the effluent barely beyond the hospital walls. There were numerous puddles and small ponds full of waste water. The worst horror was a pond with several dead pigs floating in it. The effluent eventually wended its way to Gwynns Run, then to Gwynns Falls, and on to the Middle Branch of the Patapsco (A History of the Epidemic Cholera as it Appeared at the Baltimore City and Baltimore County Almshouse in the Summer of 1849, Baltimore, 1851). This was some decades before the theory of germs was accepted. As yet, there was no knowledge that mosquitos carried disease. People blamed miasmal air from swamps for summer illness. People who could move away from the swamps hoped to avoid the foul influences along the water’s edge.


Baltimore was such a hub of transportation that it was penetrated from every angle by railroads, turnpikes, and ship channels, all of which were prone to smoke and various forms of filth such as horse droppings and effluent from pigs and cattle on the hoof going to slaughter houses. All of this was likely to find its way into the concentrated dwelling houses. Locations away from those influences would probably sell at a premium, leaving the lower priced lots to the less affluent. If the houses along the arterial highways were cursed with smoke and effluent, smoke-producing enterprises were fixed in place and belched up their carbon clouds that would drift into all the neighborhoods. The long rows of houses would keep the foul vapors from thinning out and losing strength. There is a Maryland Court of Appeals case that reported the argument against slaughter houses that dumped meat scraps into Gwynns Falls; the millers at Mount Clare Mill complained they could not retain their lunches when the cavalcade of waste passed down the stream (William E. Woodyear v. Henry Schaefer, 57 Md. 1, 1881). Sometimes whole dead animals passed the mill.

In a recent column, Dan Rodricks quoted a new book by Professor Matthew Crenson of Towson who found that pigs wandered at large as the city developed from 1729 to 1750. Of course, the pigs ate any organic material thrown into the street but added the effluent from processing that. The city built a pig-proof fence in 1750 but the citizens used the palings for firewood. During the visit of the Continental Congress in 1776, John Adams declared Baltimore the dirtiest place in the world (Sun, July 16. 2018). The neighborhood proudly called Pigtown today reflects the age of driving pigs on hoof to the stockyards.

Towson started to grow after the courthouse was opened in 1857, and its initial problems were much like early Baltimore’s: pigs running at large. E. F. Church the editor of the Towson weekly newspaper denounced the keeping of livestock on suburban lots and he wrote that there was no “town in the state cursed by more howling, yelping curs than Towson.” The raising of chickens at home continued through the 1940s.

Sherry H. Olson reported on city filth in the mid-19th century. Some white people blamed it on the African American community, but there was plenty of blame to go around. Infant mortality statistics were appalling. About 1832, per Olson, the city’s milk supply came from cows confined on urban lots and fed on garbage. About that time Dr. Jamieson recommended not eating any of the summer treats, fruits, corn, water melons and crabs. Page after page of Olson’s findings describe the crowded life of narrow alleys that were actually designed that way by the Poppleton Plan of 1822. Citizens believed there was a large class of idle and depraved people who wouldn’t work, people who frequented taverns and became unruly.

Tan yards were all over the county. At a tan yard there were shallow pools where hides were soaked for weeks in a tannic acid bath made from oak tree bark. The animal hair soaked off the hides and sunk to the bottom of the vats. The stone outbuildings of such a yard survive on Tanyard Road in Western Run Valley, one a vat house. The shallow pools were gone by 1976 when Catherine F. Black and James T. Wollon, Jr., AIA, surveyed the old Scott farm for the Western Run National Register Historic District. There was an industrial scale tannery near the Baltimore City Jail, William Appold’s, started in 1826 on Mills Street alias Buren Street. In modern day terms, the tannery was at Guilford Avenue and Madison Street; the works has apparently been paved over in the 20th century by Interstate-83. A museum director in Pennsylvania told us it would be dangerous to do archaeology at a former tan yard for fear of finding live anthrax in the buried animal hair. William H. Bosley, Jr., wrote in the Federation PTA News in 1938 that the tanning industry consumed most of the black oak trees in the central county.

Animal rendering plants were a necessity of the horse drawn age. When the loyal family carriage horse reached the end of his career, he could be taken to Reckordville on the Harford Road at Little Gunpowder. Henry Reckord from Maine first bought the ordinary grain mill Pleasant Valley Mills and went into sawmilling and rendering. The plant operator would pay about three dollars for the steed, euthanize the animal, and boil him along with dead cows into tankage in a pit. The tankage dried out to a fertilizer. Reckord started selling his “Special Compound” in 1877. The bones were treated with sulfuric acid and ground up into a calcium rich fertilizer. Most of the town is now extinct, part of Gunpowder State Park. Another more advanced rendering works was Theobald’s located between Belair and Harford Roads on the Harford County bank of Little Gunpowder Falls. The company continued to operate to about the 1970s, when the Department of Natural Resources bought up the stream valley land for Gunpowder State Park. One of our E-mail correspondents visited the ruins in 2011.


