The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Leakin Park hidden gem once housed eccentric Winans

In the summertime, wealthy people in 19th century Baltimore left their downtown mansions and the soupy air of the inner city for opulent countryside homes.

Baltimoreans of today don’t need an invitation to stop by the Crimea, once the summer destination for an eccentric Russophile railroad builder.

The summer estate owned by Thomas Winans, along with its four-story mansion, Gothic chapel and winding wooded trails, is located within Leakin Park in Baltimore. The property was acquired by the city during the 1930s and 1940s at the urging of one of the nation’s foremost landscape architects. Today, it is one of the hidden gems of Baltimore.

From inside the stone mansion, called Orianda House, trees obscure any evidence of a city, and a breeze whispers through the doors from the balcony into the ballroom. Upstairs live staffers for Chesapeake Bay Outward Bound, which leases the building from the city and operates in the surrounding park.

While the mansion itself is off limits to the public, Rick Smith Sr. ran a small museum inside it until a 2019 renovation. Smith, who grew up playing in the park in the 1960s and 1970s, recalls hearing stories about the property from friends and neighbors who had once worked in the mills of nearby Dickeyville. The area “was just this magic place for kids,” he said. Today, Smith is well-versed in the history of the land and its onetime owner, Winans.

Winans was something like the Elon Musk of his day. He made his fortune in Russia, where he helped build the railway between Moscow and St. Petersburg. With his Russian wife, he returned to Baltimore, building an opulent urban estate on Hollins Street he called Alexandroffsky. Twelve-foot-high walls obscured the view of statues that had scandalized his neighbors.

In the summer, it was off to the Crimea and the breezes of Orianda House. Iron eagle statues at the park entrance date back to the era of Winans.

Winans also built a fortification on the property, complete with cannons. It is unclear exactly what purpose the fort served. Some accounts call it a “mock fort” designed to throw off Union troops during the Civil War.

Others say it was meant to commemorate the Battle of Balaklava of the Crimean War, immortalized in the poem, “The Charge of the Light Brigade,” by Alfred Lord Tennyson.

Cannon to right of them,

Cannon to left of them,

Cannon in front of them,

Volleyed and thundered.

Today, remnants of the fortress can still be found during a hike through the park, along with ropes courses owned by Outward Bound.

It was not a given that the Crimea would become part of Leakin Park. When he died in 1922, attorney Wilson Leakin left four downtown properties to the city with the intention that the proceeds be used to build a park.

But city officials could not agree where that park should be located. Some argued for the Crimea, a choice bolstered by famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., who wanted Baltimore to preserve its stream valleys from development.

Others said West Baltimore already had enough parks. In fact, Leakin Park adjoins Gwynns Falls, which opened in the early 1900s. Others suggested sites in Cherry Hill or the Jones Falls Valley.

Championed by Mayor Howard Wilkinson Jackson, the crowd supporting the Crimea won out, and the city purchased the estate for around $130,000, according to the Baltimore Sun archives.

Wandering through the wooded park today, it is easy to see how the place must have cast a spell on Olmstead and the city officials who argued for its purchase.

With the thick growth of trees overlooking a stream, a visitor feels as though they might be in the Shenandoah Mountains, aside from a few heaps of trash that had been unceremoniously dumped in the picnic area.

Sadly, many Baltimoreans know Leakin Park as a gruesome dumping ground, where killers once discarded the bodies of their victims.

Park advocates like Smith bristle at the mention of its gory reputation, which came up in the podcast “Serial.” The series revisits the death of Hae Min Lee, whose body was found in Leakin Park in 1999.

“Leakin Park is a place where a person can go from a crowded urban road to a secluded wooded path in minutes,” then-Sun reporter Peter Hermann wrote in 1997. “But what makes the wilderness expanse a sanctuary for city dwellers makes it attractive for killers as well.”

In the same article, Jonathan Foley, president of Friends of Gwynns Falls and Leakin Park said, “It is something we live with, and it is something that holds us back in a lot of ways.”

Park advocates have also encountered another foe: development. In the 1970s, residents in the area gathered to protest the expansion of Interstate 70, which would have cut through Leakin Park. Instead, the highway ends abruptly in a park-and-ride lot just inside the Baltimore Beltway.

— Baltimore Sun