At the edge of the Disc Golf Course in Druid Hill Park where the greens give way to weeds and woods, you might notice a set of stone steps that lead nowhere. Trace their path downward through the wild overgrowth and you can pick out remnants of a stone foundation wall and a rusted iron fence. This abandoned spot used to be a popular destination.
Under the vines and overgrowth are the Three Sisters Ponds, all now empty. There were originally five of these man-made basins, created in 1875 to stock trout, shad, and other local species bred in a nearby fish hatchery house. The picturesque little building, also completed in 1875, was designed by George A. Frederick, the same architect who designed Baltimore’s City Hall and several other Druid Hill Park landmarks. Early on, the building was described as “a two-story Gothic structure of blue stone, with white marble trimmings, the main building projecting from octagonal wings on either side.” By 1925, the building was abandoned and ultimately destroyed by vandals, who broke windows, stripped it of its bronze fittings, and set it on fire in 1940. The city demolished the charred ruins for safety reasons.
At least one of the ponds stocked fish well into the twentieth century, but, in 1884, the center pond became a sea lion exhibit. The pond’s first occupant arrived by train from California in the middle of the night after an eight-day journey. The sea lion “slipped out upon the bank” of Pond No. 2, “gave a plunge headforemost, and was out of sight,” reported the Baltimore Sun. In 1896, Captain Cassells, superintendent of Druid Hill Park, declared that the sea lions were “the show attraction of the park, particularly to every child who comes here.” To give the sleek celebrities more space, the center pond was enlarged, merging five basins into three, but it would still prove to be only a temporary home for such large animals. In 1910, the sea lions relocated to a new exhibit on the main campus of the Zoo a short distance away.
Despite the loss of the sea lions, Three Sisters Ponds remained beautiful, well-tended, and popular for several more decades. The name “Three Sisters Ponds” dates to at least the 1920s. Its origin is unknown but may reference the Native American use of the term to describe three staple crops – corn, beans, and squash – traditionally grown in close proximity and for mutual benefit. One of the three became a casting pond where anglers could practice their sport inaugurated in 1928 for the Maryland Open Bait Casting Tournament. Another of the ponds, around the same time, became a favorite destination of the Baltimore Model Yacht Club. On weekends, those who sailed model yachts and those who enjoyed watching them flocked to the pond. In winter, ice skaters came.
As the decades passed and recreational use of Druid Hill Park changed, Three Sisters Ponds became a quieter spot. One police officer who occasionally patrolled the park in the late 1960s and early 1970s remembered the place fondly. “The ponds gave the occasional visitor like me a sense of privacy, escape, and personal oasis,” wrote Philip B.J. Reid, who later became an FBI agent. “Encircled by an array of multicolored plants and trees and well-manicured lawns and shrubs, and home to various species of birds and the occasional deer, the setting was beautiful, serene, and majestic.”
The City cut off water to the ponds in the 1960s and since then, nature has slowly reclaimed the site. A master plan for Druid Hill Park published in 1995 recommended their renovation, but nothing has happened there yet.