People used to burn coal in their home furnaces, and the householders had to put out ash cans at the curb for the city crew to remove. For years, ashes were dumped in the valley of Gwynns Falls. The ashes were a yellow dust with purple flecks scattered through it. The old dumping ground is now shown on maps as Gwynns Falls Park. Today, the Sierra Club reports that burned coal residue from power plants contains eight different carcinogens. Our geological advisor suggests that the home ashes contained silica, calcium, and heavy metals. This mixture has been leaching out its unhealthy compounds for 80 or more years, the Middle Branch of Patapsco being its ultimate resting place. Even in 20th century Baltimore people used to set out organic garbage in unlined cans. The rear alleys of restaurants and hotels were fly-ridden deserts of emptied cans. In the autumn yellow jackets used to buzz around garbage cans. Some few people lined their garbage cans with Baltimore newspapers.

Various sources speak of stagnant ponds around Baltimore City. One was the “Devil’s Bucket” near Otterbein Hall on Locust Point, a field of slag from a former lead works (Baltimore News-Post, September 22, 1945). Someone signing himself “Copper Bottom” wrote that the site of the coal oil refineries at Canton had previously been the depository of night-soil and was known as “Stink Hole Square” (Maryland Journal, Towson, February 16, 1879).

Before the Revolution, Baltimore County had about 10 iron smelting furnaces and several more in the Federal and Republican era. All the slag and cinders of those plants are still there, except for Ashland, where two enterprising citizens of Timonium bought the hard ashes to pave roads. One ash-paved route is Cinder Line. Ashland was not named for its ashes but for the Ashland mansion at Lexington, Kentucky, the home of Henry Clay, the hero of the business class in the 19th century. The furnace ruins are now included in stream valley parks and in the city’s watersheds. The glass-like slag cannot dissolve and probably does not break down into any harmful products. The ash and clinker probably leach out sulfurous chemicals. More ashes were used on public streets when it snowed. Vast areas were cleared of trees to fuel the fires of iron furnaces.

The most incredible accumulation of contaminants is still with us at Sparrows Point or Trade Point Atlantic, some 2300 acres of poisonous residue, the slag, ash, acids, deposits from the sewer water used to cool newly cast steel. Studies are now in progress with spectacular levels of pollution, zinc, and all the unhealthy heavy metals. Over 120 years, the steel company dumped ash and slag into the tidal estuaries such as Humphrey’s Creek, filling those lagoons with byproducts, some insoluble, some capable of chemically breaking down.


The muck dredged up from the harbor is aptly known as “spoil,” and it has spoiled many locations where it has been dumped. The Ellicott Brothers began building piers on Pratt Street in the 1780s. First they would dredge deep enough to accommodate the hull of a sea-going ship, then they would pen the muck up in wooden cribs adjoining the ship slip. The pier would be filled up to street level and when the spoil solidified, a warehouse could be built on the man-made land. Baltimore harbor grew up into a maze of piers giving berths to steamboats and large steel sea-going ships. The made land was firm enough to support a number of brick flour mills powered by steam. Of course the inner harbor mud contained centuries of silt drained from Jones Falls, all sorts of twigs, branches, lost balls from playgrounds, feces, pistols thrown in by criminals, the waste from chemical processes. Harbor dredging for the ship channels produced more silt and mud, and it was for a long time dumped in the upper bay. My father worked for the Corps of Engineers one time in the 1920s, and they were dredging down 50 feet although Congress had only specified 40-foot channels. During 1929-1941, the Harbor Field was being built on the west edge of Dundalk, extending west across the city line into Baltimore City. A sea wall held the muck in place; it took nine years to solidify into airplane runways. The airport was obsolete in another nine years, and today the Dundalk Marine Terminal stands on the site, enormous cranes and machines successfully supported on the former mud flat. Heaven knows what is under the grass and gravel. In more recent times, dredge spoil has been dumped into a sea wall at Hart and Miller Island, this time creating a waterside public park and fishing shore.

Whole acres of industrial land were created from low lying mud flats at Curtis Bay in 1929 by sinking 14 obsolete naval ships, the wooden Mosquito fleet of emergency destroyers launched for World War I. The ships formed the seawall (Sun, December 14, 1929). .

