“Celebrating Our Past, Creating Our Future.”

Scientific Forestry And Urban Progressivism:

The Development of the Maryland Board of Forestry, 1906 to 1921 by Robert F. Bailey

On Saturday morning, April 16, 1921, a pair of canoes sat resting on a bank near the gently flowing Patapsco River. To the east, the sun struggled to pierce the gray clouds and misty fog blanketing the valley floor. Remnants of the sun’s light dispersed through the budding box elders, sycamores and rock elms and cast the canoes in a patchwork of faint shadows. The temperature was balmy—about 60 degrees—and would remain so for the rest of the day; topping out at 69 by late afternoon.1 The tranquil sound of the cool water sweeping over the rocks belied the scene’s industrial heritage. Twenty years earlier, this location featured constant human activity, punctuated by the rhythmic sound of machinery. Now, the hollowed walls of the deserted Orange Grove Flourmill stood in crumbling defiance against the encroaching trees, Virginia creeper and poison ivy.2 Only the railroad tracks, located directly behind the mill’s ruins, and the occasional passing steam-powered train, contrasted this scene’s garden-like ambiance. Baltimore City, though only a dozen miles distant, seemed a world away.

Patapsco Orange Grove Area, March 1920, photo by Fred W. Besley Fishing on the Patapsco near Relay, 1922, photo by Fred W. Besley
Patapsco Orange Grove Area in Snow, March 1920, photo by Fred W. Besley Fishing on the Patapsco near Relay, 1922, photo by Fred W. Besley

Later that morning, the sound of an approaching automobile further eroded Orange Grove’s apparent isolation. In the auto were six men who sought to paddle the waiting canoes down the Patapsco to its confluence with the Middle Branch in Baltimore. These men, however, were not typical weekend adventurers. The expedition included: Frederick W. Besley, Maryland State Forester, Robert Garrett of the Baltimore Municipal Arts Society and various representatives from the State Board of Forestry, Baltimore City and the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.These men aimed to explore the feasibility of constructing a “parkway” that would connect the Patapsco Valley with Baltimore City. Yet, they did not wish to completely reverse nature’s reclamation efforts. They hoped to make the valley more accessible while allowing it to retain its natural ambiance. A journey down the river itself, they anticipated, might reveal a better sense of the valley’s scenic and recreational value, as well as the cost for acquiring the riverfront property.

After the men disembarked from their auto, they shoved the canoes into the river and boarded. There were three men in each canoe, with Besley and Garrett wielding the stern paddles. After skillfully negotiating the rocky currents, the men paused two miles downriver at Avalon, where they portaged the canoes around Avalon Dam. Another vestige of the valley’s industrial heritage, the dam had been refurbished by the Baltimore County Water & Electric Company to provide fresh drinking water to residents in southwestern Baltimore County and City. While at Avalon, Boy Scout Troop number 158 greeted the adventurers and provided them with lunch. The Baltimore Sun reported that the “various State officials and their guests seemed to get a lot of enjoyment out of wieners and beans.”

River Road Near Avalon, Patapsco Forest Reserve, June 1920
River Road Near Avalon
Patapsco Forest Reserve, June 1920

After leaving Avalon, the men continued their journey down the Patapsco. The balmy temperatures and persistent cloud cover made this an ideal day for canoeing. Along the way, the men witnessed the river transform from a swiftly moving rocky stream into a gently flowing river surrounded by marshlands. After several hours of paddling, the expedition crept into the Middle Branch and in the late evening they arrived at the Ariel Rowing Club. Their journey was a success. According to the Sun, “repeatedly members of the party exclaimed over the beauty of the scenery.” They were particularly enamored by the Cascade Falls near Orange Grove. The heavily wooded landscape was also intriguing.4  Besley concluded, though perhaps inaccurately, that the land had never been cut-over. More significantly, however, the expedition was optimistic about acquiring the riverfront property. Though they still lacked an exact cost estimate, Besley believed that the $12,000 left in the Forestry Board’s land purchasing fund would be adequate. Where land could not be purchased, he was confident cooperation with landowners could be secured. Over the next few days, both the morning and evening editions of the Sun eagerly reported on the proposed “Plan [for] Automobile Drive through Beauty Spot,” and the “Plan to Preserve Banks of Patapsco.”5 “If the plan is realized,” the Evening Sun wrote, “it [the road] will continue a section of the river for several miles up from the harbor which is now a source of great pleasure for canoeists; will prevent the marring of the famous ‘River road walk’ from Relay to Ellicott City, which has long been famous for its beauty, and will provide a beautiful drive for motorists.” This last point was especially exciting: the Evening Sun wrote that drivers would be able to “make a circuit through the city park systems and through this Forest Reserve, driving the greater part of the time through scenes of rare beauty.” 6

