Every year, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, Marylanders bypass the community pool to partake in a summertime ritual as old as geology itself: a dip in one of the local quarry swimming holes. Whether jumping in from a diving board, dropping in from a zip line or swinging in from a rope, leaping into a quarry is like entering an abyss. It’s exhilarating and a little terrifying. And there’s nothing like the chilly, spring-fed waters of a quarry to cool you down on a hot, muggy day.
Baltimore County is home to three of the better-known quarry swim clubs in the region: Beaver Dam, Oregon Ridge and Milford Mill. “The swimming pool just doesn’t compare,” explains Tom Hillegass, a retired civil engineer who maintains a Web site, swimmingholes.org, entirely devoted to natural swimming areas. “It’s not the water— there’s water in lots of places. It’s the surroundings. You have rocks, bluffs, trees, grass. There’s something primal about it. You are being embraced by nature.”
But the quarries were begun with industry— not recreation— in mind. Beaver Dam quarry opened in 1800 with just two men mining its limestone and marble and quickly grew to employ more than 200. Each day, Cockeysville was rocked by blasts at noon and 5, followed by the sound of loud clinking as the mostly Irish immigrant work force chiseled stone from the quarry walls for $1 a day.
Renowned for its durability, Beaver Dam marble was in high demand up and down the East Coast as a building material. By the mid-19th century, 200,000 cubic feet was quarried a year. Stone was sent to construct the Post Office building in Washington, D.C., and the Peabody Institute and parts of City Hall in Baltimore. The quarry supplied 108 hand-shaped marble columns for the nation’s Capitol and provided marble for the creation of the Washington Monument. In fact, Beaver Dam’s stone proved so durable that stone from the quarry was used in the monument’s recent renovation.
In the 1920s, demand tapered off, perhaps because of the rise of concrete block as a building material, and Beaver Dam closed for good. When the gas-fueled pumps that had removed water from the quarry ever since springheads were revealed at 60 feet below the surface were shut down, the quarry naturally filled with cool, fresh water.
Nearby at Oregon Ridge, a quarry was created in about 1838 to mine iron ore, which was fed into a furnace on the property to create pig iron. An entire company town grew up around the furnace, the remnants of which can be seen in the Oregon Grille restaurant, which served as a company store. The furnace closed shortly before the Civil War, but the mine continued to produce iron ore that was shipped to other nearby furnaces. As the 20th century dawned, the demand for the quarry’s product dwindled and the company town slowly deteriorated. Left dormant, that quarry also naturally filled with water from open springs.
Milford Mill stayed viable until the late 1940s, when water surging up from the quarry floor forced it to close. About 1950, Joe Schlee, an entrepreneur who started the Joppatowne Swimming Club, bought it and built a home on the property. He then set about creating a swim club. Schlee seemed to have an eye for safety long before the advent of modern-day litigious society. He blasted the quarry walls to fill its cavernous hole with rubble, decreasing the depth to about 18 feet (Beaver Dam averages about 50 feet deep, Oregon Ridge about 46 feet deep). He added two rope swings and a series of zip lines, which are still used today. In 1999, Gail and Bill Walker purchased the property, which includes two conventional swimming pools in addition to the quarry pool. Both Walkers are swim coaches and run year-round swim programs in the indoor pool and host local swim teams at the 25-meter pool course.
Although the need for marble and iron ore ceased, the desire for a cool spot to picnic and play was on the rise. In 1936, the same Baltimore County family that owns it today purchased the Beaver Dam quarry and opened it as the Beaver Dam Swimming Club. (The family did not want its name published.) It’s not known who formally opened the Oregon Ridge Swim Club (now called the Oregon Ridge Beach), but by the 1920s it had morphed into a full-fledged operation where one needed a membership to swim. Although the amenities were rustic, there was a bathhouse where swimmers could don their suits. When Oregon Ridge excavated the site in 2007 during a renovation of its facilities, they found under the bathhouse numerous sets of keys, pocket watches, penknives and coins left behind by unwitting bathers. The Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks purchased the club in 1969 and added the groomed sand beach for which Oregon Ridge is known.
According to George Brauer, a retired archaeologist who worked at Oregon Ridge for more than 20 years, the quarries were a popular means of recreation for city folk fleeing the hot confines of the city and locals who didn’t have access to public pools. There were no major roads available in the early years—no Beltway, no I-83— so swimmers enjoyed a leisurely country drive to the swimming hole and spent the day walking in the woods, picnicking with friends and family and, of course, cooling off with a dip in the moss-green waters of the quarry.
