Patapsco: Say Can You See?

Karl Musser/USGS data
Map of the Patapsco River, MD

Without the Patapsco River, America wouldn’t have its National Anthem. Baltimore wouldn’t have its Inner Harbor and Maryland wouldn’t have its first state park. Talk about a powerful river.

The mouth of the Patapsco River forms Baltimore Harbor, the site of the Battle of Fort McHenry, where Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star-Spangled Banner” aboard a British ship during the War of 1812. Today, a red, white, and blue buoy marks the spot where the HMS Tonnant was anchored.

The river’s more popular association is upstream of Baltimore at Patapsco Valley State Park, however. With recreational opportunities including hiking, fishing, camping, canoeing, horseback riding, mountain biking, and picnicking along a 32-mile segment of the Patapsco and its branches, the park was officially celebrated as Maryland’s first in 2006.

The park’s history traces back more than a century, though, intimately intertwined with the river itself. Completion of Bloede Dam on the Patapsco in 1906 required protections to prevent silting from nearby farms, and the area was established as Patapsco State Forest Reserve in 1907 to protect the valley’s forest and water resources. Now known as Patapsco Valley State Park, it has grown to 16,000 acres highlighted by a rocky gorge cut by the river some 200 feet deep and laced with cliffs and tributary waterfalls.

The river’s entire main stem flows fewer than 40 miles from Mariottsville through Elkridge, Ellicott City and other Maryland towns, drawing from a watershed of just 680 square miles, before it reaches the harbor and the Chesapeake Bay. Yet it remains one of the Baltimore area’s hidden jewels, providing the people of Maryland with a favorite fishing hole, Class I-II canoe and kayak rapids, trails to wander, and cool relief from the summer heat.

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The Backstory

Many historians consider the Patapsco River flowing through Baltimore one of the birthplaces of the Industrial Revolution, and dams built along the waterway were important sources of power. Bloede Dam was the first hydro dam in the U.S. where the turbines were housed internally.

Now long outdated, these dams continue to disrupt the natural function of the river and block passage for migratory fish like American shad, alewife, and American eel. The dams have also been a safety hazard for area swimmers, resulting in several deaths at Bloede Dam over the years.

Working with Friends of the Patapsco Valley State Park, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, American Rivers has helped spur the removal of two of the Patapsco River’s four major dams—the Union Dam in 2010 and the Simkins Dam in 2011—and expects the Bloede Dam, the lowermost dam on the river, to come down in July of 2017. It’s removal will reconnect more than 65 miles of the river and its branches, with only the upstream Daniels Dam remaining.

Although largely protected and soon to be connected, the Patapsco still suffers on its highly urbanized eastern end. Stormwater runoff and other forms of water pollution are exacerbated by aging infrastructure, often leading to hazardous water quality. Local infrastructure has been challenged by extreme weather events, leaking as much as 100 million gallons of sewage into river during major storms.

The Future

In addition to restoring more than 65 miles of habitat for diadromous species, removing the Bloede Dam will result in restoration of a free-flowing river. That will benefit water quality, river safety, native fish and wildlife including river herring, and the overall health of the river and the Chesapeake Bay downstream. Design plans also include improvements to the Baltimore County sanitary sewer pipe.

The Patapsco River Restoration Project is more than just a dam removal project. By working with Friends of the Patapsco Valley State Park, we hope to also leverage river protection tools such as Wild and Scenic designation and the river’s recreational resources to make the Patapsco a river the community can be proud of. Already, Howard County and Baltimore County have approved plans for the Patapsco Heritage Greenway that includes a portion of the Patapsco Valley State Park.

The Patapsco River’s strategic location and the richness of the resource provide an opportunity to use the river to educate local communities on these protection and restoration tools and help more people connect with the river.

For more information, contact Serena McClain with American Rivers at 202-347-7550.

  • Jessie Thomas-Blate
    National Park Service staff floating the Patapsco River, MD
    Jessie Thomas-Blate