This canoe trip is one of many examples that illustrate the Maryland State Board of Forestry’s close relationship with Baltimore’s progressive economic elite. Beginning in 1912, State Forester Besley and Robert Garrett, a partner in a leading banking firm and member of the Baltimore Municipal Arts Society, had coordinated their efforts to improve access to the Patapsco Forest Reserve’s recreational amenities. Besley and Garrett’s interests were complementary. Besley sought to protect Maryland’s timber supply and promote the benefits of scientific forestry to the general public. Garrett, a former Olympian and avid promoter of outdoor activity and exercise, saw the Patapsco Valley as a logical extension of the city’s growing park system. It was Besley’s relationship with Garrett and other urban interests that helped make the Forestry Board into a viable State institution.

Born out of a regional Western Maryland movement aimed at protecting Maryland’s shrinking lumber reserves, prior to 1912 the Forestry Board had been a cash-strapped appropriation struggling to fulfill its legislative obligations. Following that year’s legislative session, however, the Forestry Board’s operating budget more than doubled in 1913. By the decade’s end, the Board’s appropriation was seven times larger than in it had been 1912.7  Besley’s willingness to accommodate the Baltimore region’s progressive impulses was critical to this development. After 1912, the Forestry Board assisted urban progressives by expanding the Patapsco Forest Reserve to meet the city’s need for clean water resources, and by providing its citizens—especially middle-class whites—with an additional recreational outlet. Both of these efforts the urban elite hoped would facilitate suburban development.

This marriage, however, was not simply a marriage of convenience. Their goals shared key fundamental aspects. They both believed in the ultimate financial as well as environmental profitability of their endeavors, they both sought government assistance to achieve their goals, and they believed that their efforts would shape and mold human behavior—to a degree, their success depended upon this last aspect.

My purpose here is to articulate the interdependent relationship that developed between the Maryland Board of Forestry and the Baltimore City urban elite. Most scholarship concerning the development of Maryland’s park system, albeit limited, has
treated either Baltimore City or the state exclusively, with little regard for how each entity interacted—a trend that characterizes a lot of Maryland historical scholarship.8  In this case, not only did State and Baltimore interests interact, but also this interaction proved to be a critical turning point in the development of a State institution.

Fred W. Besley, Maryland's First State ForesterThough it was intended to be—and ultimately became—a statewide endeavor, it was those living in Western Maryland who acutely felt the need for a more effective means of protecting and preserving the forestland. Despite efforts by settlers to clear the land during the 18th and 19th-centuries, Garrett County featured the most significant acreage of the Maryland’s remaining forestland. Even as late as 1914, 63 percent of the county remained wooded—though a considerably smaller percentage of that was “virgin.” According to Besley, “the good quality of the land early attracted settlers, and under the constant influx of immigrants, the best of the suitable lands have been cleared.” The county’s mountainous terrain deterred settlers from completely clear-cutting it. “The forests have, therefore,” wrote Besley, “receded from the valleys and are now mostly confined to the mountains and rugged slopes.”9  Though early settlers had left their imprint on the landscape, their land clearing efforts typically did not include river valleys where the rugged geography made farming impractical.

Turn-of-the-century lumber companies, however, saw the treed landscape as an untapped economic resource, and began making significant inroads into the region by the 1880s.10  Late 19th and early 20th century timber companies typically clear-cut land with little regard for conservation or environmental ramifications.11  The detrimental effect of indiscriminate cutting was the result of several timber companies competing for increasingly scarce resources. This development was further exacerbated by the nation’s insatiable demands for timber. For many communities in Appalachia, a devastating domino effect resulted. Denuded lands led to increased sediment runoff, clouding stream and river water and simultaneously killing the fish and destroying valuable sources of drinking water (in many areas, the runoff mixed with poison waste from strip mines). The sediment runoff then proceeded to back up mill dams and clog drainage channels. With less water absorbing into the ground—a valuable function provided by trees—there was a rise in the frequency of both flooded (during wet seasons) and dry (during dry seasons) streams and rivers. Increased runoff also lowered the water table and cut further into drinking water supply. Add to this mix a growing human population capable of producing more sources of waste, organic and non-organic, and the result in many areas were literal cesspools of disease and poverty.