What made the quarries popular then continues to make them popular today. Even in our heavily regulated and chlorinated world, people still crave a day in the country and a plunge into naturally fed waters. Parents can pack the kids and a cooler in the car and spend the entire day taking advantage of amenities beyond swimming: sand volleyball, horseshoe pits, basketball courts, areas for playing pickup soccer or tag, and grilling and picnic areas.
“If you live in the city or in the suburbs in a rowhouse, it’s nice to get out,” explains Erich Herwig, who has managed Beaver Dam for more than 20 years. “A lot of people don’t have community pools or they are really crowded, so they come to Beaver Dam. Here you can sit on the grass… You don’t just sit on a concrete pad with lounge chairs.”
Attorney P.J. Shafer grew up swimming at Beaver Dam and Oregon Ridge Beach and has fond memories of both. “As a kid I fell in love with the swing [at Beaver Dam]. Once I was brave enough to be lifted onto it— I still was not tall enough to reach it by myself— and went one time, I was hooked,” remembers Shafer, 36. “As a teenager, it was a great place to meet and hang out with other teens. Because of the sheer size and volume of people that come in, especially on the weekends, there were always interesting members of the opposite sex to flirt with.”
Shafer went on to become a lifeguard at Beaver Dam and remembers it was popular both with competitive swimmers who wanted to work on their open water swimming and workers from Hunt Valley’s industrial core who would come on their lunch hour to play a few quick games of volleyball. Some sunbathers, he says, took advantage of the privacy of the wooded areas for topless tanning.
But the main attraction of the quarries is the fresh water, which is cool— sometimes downright cold— and populated by fish, turtles and snakes. Unlike the Bay or the ocean, where the water quality is questionable, the Department of Environmental Protection and Resource Management (DEPRM) regularly tests the quarries’ water quality and each club adheres to DEPRM’s stringent safety codes, including swim tests for neophytes and a quadrant-style lifeguarding pattern. At Beaver Dam, this has meant shutting down the quarry’s eight swimmable acres to just four, which angered old-timers who can no longer get onto the rocks and bluffs they once enjoyed. At Milford Mill, the slide was removed and the number of diving boards decreased to adhere to insurance dictates.
The quarries have floats and rafts interspersed throughout to give swimmers a place to rest, and any swimmer can use a lifejacket. Still, unlike a beach, where the depth gradually slopes, the quarries feature the sheer walls left by the stonecutters who plumbed their depths for natural materials. When you swim in a quarry, part of the rush is danger— you immediately are in as much as 50 feet of water. Oregon Ridge has never had a drowning, but drownings have occurred at both Milford Mill and Beaver Dam, the last in 1997 and 2001, respectively.
Yet the quarries survive, each receiving more than 20,000 visitors per season. Last year Milford Mill hosted a wedding in which the bride and groom were married on the sand volleyball court then switched into their bathing suits and swung into married life on the rope swing. Milford Mill has two ceremonies booked for this season. With skyrocketing fuel prices making trips ‘down the ocean’ more expensive than ever, the quarries may surge in popularity as families look for closer recreation.
According to Pam Jarrell, park manager at Oregon Ridge, it’s best the quarries stay open, even in this litigious era. Not only are they an important outlet for education and recreation, but if they were to close, she speculates, there would be more accidents because people would break in to swim. “I’d rather have them open and guarded than closed and used willy-nilly,” she says. “There’s no such thing as a closed quarry.”
If you go
All the quarries are open from Memorial Day to Labor Day. They are open only on weekends until the Baltimore County schools let out for the summer and open daily starting June 13.
Milford Mill Park & Swim Club
3900 Milford Mill Road, 410-655-4818
Hours: Mon.-Friday 12-7; Saturday 10:30-8; Sunday 12-8
Cost: Weekend $15 adults, $7 ages 3-11, $2 two and under; Weekday $10 adults, $6 children, $2 two and under.
Beaver Dam Swimming Club
10820 Beaver Dam Road, 410-785-2323
Hours: Monday-Friday 11-6:30; Saturday-Sunday 11-7
Cost: Weekends/holidays $16 adults, $10 12 and under; Weekdays $14 adults, $10 kids (children under two are free)
Oregon Ridge Beach
13401 Beaver Dam Road, 410-887-1818
Hours: Monday-Friday 10-6; Saturday/Sunday 10-8
Cost: Weekend $7 adults, $3 12 and under; Weekday $6 adults, $3 kids