We’ve had water questions before. My columns regarding Circle Pond and Emala Lake served to admirably demonstrate my editor’s reluctance to approve my requisitions for aquatic exploration equipment. So I didn’t even bother making the reasonable request for a raft, supplies, spelunking equipment and a dozen portage bearers necessitated by this week’s question. Instead, I struck out on foot. OK, I drove to where I would set out on foot. OK, I drove to where I would set out on foot, then got back in my car and drove to the next site where I would set out on foot. Without river safari equipment, my options were limited.
But, after hardship and privation that lasted almost three hours, I emerged from the wilderness with the answer. Before this week’s question, I had heard of Bread and Cheese Creek. I knew, for example, that after the Battle of North Point on Sept. 12, 1814, General John Stricker and his men rested along the banks of the creek before retreating to Roger’s Bastion, the fortifications erected by the defenders in what is now Patterson Park. I had also heard that the creek received its name after British soldiers halted by it to eat bread and cheese before marching on to Baltimore.
I first stopped, predictably, at the Dundalk-Patapsco Neck Historical Society. The staff there immediately debunked the legend of the name. I was directed to a file that contained, among other things, an article from an early 1970s Baltimore Sun in which Robert G. Breen traces the history of the stream’s name. Breen discovered that the name could not have come from the events of the Battle of North Point.
How do we know this? Well, unless we’re dealing with a rift in the space-time continuum, the creek didn’t get its name from the battle because its name predates the battle. Predates it by quite a lot, actually.
Bread and Cheese Creek appears on a land certificate for a parcel surveyed for a man named John Ferry. The certificate was executed Nov. 15, 1697. Surveyors again mention the creek by this name in another certificate drawn up in 1698 along with a nearby stream with the equally gustatorial name of Bacon Creek.
Some have suggested that the surveyors determined the names of the creeks depending on what they happened to be eating at the time, according to Breen.
So, with the mystery of the name solved, at least to the low standards of my satisfaction, I set off to trace the course of this history-haunted river and gauge its current state. Armed with a map and a fierce determination to succeed provided I didn’t get dirty, wet or hungry, I traveled to the mouth of fabled Bread and Cheese Creek.
Or near the mouth, anyway. The nearest road to the mouth of the creek is Norris Lane off Trappe Road. You can’t actually see the end of the creek from the road, but it becomes obvious from the terrain (and the smell) that the little tributary has the dubious honor of emptying into Back River right next to the Back River Wastewater Treatment Plant. From there, the creek wends its way up into Gray Manor and North Shire, mostly invisible from the road until it crosses under North Point Road just past Willow Road.
I followed its course, navigating by the map and my own Irish luck (the same luck, by the way, that led me to live in Pittsburgh for two years, but that’s another story), and vowed that, like Sir Richard Francis Burton and John Hanning Speke before me, I would persevere to the hidden head of this mysterious waterway.
I tracked the creek ‘s subterranean course through the teeming wilderness of Berkshire and Eastpoint until it resurfaced just before emerging from Oak Lawn Cemetery on Eastern Avenue. There, I could pursue the stream at my leisure, through the quiet and tranquil surroundings of the burial ground. At last I discovered its source: A pipe led out from the side of the hill under Eastwood. That pipe, I surmised, led to the underground spring from which the storied beck arose.
To test my theory, I drove aimlessly around Eastwood for a while, trying to find somewhere where the creek might enter the hill from the other side. No such ingress existed. More importantly, the land on the other side of the hill seemed lower than the stream in the cemetery. My theory seemed, at least to me, sound.
But, I hear you say, a pristine spring in the middle of the city? What are the chances? Remember, however, that hills and meadows don’t stop being rural just because they get urban. Well, yeah they do, but you get my point.
Anyway, today the creek is restricted by pipes and narrow banks and choked with crud. A historical local landmark deserves more respect. To Muslims, paradise is a land where the rivers flow with milk and honey. In Greater Dundalk, our own little slice of heaven, we could at least have a clean brook flowing with bread and cheese.
(first published in 2001)
Editors note from 2016: Kudos to all the hardworking volunteers who have worked so diligently over the years to clean Bread and Cheese Creek. It certainly is not the same waterway it was when I wrote this article; when grocery carts and old tires were visible from the road. I can’t even imagine what they found elsewhere. Thank you.