History of the Jones Falls

by Stanley J. Kemp


The Jones Falls is a waterway that has been through centuries of change, urbanization, industrialization, and ecological recovery. The Jones Falls is one of a small number of waterways which are found in the City of Baltimore (such as the Gwynns Falls and Herring Run). Major branches of it in the city include Stony Run and Western Run.

As many people live in proximity to them, many can potentially benefit from clean and pleasant areas where they can recreate and get exercise. Thus, they can provide improved quality of life. Healthy ecosystems can increase property values, while those that are neglected and in poor shape can do the opposite. Just as these greenways act as an island for people, they are islands of habitat available for wildlife in a sea of human habitation. The Jones Falls is the main tributary and contributor to the Inner Harbor, which is very important to Baltimore’s economy and tourism industry. As such, efforts to clean up this critical area are linked to the success of restoration of the Jones Falls watershed.

As ecologist H.B. Hynes once said, “the valley rules the stream”. The area of land draining into a waterway is called its watershed. Whatever factors are present in the watershed are integrated, distilled and amplified in the waterway. Efforts to restore the Jones Falls therefore mean positive improvements to the Jones Falls Watershed, such as tree planting, sewer and stormwater system upgrades and retrofits, getting rid of all the trash, and improved aesthetics. The challenge before us in fixing the Jones Falls is one that is not small, but carries huge benefits for Baltimore residents, present and future.

Early- 1800’s

The history of Jones Falls after human settlement has been directly connected with that of Baltimore City ever since its very beginnings. Even before the founding of the city the settlements which became the city (one called Jones’ town) centered around the mouth of the Jones Falls. Accounts of the Jones Falls in its pristine state are few, although it would have been a ready source of fresh water and early depictions of the city show fishermen purse seining the Inner Harbor in its proximity. Like many tributaries to the Chesapeake Bay it would have yielded an annual abundance of migratory fish such as shad, river herring, and eels. These were an annual bonanza used by the Native Americans as well as the early settlers. Presumably like many other aggregations of migratory fish in the region they suffered from the first wave of habitat destruction in the region: deforestation, conversion to agriculture, and nearly obsessive dam- building along the Jones Falls and its tributaries. The Jones Falls was surely changed extensively by these activities. Meanwhile, the city of Baltimore began to grow up around it.


The gentle gradient (elevational drop over stream length) of the Jones Falls made it an ideal stream to power the areas burgeoning industries with water power. Much use of this water power ensued, with many grist mills and eventually textile mills along its length. According to old maps of the area, many other industries prospered along its length. These included coal yards, rail yards, tanneries, fruit and seafood packing industries, and others. The Jones Falls was at the center of the first great wave of industrialization in Baltimore by the mid- 1800s. This coupled with the fact that the city was expanding north in areas draining the Jones Falls led to serious impacts from pollution.

First, keep in mind that this was a time period before organized stormwater and sewer systems in Baltimore and pre- sewage treatment. The haphazard ‘system’ of storm and sewer drains routinely brought massive amounts of untreated raw sewage into the Jones Falls of the 19th century. As a result, the Jones Falls of this time would best be described as an open cesspool, along with the Inner Harbor for that matter. In fact, notables of the time involved in public discourse such as Ross Winans (a famous Baltimore inventor) described it just that way. In an 1872 publication detailing his many public letters to the Baltimore Sun on what to do with the Jones Falls ‘problem’, he described it hyperbolically as follows:

This nusiance, so deleterious to health, emitting its offensive effluvia along its serpentine course, as it drags its lazy length by the unsightly yards, the exposed back buildings of ill kept houses, the rear of factories and across the principal thoroughfares, exposing to the public gaze that which a decent respect for the modesty of the people commands to be hidden, can be abated only by such measures as will go to the very root of the evil.”

And if this were not bad enough, there really were very few if any regulations on what the area’s growing industry could put in the stream. As a result, all manner of pollutants from these industries, organic and chemical, where deliberately and incidentally washed into the Jones Falls. This must have had a devastating impact on the organisms which lived in the Jones Falls at this time, though records are scarce. Also, one has to understand that no one was proposing to solve this issue by controlling what was discharged or washed into the waterway. Instead, the stream was diverted and planned for yet more diversions, plans were drawn up for damming the stream and using all of the water in the falls for various purposes, and in burying the stream in a system of tunnels. For the lowest section of the Jones Falls, the latter solution was borne out in the early 20th century.

Late 1800’s

In the latter half of the 19th century the Jones Falls had become what many people believed to be, including public health officials of the time, an existential human health threat. Outbreaks of miscellaneous ‘fevers’ and the threats of Yellow Fever and Cholera are often mentioned at this time, and are ascribed as being at least partially due to the cesspool of the Jones Falls. In fact, poor sanitation and lack of an organized sanitary sewer system also played a significant role. So much for the romanticism of the ‘good old days’ of the city during this time period!

In addition, there was another threat which was caused directly by the alteration of the Jones Falls watershed: flooding. On several occasions during the 19th century, massive floods of Baltimore’s low lying downtown areas occurred, resulting in many fatalities and unhealthful conditions. The strength of these floods were partially of our own doing. Building of Baltimore’s neighborhoods greatly increased the surface area of the city where water cannot infiltrate into the soil, or impervious surface. Therefore, much rain which would have otherwise drained into the groundwater supply simply ran off into the Jones Falls, the low lying point of the landscape. Also, the stream had been restricted to a narrow channel, and any connection with floodplains had been removed. Again, the water had nowhere to go but downstream. All of these factors made the Jones Falls very tempremental, and very quick to flood. Clearly something had to be done about these problems, but what?

