The Big Spring at Spring Park has found new life thanks to city arborist Todd Bolton, but its history stretches back into the mists of geological time.
Bolton explains that springs like this arise in areas of transition between geological regions. In this case, the plates that form the Piedmont bedrock and the coastal plane have been colliding for eons, resulting in the sloping rugged terrain evident throughout Takoma Park.
The dividing line between the two plates is the ridge line that roughly follows I-95. Or as Bolton puts it, “People tend to build on the high ground, and I-95 connects all the dots: Baltimore, Georgetown, Alexandria. Hyattsville is on the coastal plain; Silver Spring is on the Piedmont.” Rainwater collects in the underground rock crevices, and eventually finds its way out as a natural spring.
The proliferation of springs caught the attention of developer B.F. Gilbert in 1883 when he was looking for land near the railroad to build his sylvan suburb. Big Spring was part of his second land purchase, and he donated the land around it for a community park, agreeing that residents would always have free access to the water.
This spring house was built near the intersecton of Elm at Poplar in 1891 and served as a community gathering place until its demolition until 1952.
Gilbert considered bottling the water for sale (as Poland Springs was doing), but it was too costly an enterprise. Finding himself in financial trouble, he sold the water rights to a private company in 1891, only to face the wrath of his fellow citizens.
After several years of controversy, the courts awarded the right of access back to the Takoma Park residents. The company was forced out, but it left behind a spring house built of boulders and timber.
The city, meanwhile, decided it could no longer depend entirely on a water supply fed by natural springs, and in 1898 built a water filtration system on Sligo Creek near Maple and a water holding tower on Ethan Allen near Takoma Junction.
Neighbors, however, continued to enjoy the cool sweet water from Big Spring. Dorothy Barnes, who grew up a few blocks from the park, remembers the taste of the ice cold water on hot summer days, and the long hours spent playing on the spring house steps. “We had great fun straddling the line that ran through the building marking the boundary between Montgomery and Prince Goerge’s Counties.” On Saturday nights, it served as the local bandstand.
Capt. Blodgett, the city constable, lived across the street from the park and he found a novel use for the spring house — as a convenient jail for keeping drunks overnight.
The spring house was demolished in 1952, but folks still lined up to fill their buckets from the pipe until the day in the late Fifties when the city declared the water contaminated. The pipe, which Barnes recalls gushing 1000 gallons an hour, was closed and diverted into the stormwater sewers. But, as Bolton observes, natural springs don’t respond to being boxed in, and they start leaking anywhere they find an outlet. Over the years, the ground became soggy and the resulting complaints led Bolton on his odyssey to free the spring.
Which brings us to the statue of Chief Powhatan that has adorned the Big Spring site since 1985. Long before white men arrived, this was Indian territory and they would have paid notice to such things as natural springs.
Takoma Park has long savored a persistent legend involving Powhatan, the great chief who greeted the Jamestown settlers. Sculptor Normon Greene came across the colorful tale of Powhatan as a young warrior. Gravely injured in battle, he was brought to Big Spring and healed in its magical waters. Greene decided to commemorate the event with a polystyrene and cement sculpture, under contract to the city.
Attempting to confirm the legend, I canvassed several experts on local Indians.The results were disappointing concerning Powhatan, but uncovered a truth much more startling.
Dr. Stephen Potter, the resident expert at the National Park Service, categorically stated there is no evidence for Powhatan’s presence here, and didn’t find it credible for several reasons. “Powhatan’s power base was near Richmond, a long way from Maryland. He had his hands full consolidating his power base there and wasn’t likely to be involved in any fighting up north. Once the English arrived in Jamestown, he was preoccupied dealing with them.
“Secondly, the area of Takoma Park and Montgomery County as a whole was a hinterland. Although occasional hunting parties would have passed through this area, and even stopped at the spring, it is highly unlikely that Powhatan would have been one of them.”
He suggested one possible source for the story: “Legends like this popped up everywhere in the late 1800s and reflected a romanticization of the Indian. As people began finding and collecting Indian artifacts here, they associated them with Powhatan. It’s the equivalent of ‘George Washington slept here.’”
According to Potter, the artifacts unearthed in local backyards and along Sligo Creek were left by Indians far more ancient than Powhatan.
Heather Bouslog in the Montgomery County archeologist’s office picked up the story: ”There were Archaic Indians in this region dating back to 7,500 years ago, but they disappeared around 1000 BC. Most of the artifacts recovered date to that 1000 BC period.”
By colonial times there were few, if any, Indians in Montgomery County. The villages were all on the major rivers. Takoma Park and the surrounding area was dense forest of oaks and hickory and served as a buffer between the warring Susquehanna, and Algonkin.
Big Spring would have had occasional Indian visitors, but not until the white men arrived in force did the land attract permanent settlers. Water proved to be a sought-after commodity.
Having freed the Big Spring from enforced captivity, Bolton’s next move is to tell the geological, historical and ecological history of Spring Park as a series of interpretive displays. He remains intrigued by the idea of analyzing the water for clues to its radiological makeup that could pinpoint the year when the spring water first fell as rain.