Brooklyn Rising, Part 4: The Great Walnut Tree
The First Brooklyn Community Blossomed Under the Branches of an Iconic Tree
Long before Brooklyn’s formation, there was an iconic gathering spot that bound the communities in and around Brooklyn, Maryland. The Walnut Spring Hotel emerged at the foot of an equally iconic landmark, a towering black walnut tree that was legendary in the area. Near the intersection of First Street (now South Hanover Street) and Patapsco Avenue the great tree grew on a bluff overlooking the Patapsco River. Close to the waterfront, the tree towered above Brooklyn roughly one mile from the Long Bridge and Acton’s Park.
In a column entitled “A Tree Grew in Brooklyn …” in the 1916 Annapolis Evening Capital columnist Emily Peake fondly remembered the tree and recounted how people who had lived in the community for more than 55 years remembered the tree being the same size when they were very young. These witnesses speculated that it was more than 200 years old. The great walnut’s trunk was nearly eight feet in diameter and more than 25 feet in circumference, which would make it the second largest walnut tree in Maryland in 2019.
The tree grew to enormous proportions because it sat atop a strong, ever-flowing artesian well, which kept it well-nourished all year long. During droughts Brooklyn residents would tramp to the walnut tree with buckets and bottles and containers of all kinds to fill their water reserves from the spring. Some enterprising people would take water from the bountiful spring across the Light Street Bridge into Baltimore and sold the water there during water shortages. So plentiful was the aquifer that when fires broke out in Brooklyn, horse-drawn fire trucks would pull up to the hotel, drop hoses and draw water from the several pools that formed near the great tree.
The venerable tree was in good health when it sadly met the axe in the spring of 1916. Its trunk, branches and roots were sold to a furniture manufacturer. But massive black walnut had become legendary long before it was cut down, mostly because of the famed hotel in Brooklyn that it inspired.
The Walnut Spring Hotel was a local legend. Purportedly built in 1841 by John McPherson (paternal grandfather to Emma May McPherson, who married John E. Potee, future sheriff of Baltimore), it served many functions over the years, including time as a summer resort for Brooklynites and Baltimoreans, a horse-races-by-wire gambling venue worthy of The Sting, and a boarding house for men who flocked to the area to work at the various industries that were emerging on the shores of the Patapsco and Curtis Bay.
The structure itself was a classic two-story French-framed brick building that included several outbuildings. It sat on an acre-and-a-half of land, with the Patapsco River just 300 feet from its rear door.
The earliest published records attribute ownership to John East, who was a hotelier in Baltimore. Later records show the hotel being operated by a new proprietor, Charles H. Weaver, who brought brass bands and string quartets to the Brooklyn hotel. It was later bought and refurbished by Charles Lowrey around 1887, who took Weaver’s musical direction a step further. He built a bandstand with a staircase that rose into the lower branches of the tree, and from spring through the fall a brass and string band would entertain hotel guests and patrons, including local groups like the Brooklyn Canoe Club, who waltzed on a huge dance floor constructed beneath the tree’s huge canopy.
“It served variously as a hotel, boarding house, the residence of the owner of Acton’s Park [Samuel G. Acton], a notorious gambling house and a summer resort, the rendezvous for politicians and the headquarters of a group of men who operated a diamondback terrapin farm on the river flats behind it.,” longtime Brooklyn resident Walter G. Finch, associate editor of the Maryland Dispatch told radio station WFBR’s listeners on January 2, 1952.
“Taking its name from the large walnut tree which stood on the property until 1916,” Finch continued in his broadcast, “the hotel was especially famous for its unique bandstand. [Lowrey] built the stand in the tree’s branches, which the 16 musicians reached by staircase. From their leafy stand, they played the popular songs of the day for the dancers on a circular floor beneath.”
The hotel was later purchased by John T. Murphy and Charles T. Balla who continued improvements until Murphy died around 1897. Samuel G. Acton, one of the largest landowners in Brooklyn and proprietor of the occasionally notorious Acton’s Park, bought the hotel in 1897 for $5,450 and turned it into his personal residence.
It went up for sale after Acton died in 1903, and it became a hotel again, but it never reached the same level of Gay Nineties popularity again. It was bought around 1905 by Bud Bass, a Baltimore businessman of Bavarian descent, who owned another pleasure resort north of the city that was frequented by his friend, President Benjamin Harrison. So often were Harrison’s visits there that the area became known as Bengies, Maryland, given for Harrison’s nickname, Bengie. It was located near where the well-known Bengies Drive-In still operates today. His investment in the Walnut Spring Hotel was a natural extension of his resort business. Bass converted Acton’s residence back to its former use as a hotel and boarding house, and tried to make it more of a destination by hosting picnics, parties and its lawn even occasionally served as a venue for bare-knuckled boxing matches of the day. Despite his attempts to remake the hotel into a destination, the establishment’s star began to fade in the post-World War I years as Brooklyn and Curtis Bay became more dominated by industry.
The hotel fell into receivership in 1924 and all its furniture and effects — bureaus and nightstands, double-iron bedsteads, tables and buffets, all in relatively new condition — were put up for auction by Sam W. Pattison & Co. By the 1930s it had been totally abandoned, but found a new life in politics. It was acquired and refurbished as headquarters for the Brooklyn Democratic Club on July 19, 1933, a dedication that went off with great fanfare.