William McCulloh Brown, Maryland State SenatorBy 1905, local newspapers such as the Oakland Republican began to articulate the need to protect the county’s environment—particularly its timber, game and fish reserves. In response, Garrett County voters that year sent William McCulloh Brown to the State Senate with a bill providing for the creation of a State Board of Forestry. According to the Baltimore Sun, “Mr. Brown lives in Garrett County, where the lumber interests are large and where the fountain head of many streams are situated. He finds that the forests of his county are the finest and most extensive in the State, are rapidly disappearing before the sawmill.” Expressing confidence in his legislation, the Sun reported that Brown “is satisfied that the State should own large forest preserves which would not only be a source of profit to the State in the future, but would also preserve game birds and animals from extermination.”12

Introduced in February 1906, Browns’ forestry bill was passed virtually unaltered on March 31. The forestry bill stipulated the creation of a Board of Forestry that consisted of the Governor, Comptroller, President of Johns Hopkins University, President of Maryland Agricultural College, State Geologist, “one citizen of the State known to be interested in the advancement of forestry,” and “one practical lumberman engaged in the manufacture of lumber within this State.”13  Though the legislation gave the Board of Forestry the legal power to purchase private property, the bill was nevertheless conservative. To ameliorate elements who may have harbored concerns about the State purchasing land, the bill empowered the state to indirectly conserve, manage and control Maryland’s timber supply. Therefore, during its early years, all State Forest Reserves would consist of philanthropic donations—and beyond a 2,000 acre tract in Garrett County and a 43 acre tract in Baltimore County, few donations were forthcoming.14   With a miniscule $3,500 annual appropriation, the Forestry Board lacked the financial muscle necessary to purchase land. In fact, its appropriation was barely large enough to hire one professional forester and a small supporting staff. Accordingly, the Board of Forestry’s two primary functions involved fighting forest fires and acting as a scientific forestry information clearing house until 1912.

The legislation empowered the Board of Forestry to hire a professional State Forester to “have direction of all forests, and all matters pertaining of forestry” in Maryland. The State Forester was to direct all forest wardens, initially consisting of unpaid volunteers, and “aid and direct them in their work.” Foremost among the forester warden’s duties included putting out and preventing forest fires and apprehending and prosecuting those responsible for starting fires. “When any forest warden shall see or have any reported to him a forest fire, it shall be his duty to immediately repair to the scene of the fire and employ such persons and means as in his judgment seem expedient and necessary to extinguish said fire.”15

The Forester’s advisory role reflected the faith that scientific forestry was, indeed, profitable. According to the legislation, the State Forester was to “co-operate with counties, town, corporations and individuals in preparing plans for the protection, management and replacement of trees, woodlots, and timber tracts, under an agreement that the parties obtaining such assistance pay at least the field expenses of the men employed in preparing said plans.”16  A few altruistic people aside, it was unlikely that corporations and individual landowners would have been compelled to seek and pay for state assistance unless there was the potential for profit. In selling his forestry bill to the Senate, Brown argued, “the forester studies the soil and climatic conditions, finds out what species of trees are best adapted to a particular locality, and will make the most rapid and profitable growth on any particular tract. . . .He is thus of practical value to the lumberman and to private owners of the forest lands” (my italics).17

Though the legislation failed to explicitly reference the forests’ value in protecting streams and rivers, Brown encouraged his colleagues to consider that benefit when weighing the decision. Brown argued that “the forest, with its dense foliage and carpet of moss and ferns, acts as a reservoir to store up and regulate the moisture, which comes in the form of rain.” To drive his point home, Brown romantically analogized that “springs are the children of the forest, and as they unite into brooks, streams and rivers those are the most regular in their flow and volume, and these conditions are directly influenced by the forest.”18

Pleased with the legislative session, the Sun opined that “the Forestry bill is designed to promote the scientific study of the forest resources of Maryland and their bearing on the water supply. It should produce good results.”19

