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History of the Park


Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park-one contiguous parkland with two names--comprises one of the largest woodland parks in an eastern United States city. Consisting of over 1000 acres, this is by far Baltimore's most extensive park, stretching from the western city line along the valley of the Gwynns Falls and its tributaries all the way to Wilkens Avenue.

Gwynns Falls Park had modest beginnings when in 1901 a small wedge of land southwest of Edmondson Avenue was set aside as a park to address the growing population on the city's west side, which had been annexed in 1888.

In 1903 the Olmsted Brothers (sons of the famous designer of Central Park) were asked to make recommendations to the city's park commission on future park needs. The firm's 1904 report strongly recommended securing land along the Gwynns Falls as a stream valley park. Image The writers were struck by the scenic beauty of the valley, which had "the character of a wooded gorge, [where] the scenery is remarkably beautiful, of a picturesque and sylvan sort seldom possible to retain so near a great city."

The report also was impressed by the wide bottom land north of Edmondson Avenue, describing it as "a great meadow flanked by steep and attractive hills." For years this area, known as Bloomingdale Oval, served as a site for playing fields, and today it bears the designation Leon Day Park-named for the Negro Leagues member of baseball's Hall of Fame. Park acquisition along the Gwynns Falls continued over the following decades, extending southward to Frederick and Wilkens Avenues and northwest through particularly scenic, wooded sections beyond Dickeyville to the city line.

Leakin Park resulted from city purchase of the Crimea, the former estate of Thomas Winans, in the 1940s. Nearly a century earlier, Winans, upon returning to the U.S. from Russia where he had made a fortune helping to build that country's first railroad, established the Crimea as his country estate. The Winans land included both the upland portions, the site of the Orianda mansion and a number of other structures, as well as the valley portion along the Dead Run, a tributary of the Gwynns Falls. Money for the purchase came from the 1920s bequest of Baltimore lawyer J. Wilson Leakin, whose will provided that the proceeds from the sale of several of his downtown properties be used to create a city park.

An essential stipulation of the will was that the new park bear the Leakin name, honoring his grandfather, who had been a mayor of Baltimore. Considerable competition resulted, as many areas of the city fought to obtain the new park for their section. Finally, in 1940, the Crimea site won out. The special qualities of the site had long been recognized. A 1926 report by the Olmsted Brothers called the valley of Dead Run "one of the very best bits of scenery near Baltimore," and Frederick Law Olmsted, Jr., referred to the Crimea tract as "so nearly in condition, just as it now is, to be a very beautiful and valuable park."

Subsequent acquisitions expanded the area of the two adjoining parks. Although the separate names remain, the combined parkland is most often referred to as Gwynns Falls/Leakin Park.

In the 1980s the upland Crimea section of Leakin Park became home to a number of ongoing programs. The Carrie Murray Nature Center, named for the mother of Baltimore Orioles great, Eddie Murray, provides nature programs and activities, and the Baltimore Chesapeake Bay Outward Bound Center offers outdoor education programs for youths and adults.

Other park traditions begun in the 1980s include the annual Baltimore Herb Festival, held each spring, and the miniature trains operated by the Chesapeake and Allegheny Steam Preservation Society, which offers free rides on the second Sundays of the month from April through November. The section of the park off Windsor Mill Road also features historic structures that date from the original Winans era, including the Orianda mansion, a wooden Gothic chapel, and several stone buildings.