The re-opening of the former hotel as a political gathering place brought out stories of the hotel’s glorious and sometimes shady past. Joseph Ward, 83, a Brooklyn resident since he was six and a former manager of the hotel, told the Baltimore Evening Sun in its July 24, 1933 edition that he remembered the hotel being a hotbed for gambling. Games like faro, keno, roulette and “sweat games” were played nightly. On one occasion, he said, some professional gamblers “broke the house” in a craps game. When the hotel was forced to pay up from money borrowed from local wealthy residents, Ward said, the “house” adroitly switch to loaded dice to recoup their losses. The gamblers, he said, quickly caught on to the switch and fled with their winnings by motorboat.
Indeed, the gambling that went on at the hotel was no secret to Baltimore or Anne Arundel County, which made tepid attempts to reign in the practice. “Every conceivable gambling device was employed,” Ward told the Sun in a July 16, 1933 article. “They talked about big wages being paid the last few years. They were nothing new to us. The men who had the gambling concession were paid $30,000 a year [roughly $845,000 in 2019 dollars] for a leased [telegraph] wire for horse racing results.”
The Walnut Spring Hotel’s bookmaking business was a profitable enterprise, Ward continued. “The manager of the gambling concession got $50 a week [$1,400 in 2019 dollars], the bookmakers, $40, and the others, such as watchers or [local police] patrolmen were paid $25 per week.” Ward said the a Mr. Wall, who operated the games, would often warn his employees not to play the games. “Now don’t play the horses,” Wall told his workers, Ward said. “You can never win if you keep it up.”
Then-Sheriff Joseph Deegan and former Sheriff Thomas W. Irwin also waxed nostalgic about the famous hotel on the night of its Democratic Club dedication, with Irwin recalling fondly how he had raided the hotel 25 years earlier for selling alcohol on Sunday.
But the rejuvenation of the hotel was short-lived. It prospered as the Brooklyn Democratic Club’s headquarters initially and was frequented by Baltimore mayors and local politicians, but the United States’ entry into World War II meant less time for local political causes and it fell into disuse. When the war ended Brooklyn and Curtis Bay had changed dramatically. The area’s shipbuilding efforts had grown exponentially and Baltimore’s political elite had moved on to less-industrial haunts.
The Bass family still owned the shell of the Walnut Spring Hotel. In the years following World War II the once iconic landmark was torn down and replaced by a new structure: a nightclub built by Francis McLane, who purchase the hotel and the land outright from the heirs of the Bass family.
McLane, a restaurant financier, had always wanted to start a nightclub and saw his opportunity in Brooklyn right after the war. He named his club The Walnut Grove, Creston Tate, told Time Passages in 2017. Tate, a Masonville native, owner of one of the largest auto dealerships in the Baltimore area and co-founder of the Creston G. Tate and Betty Jane Tate Foundation, said McLane wanted to pay homage to the great walnut tree and the Walnut Grove Hotel with his new club, at 3612 South Hanover Street.
McLane went all out, Tate said. His bandstand in nightclub was a replica of a huge walnut shell that opened to reveal the band. It could comfortably seat 1,200 people, and had parking for 500 cars. He would bring in well-known stage, screen and radio acts from everywhere, and most notably from New York and Hollywood, including bandleader Sammy Kaye, Tony Pastor and famous band leader Louis Prima.
The venue got of to a quick start, but its location was poor for the clientele McLane wanted, Tate said. “Everybody who would have been his clients were up in Baltimore, not in Brooklyn, so it eventually failed. It went into receivership in 1948, just two years after it opened.
Others gave the Walnut Grove building a try later on. In the 1950s it was recast as the Hillbilly Nightclub where the likes of Jimmy Dean and Patsy Cline were booked. It became a catering hall called the Champagne Ballroom in the 1970s. In the late 1990s through the mid-2010s it became home to an array of different rock music nightclubs, and remains so today.
Brooklynites who casually walk or drive past the corner of South Hanover Street and East Patapsco Avenue may see the non-descript gray “mate” doorway next to the chinese food eatery and across the street from Bank of America. One hundred-plus years ago that building was the site of a champion-grade walnut tree and a legendary hotel that served as a summer resort for Baltimore’s elite. That iconic tree grew in Brooklyn.
Coming next …
Brooklyn Rising, Part 5: Industrial Settlers
Editor’s Note: This history of Brooklyn was compiled from research conducted at the University of Maryland-College Park, University of Maryland-Baltimore County, dozens of articles in the Baltimore Sun, the Baltimore Evening Sun, the Washington Post, Annapolis Capital and Maryland Gazette through the mid-1800s, the Keuthe Library in Glen Burnie, Anne Arundel County’s Planning and Zoning Department, and several local histories written by area historians, including the Bible of the area’s history, “A History of Brooklyn-Curtis Bay, 1776–1976,” which was written by Brooklyn’s Centennial Committee in 1976. Thanks also go out to Horton and Maryann McCormick, Frank Bittner, Rick Arnold, the USCG’s Dottie Mitchell, Geraldine Bates, the Chesapeake Arts Center’s Belinda Fraley-Huesman and Nicole Caracia, and a host of others.