1 Baltimore Sun, Morning, April 17, 1921.
2 Orange Grove Flourmill, Mill C of the Patapsco Manufacturing Company, burnt on May 8, 1905. For more on the history of Orange Grove during its industrial period, see Thomas L. Phillips, The Orange Grove Story; A View of Maryland Americana in 1900, (Washington, D. C.: The Author, 1972). The narrative here it based on photos taken a few years after mill burnt (which are included in Phillips’ The Orange Grove Story), and my observations of the native tree and vine species that presently grow there.
In addition to Besley and Garrett, the party also included K. E. Pfeifer, Assistant State Forester, Edmund George Prince, Patapsco Forest Reserve warden, Joseph W. Shirley of the Baltimore City Topographical Survey Commission, and Alva Day of the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad.
4 In addition to the ubiquitous tobacco plantations, the Patapsco River had once boasted several charcoal-fired iron mills during the late 18th and early 19th centuries. These mills consumed considerable quantities of timber on a daily basis, and it is unlikely that they would have left any nearby timber stands untouched.
5 Baltimore Sun, Morning, April 16, 17, and 18, 1921, Baltimore Sun, Evening, April 16 and 20, 1921. Both Sun papers gave fairly detailed accounts of the events on April 16, 1921, but their accounts vary. According to the Morning Sun, the expedition was larger, and it went directly by automobile to Avalon, where they Boy Scouts provided them lunch, and the men walked about a mile downriver to Relay, where they embarked on their canoe expedition. The Evening Sun’s reporting closer reflects the narrative given here. Since the Morning Sun recounts the expedition’s enchantment with the Cascade Falls, which are located near Orange Grove, I am more inclined to agree with the Evening Sun’s interpretation.
6 Baltimore Sun, Evening, April 20, 1921.
7 The Board of Forestry’s operating budget was $4,000 in 1912, $10,000 in 1913, and $28,580 in 1921. Totals were taken from the Report of the Maryland State Board of Forestry for 1912 and 1913 and the Report of the Maryland State Board of Forestry for 1920 and 1921. The totals are not adjusted for inflation.
8 For previous scholarship on the development of Baltimore’s park system, see: James B. Crooks, Politics and Progress: The Rise of Urban Progressivism in Baltimore, 1895 to 1911, (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1968), 127-154, Sherry H. Olson, Baltimore: The Building of an American City, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 245, 249-258, W. Edward Orser, “A Tale of Two Park Plans: The Olmsted Vision for Baltimore and Seattle, 1903,” Maryland Historical Magazine, 98(4), (Winter 2003), 467-483, Kevin Zucker, “Falls and Stream Valleys: Frederick Law Olmsted and The Parks of Baltimore,” Maryland Historical Magazine, 90(1), (Spring 1995), 73-96, and Barry Kessler and David Zang, The Play Life of a City: Baltimore’s Recreation and Parks, 1900-1955, (Baltimore: Baltimore City Life Museums and the Baltimore City Department of Recreation and Parks, 1989). For previous scholarship on the development of the Maryland State Board of Forestry, see: Geoffrey L. Buckley and J. Morgan Grove, “Sowing the Seeds of Forest Conservation: Fred Besley and the Maryland Story, 1906-1923,” Maryland Historical Magazine, 96(3), (Fall 2001), 303-327, Ralph R. Widner, ed., Forests and Forestry in the American States: A Reference Anthology, (Washington D. C.: The National Association of State Foresters), 145-152, 236-245, Ney C. Landrum, ed., Histories of the Southeastern State Park Systems, (Washington D. C.: Association of Southeastern State Park Directors, 1992), 80-91, and American Forests Magazine, (October 1956).
F. W. Besley, The Forests of Garrett County, (Baltimore: Maryland State Board of Forestry, 1914), 7-8.
10 Besley, The Forests of Garrett County, 7. In 1914, Besley argued that the bulk of the region’s virgin pine forests were cut 35 to 40 years before.
11 Several scholars have recounted the detrimental effects of “unscientific” forestry methods. See, Geoffrey L. Buckley, “The Environmental Transformation of an Appalachian Valley, 1850-1906,” Geographical Review, 88(2), (April, 1998), 175-198, Ronald L. Lewis, Transforming the Appalachian Countryside: Railroads, Deforestation, and Social Change in West Virginia, 1880-1920, (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998) and Thomas R. Cox, Robert S. Maxwell, Phillip Drennon Thomas, and Joseph J. Malone, This Well-Wooded Land: Americans and Their Forests from Colonial Times to the Present, (Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 1985).
Baltimore Sun, April 1, 1906.
13 The Maryland Agricultural College later became the University of Maryland College Park.
14 These two tracts consisted of a 1,917 acre tract donated by Robert and John W. Garrett, and a 43 acre tract donated by John M. Glenn. The Garrett deed stipulated that “if within the period of next twenty five years from this date hereof, the said State of Maryland should neglect or fail to carry out the provisions of said Forestry Act, or abandon the property hereby donated, then the title to the said several tracts and parcels of land shall revert to the said donors.” Summary of Deed, Garrett Bequest to State of Maryland, Maryland Hall of Records.
Laws of Maryland, Chapter 294, Section 6,534.
Laws of Maryland, Chapter 294, Section 4,533-534.
Oakland Republican, March 1, 1906.
18 Oakland Republican, March 1, 1906.
19 Baltimore Sun, April 4, 1906.


Robert F. Bailey is an historian with the Maryland Park Service. His historical research paper, Scientific Forestry And Urban Progressivism: The Development of the Maryland Board of Forestry, 1906 to 1921, is not the property of the Department of Natural Resources and  is being re-printed on the DNR website as part of Maryland DNR's Centennial Notes series, with the express permission of Robert F. Bailey who holds the copyright to his work.  No part of this document may be re-printed or copied for any use without the written permission of the author.

Photographs (top to bottom):

Patapsco Orange Grove Area in Snow, March 1920, photo by Fred W. Besley
Fishing on the Patapsco near Relay, 1922, photo by Fred W. Besley
River Road Near Avalon, Patapsco Forest Reserve, June 1920, photo by Fred W. Besley
Fred W. Besley, Maryland's First State Forester
William McCulloh Brown, Maryland State Senator