The most lethal old industrial site was near Fells Point at the Allied Signal Company’s property, 1348 Block Street. It was the operations before Allied Signal that poisoned the grounds with chromium waste. This was originally the processing plant for Isaac Tyson, Baltimore geologist, who mined chromite ore at Soldiers Delight and other places in Baltimore County, as well as Vermont. This local plant was acquired in 1908 by Mutual Chemical Company which enlarged it. Other enlargements followed. After going out of business, the works was discovered to be leaching chromium into the harbor. In 1989, the Environmental Protection Agency entered into a consent decree with Allied Signal to clean up the site. This became a federally designated Super Fund site, and is one of the few places that have been expertly cleaned up, and rendered suitable for new structures (Sun, April 7, 208). There were chromite deposits at Soldiers Delight Park and Lake Roland Park. One method of collecting the sand-like mineral was to use buddles or placer mills in the streambeds. There is apparently no significant amount of chromite washing out of the parks today.


Guano depots, processing plants, and sheds were usually foul smelling with an acrid odor that drifted for blocks from the sites at Canton, Fells Point, and Dundalk. The Baugh plant on the inner harbor emitted a choking cloud of the guano being heated or fried. Now famous Turner Station neighborhood began as Joshua Turner’s sheds and rail depot for guano. Presumably ammonia compounds leached out of the fertilizers, some made from accumulated bird droppings, some made from crushed phosphate rock. Other fertilizer plants were in Canton at the south end of Clinton Street. Canton also had a lazaretto to confine and quarantine imported cattle. Congress once passed a law (probably unconstitutional) to allow private citizens to seize uninhabited guano islands; the law is still on the books although no one is taking advantage of it. Baltimore investors seized the island of Navassa close to Haiti. The island was actually phosphate rock instead of natural guano; Baltimore courts helped the investors develop a work force, regularly sentencing minor offenders to go dig the deposits at Navassa. Some diggers were apparently shanghaied off the streets.


Baltimore City had four shot towers where lead bars were melted down at the top of the tower, the molten lead poured into sieves, and the hot pellets fell to the bottom of the tower and formed lead shot of various sized for hunting firearms. One shot tower is still standing, but two other tall towers have been torn down. A shorter tower used an air draft to eliminate the need for great height; that was the Baltimore Lead Works Company tower on the south side of Montgomery Street east of Howard. James Robertson and Company built it in 1877. In 1910, the B. & O. railroad bought the works, tore down the building, and tracked over the location. Then at the end of the century, the tracks and site were used to build the Camden Yards at Oriole Park. The site could well lie under an approach ramp to Interstate 395, depending on the accuracy of the ADC Street Atlas. At the time of building the ball park, no mention or suspicion of a lead contaminated site ever surfaced.

The other two shot towers that were demolished were Gist’s and Wolfe’s. Gist’s was on South Eutaw Street roughly at the south end of the present Camden Yards Warehouse, while Wolfe’s was on the west side of Gay Street in the present War Memorial Plaza.

The 1977 bicentennial book for Franklintown, Woodlawn, and Hebbville showed a photo of an abandoned asbestos crushing plant, the Powhatan Mining Company on Wells Manor Road, inside the Beltway, not far from Featherbed Lane Elementary School and Windsor Mill Road. In those days, there were no house numbers assigned in rural areas. The new address of the plant is 2006 Emmanuel Court off Windsor Mill Road. Asbestos was once mined in that neighborhood, and after the deposits were exhausted the mineral was hauled in from Georgia. Production ended in 1950. The neighborhood history reported that waste material had been plowed into the ground there and that houses were later built on those lots. The present Diamond Ridge Golf Course was given its upbeat name because the area was formerly shown on maps as Asbestos Ridge. For a time, Baltimore County authorities were unaware of this hazardous site. Eventually this became an EPA Super Fund site.

Just west of Baltimore County, along the Patapsco, on Marriottsville Road, is the abandoned Henryton soapstone quarry. Samples of that mineral are readily discoverable and the hiker can easily use a hammer to smash it into a talc dust, which is unfortunately a carcinogen.

Quarrying has gone on more than 350 years in Baltimore County, and there are still workable deposits. Quarries have defaced a number of hillsides and left millions of chips behind. This one area produces both granite and limestone. The granite left behind is not likely to dissolve but limestone run off can get into streams. The quarry at Texas-Cockeysville is practically inexhaustible. One remarkable pit near Shawan Road is full of sky blue wash water, so permanent that it has a historic site number. Floods can redistribute the mine tailings. The many lagoons along the lower stretch of the Patapsco River are actually flooded sand pits once worked by the Arundel Corporation. The sand dredging obliterated the former pits dug for bog iron. Colonial furnaces worked the “bog iron” in those pits; bog iron or limonite had been caused over the eons by microorganisms capturing iron compounds. One large quarry on Green Spring Avenue was repurposed into a planned suburban community by Koren Development. The great pit was mostly filled in with dumped material to provide a level area for houses. One feature is a pond said to be deeper than Lake Erie (Sun, December 13, 1998).