There seems to have been a vigorous debate on what to do with the Jones Falls during the latter part of the 1800s. Ross Winans wanted to construct a massive series of reservoirs which could periodically be used to flush out the Jones Falls and Inner Harbor. Another plan would extend the tidal, navigable portion of the harbor deep into Baltimore (it is not clear how this would have improved the situation), and another diverted the Jones Falls away from the downtown area and to the Back River. Yet another scheme placed the lower Jones Falls in a series of tunnels, or conduits which would bring the flow underground through the city and out through to the Inner Harbor. It was the latter plan that won out in the end, and that’s what we have today for a large part of the lower Jones Falls.


At the end of the 19th century and into the early part of the 20th century, a massive public works effort was underway, involving millions of dollars in expenditure and the work of many local Baltimore companies and contractors. To solve the sanitation issue, a huge network of sewer lines was put in, which connected with pumping stations and the first regional sewage treatment plant. These made a significant contribution to removing the greater part of the health hazard coming from Baltimore waters. Coupled with the sewer lines was a network of storm drains that would efficiently carry runoff directly to area waterways. Some smaller streams and tributaries to the Jones Falls effectively became tunneled conduits for stormwater, and ceased to exist as surface waters at this time. Parallel with these great public works was the construction of the Jones Falls Conduit. The Jones Falls from just upstream of Penn Station to the Inner Harbor at the location of the present National Aquarium was placed in three massive tunnels and is still there today. Dedicated in 1915, the Jones Falls Conduit solved the problems of flooding for the downtown area and removed what had been a polluted cesspool from view. While this is most likely not what a solution would look like in modern times, this part of the Jones Falls is most likely to stay there for the lifetime of the city of Baltimore. Much now exists on top of the Jones Falls and its immediate environment, including major roads like the Jones Falls Expressway. While some of the smaller tributaries may be reborn as surface waters, or ‘daylighted’, it is difficult to envision a way forward for the rebirth of the main stem of the lowest parts of the Jones Falls at this time.

The 20th century saw great improvements to the condition of the Jones Falls remaining aboveground. While the impervious character of the watershed and tempremental flooding remain, there has been great improvement on many fronts. The economic basis of the city of Baltimore has shifted away from that of industry, and most of what industry remains is no longer centered on the Jones Falls. The industrial discharges that came from streamside mills, tanneries and coalyards no longer exist, and there is much less in the way of toxic material entering into the Jones Falls. Only a few permitted factories still call the Jones Falls valley home today. The environmental movement of the 1970s gave rise to landmark pieces of legislation such as the Clean Water Act, which mandated the maintenance of water quality above certain standards and provided the legislative teeth to enforce those standards. Today, factors which impair the waters of the Jones Falls are monitored by City, State, and Federal agencies in order to meet compliance with these standards. It may surprise people to learn there are only a few toxic chemicals which impair the Jones Falls today, such as zinc, copper, and lead (in sediment only).


The resilience of nature is well demonstrated by the Jones Falls. While not home to any species particularly sensitive to pollution, the Jones Falls harbors a surprisingly diverse array of fish and invertebrates, and also is home to ducks, wading birds, and other wildlife. While it sometimes floods impressively, at other times the water can be surprisingly clear, with a pleasant rocky substrate reminiscent of an upstate trout stream. In addition to government agencies, the work of dedicated watershed associations in the Jones Falls Watershed such as the Jones Falls Watershed Association and its successor Blue Water Baltimore, and the Friends of Stony Run continue to make positive steps at restoring this waterway. In some parts of the lower Jones Falls, public access has been vastly increased via the Jones Falls Trail. Today there is much to be positive about with regards to the health of the Jones Falls. This runs counter to the general perception in Baltimore, which may relate to the former state of the stream, which can only be described as atrocious.

However, if the Jones Falls is to meet its full potential as a benefit to the city of Baltimore, considerable work remains to be done. The stormwater and sewage system which at one time was state of the art is now over 100 years old and has begun to degrade and fall into disrepair. Even though Baltimore can boast of having a system with very few official combined sewage/ stormwater flows, sewage contamination is a major problem in the Jones Falls today. This happens because of the breakdown of conduits and pipes causes cross contamination which is brought directly and continuously to the Jones Falls. One of the main goals of the present study is to identify the sources of these sewage leaks so that they can be repaired. Also, over the years numerous illicit connections have been made to the system as well. These together result in a continuous flow of bacteria- laden water into the Jones Falls, even under dry weather conditions. Extremely high levels of coliform (originating from sewage outfalls) bacteria are the greatest impairment remaining in the Jones Falls, and this translates into high levels in the Inner Harbor as well. If the ambitious goal of a swimmable and fishable Inner Harbor by 2020 is to be achieved, much progress toward reducing bacterial levels in the Jones Falls must be made. However, the long term view shows us the great deal of progress that has occurred towards this goal already. Recognition of the great deal the city of Baltimore has to gain by cleaning up its waterways will continue to move the Jones Falls closer to the great potential it has.