1661: David Jones built a house on the bank of a stream that would eventually be named in his honor, establishing himself as the land’s first settler. Through the centuries, the stream would be called many things, including glittering, eccentric, rebellious, violent, and belligerent.
Jones Town, often called Old Town—the first established settlement of Baltimore—was built along the Falls in 1732.
Through the 1750s, as the population of western Maryland increased, and the demand for grain intensified, Baltimore became the hub for a network of graining operations.
In these early years of the Jones Falls, the water was alive with mosquitoes, chirped with woodcock and croaked with frogs. It attracted swimmers and crabbers and was considered deep enough to drown a man.
A horseshoe bend curled west toward a 40-foot bluff at Calvert and Lexington streets—where the original Baltimore court house once stood, and the battle monument has since been erected. Boats would tie up close to the courthouse.
In 1758, the marshy bed of the Falls, known as Steiger’s Meadow, was drained, cleared and converted into cattle pastures by a local butcher. That same year, a wooden bridge was constructed, where the Gay Street Bridge now stands.
In 1776, in an effort to curb erratic flooding, the state assembly ordered the Jones Falls Harrison swamp drained.
A decade later, in 1786, a major flood takes out bridges and stores and drowns several people and horses.
Englehart Yeiser dug a canal east of Steiger’s meadow in 1789, cutting off the water’s natural course along the horseshoe bend.
In 1802, a gristmill (flour mill)—the first mill of Hampden-Woodberry—opens for business, attracting mill hands from as far as Kentucky and West Virginia.
As the mill district along the Jones Falls valley developed, it became known as “The Bottom,” or “The Hollow.”
In 1804, the Falls Road turnpike, a toll road following the route of an ancient Native American warpath, was chartered to connect downtown Baltimore with Hampden-Woodberry.
Covering portions of the stream, was first proposed in 1817.
In 1837 the Jones Falls rose 20 feet past its banks, flooding homes, killing 19 people, 40 horses, and 60 cows, destroying all but one bridge and washing away several milldams.
Stone Hill, the community along the Falls built by David Carroll in the 1840s, actively recruited families from parts of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia to work in the flourishing mills.
Throughout the 1800s, the factories along the Falls are gradually converted into cotton mills. Between 1861-1865, The Civil War temporarily cut off raw cotton from the Deep South, but by the end of the war the mills began to grow again.
An 1868 flood kills 50 people and fills 2000 cellars to the ceiling.
With each flood, the higher and the stronger the bridges and walls that were built.
By the 1870s, the Hampden-Woodberry workforce, comprised of children, men and women, most of whom were local, white-American born, had grown to nearly to 2931. The average workday was 12 hours.
In 1877 Hampden-Woodberry railroad workers went on strike— a conflict would become known as the Great Strike of 1877.
Contrary to the desires of most local citizens, Hampden-Woodberry was annexed to Baltimore city in 1888.
The 1890s became known as a “period of industrial consolidations,” when Mount Vernon Woodberry Mills was created, consisting of Park Mill, Druid Mill and the original Mount Vernon Mills and Hooper operations. By this decade, the mills employed nearly 4000 people and the era goes on record as the peak of the industry.
By the mid 1800s, raw sewage filled the Jones Falls, giving Baltimore the highest typhoid rate of any city in the country. Official city warnings against wading or swimming in the stream began to be issued and, up until the mid 1900s, the city administrated typhoid vaccinations to anyone who fell in the water.
In an effort to separate sanitary waste from storm water and city streams, Baltimore began building a sewer system in 1910.
Between 1911 and 1916, the Fallsway was built. The Baltimore City Council and State Legislature agreed to the 1.6 million dollar project, creating a single tunnel twenty-one feet wide and burying the river underground. At least 4 workers died on the job.
“I’ve come to bury the Jones Falls, not praise it, “ said Henry Barton Jacobs—Master of Ceremony at the 1915 dedication of the Fallsway—before setting off the dynamite that diverted the lower Jones Falls into the underground tunnel.
The WWI boom, spanning from 1915 to 1918, brought an influx of jobs and heightened demands for cotton. During this period, a strike of the Mill workers and Machinists at Poole and Hunt Foundry on Clipper Road, successfully led to unionization and better wages.
The 1920s saw the end of war and the sail era. As cotton duct became a thing of the past, mills turned to the production of oil lamp wicks, sash cords for windows, and netting for fishing seines.
In 1923, a proposal to increase the workweek to 54 hours, along with a 7.5% pay increase, led to another mill strike. The strike turned out to be the states biggest that year and ended in defeat of the union. Mill owners began searching for alternative labor sources and some operations, such as Mount Vernon Mills, headed south. The beginning of the end for Baltimore’s mill industry had begun.
That same year, Baltimore Evening Sun published an article entitled “Woodberry Area Hardly Touched by City Advance.” The subtitle read: “District, including Hampden, Much as it was 50 Years Ago. Cotton Mills Afford Chief Means of Work. Nearly All People There Americans for Generations.”
The management of Mount Vernon-Woodberry Mill severed its connection with the Hampden-Woodberry community in 1925, by selling off the workers’ housing.
Ground broke for the Noxzema Chemical Company in 1926.
On June 8th of that year, what was probably a thrown lit cigarette sparked off petroleum fumes in the 1914 conduit. Explosions blew the covers from the manholes lining the Falls Way, from Baltimore Street to North Madison Street. Windows were shattered and one man suffered cuts from flying glass. 40 feet high flames spanned the open portion of the river from Baltimore to Pratt Street, destroying a burlesque theater and filling downtown streets with smoke.
1939-1945: WW II. A spike in the need for cotton duct led to another, albeit brief, cotton mill boom.
The Great Depression of the 1930s saw Mill workers either unemployed of suffering from shorter workweeks. Along the river, children could be found scavenging for firewood.
By the 1950s, downtown Baltimore had grown dense with employees, who were unhappy with the 45 min commute to work from their homes in Baltimore County.
Jones Falls Expressway broke ground in 1956 and the highway opened in 1962.
By the 1960s most mills had closed, with the last one, Mount Vernon Mills, finally shutting down in 1972.
Meadow Mill, which eventually became London Fog, moved operations to South East Asia in 1989.
By the 1980s artists and craftsman took to the otherwise abandoned mill workspaces, converting them into their own places.
In 2006, Clipper Mill opened, as a mix-use development comprised of office and retail space, condominiums, rental apartments, and restaurant space.
In 2010, Fells Point based Terranova Ventures puts in plans to turn the Mount Vernon Mills artist run and inhabited studios, entertainment venues and residential spaces into condominium and mixed use space. The project is still pending.
Brennen Jensen “Pins and Needles,” City Paper, 1998
Jo Ann E. Argersinger, “The City that Tries to Suit Everybody: Baltimore’s Clothing
Industry The Baltimore Book, Temple University Press, 1991
Philip Kahn Jr., A Stitch in Time: The Four Seasons of Baltimore's Needle Trades, Mary-
land Historical Society, 1989
Joann Harris Gabler, “Made in Baltimore,” Baltimore Magazine, 1975