Lime kilns burned marble or limestone (calcium carbonate) for days at a time, rendering the mineral into powdery quick lime. Immense quantities of carbon dioxide went up the chimney stack over the run of the burning season. On the present Glen Arm Road, there was once a cluster of kilns operated by a company town of African Americans, a place called Helltown. The noxious fumes hung over the place and the fires flickered all night. The name can be found in newspaper items and the route was even called Helltown Road, although that title has been cleaned up on official road maps. The exact location was opposite the present Manor Glen retirement community. Some large and elegant kilns operated by the Risteau, Shanklin, and Jennifer families survive in Cromwell Valley Park and they were handsomely restored in 2014 after vandals started tearing them down. The archaeologists found that the farm family used the spacious kilns as a junk depository and time capsule, all the usual crockery and even a pair of eyeglasses were recovered. There was not much residue around a lime kiln because the wood fuel got mostly consumed and the white lime powder could be sold. The ash contained some calcium carbonate and a small percentage of iron (Bay Journal, Spring 2017). Other sites were a whole string of kilns along the Northern Central Railroad tracks near Padonia Road in the Cockeysville marble belt. Kilns had a voracious need for fuel, and acres of trees were cut to provide it.

The automobile age brought in cars, plus their attendant greases, leaded gasoline, lead based car batteries, and rubber tires that take decades to dry up into dust. The dust has almost no commercial use and hangs around in the woods and along roads. Even new cars emit tons of carbon dioxide over the course of a year (for example, a model rated in 2018 produced 6.5 tons of the invisible gas).


The mills used to dump all sorts of waste products in the tailraces. With flour mills, the waste was bran, and it fed the eels. Some mills had an annual cleanup of the mill race followed by an eel roast. We know the Oakland Factory dumped brightly colored dyes from the wool weaving process into the North Branch of the Patapsco, down to about 1950. The paper board plant at Thistle dumped immense quantities of titanium dioxide (1.1 million gallons per diem) into the Patapsco and the shores of the State park until Judge John Grayson Turnbull of Towson levied an enormous fine on Simpkins Industries. When 19th century paper mills began using straw to make paper, the raw material was dissolved with sulfite compounds that drained into Gunpowder Falls. In the case of Gladfelter v. Walker, in a late 19th Century case, the plaintiff, Mr. Walker, won a decision in the Maryland Court of Appeals; the judges in Annapolis ruled that from ancient times, the downstream property owners had a right to receive the river water in its original purity; that was the doctrine of riparian rights (40 Md. 1).

Lake Roland was once the reservoir for Baltimore City before the Loch Raven system was developed. It is now a public park. At a public meeting in 1982, it was reported to be full of fecal coli as well as silting up to the point that there would soon be all silt and no lake. The same conditions apply in the 21st Century. The lake was dredged once, the spoil dumped on the foundations of the Bellona Powder Mill on the west shore. That material could be washed away, down Jones Falls to the inner harbor. The dam was almost breeched in the 1979 tropical storm.

The classic photos of the mill town of Warren showed a row of wooden booths perched on the edge of the river. Baltimore City sued the company for polluting the source of its water supply, but the company won, and the booths persisted until 1922 when the city bought the whole company town and tore everything down to protect the Loch Raven reservoir.

Distilleries used grain to cook and ferment into alcoholic liquor. Getting rid of the used mash was apparently a problem. Some of it could serve as cattle feed. There was a 1933 deed reference that recorded the right of the Loreley Distillery’s owner to dump “distillery slop” on what the deed called “Taylor’s Island or Devil’s Island.” The correct place name was Diver’s Island, and about 1940, the dual highway U. S. 40 East overran that marshy island in Great Gunpowder Falls. Divers Island was once accessible to sailing ships but the river silted up there.


This county constantly generates unwanted byproducts that have to be stored or gotten out of site somewhere or other. One time the county councilman representing the East side of the county, Wallace Williams, said something to the effect, “Whenever there is trash or effluent, somebody wants to dump it in my district.”

The Sun of February 17, 1907, raised the question of whether the city would survive at all. “Will it be like Athens?” The article suggested that tall buildings with curtain walls would not last long, and all the public edifices would be dissolved by carbonic acid gas. That gas is the old fashioned name for carbon dioxide. Oddly enough, the article spoke of one thousand years in the future but the headline only showed the number 2007—which has now come and gone with most of the great works of architecture still in place.

In short, there is enough accumulated poison in the Baltimore area to wipe out the population. Moving the stuff around only brings more of it into contact with people. This dilemma seems to be a cosmic joke on humanity which was so eager to embrace the Industrial Revolution.

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