Ghost Rivers is a neighborhood-spanning, multi-site public art installation and walking tour by artist Bruce Willen that visualizes a lost stream buried below the streets of Baltimore. Through a series of installations, wayfinding markers, and writings, Ghost Rivers reveals the hidden path of the creek Sumwalt Run, bringing its lost landscapes and histories to the surface. Along the way the project draws connections between Baltimore’s watershed, its social history, and the evolving relationships between natural and human environments.

Remington, the area of Baltimore that Ghost Rivers weaves across, is an eclectic rowhouse neighborhood in city center. Remington traces its roots to the 19th century, when its stone quarries supplied the foundations for many of Baltimore’s buildings. Quarry and millworkers lived in this early streetcar suburb.

In the 1950s and ‘60s Remington became known as Little Appalachia, for the tight knit community of rural migrants who settled in the neighborhood. (Ghost Rivers Sites 8 and 9 focus on this history, including bluegrass pioneer Hazel Dickens, whose family lived nearby).

After losing population during the downturn of the 1970s, 80s, and 90s, Remington began growing again in the early 2000s, as younger, diverse residents and new businesses have moved in.

Destinations and landmarks directly adjacent to the Ghost Rivers trail include Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore Museum of Art, and the Olmsted-designed Wyman Park Dell.

When Baltimore built a new sewer system in the early 1900s, Sumwalt Run was turned into a buried storm sewer, vanishing from the landscape and disappearing from memory. The stream now flows hidden and mostly forgotten through storm sewers beneath the Remington and Charles Village neighborhoods. It is possibile to catch echoes of its waters whispering from certain storm drains.

Before Sumwalt Run’s ignoble turn as concrete culvert, it witnessed eras of Baltimore’s urban history. Its frozen waters appeared in ice boxes across the city, cut from the city’s first commercial ice pond and a later artificial ice factory. Trolley tracks crossed its ravine, bringing workers home from downtown factories. The Olmsted Company attempted to preserve part of the stream as a greenway, but real estate developers filled its valley (using debris from the Great Baltimore Fire of 1905, according to local lore). Ghost Rivers bring these hidden histories back to the surface, offering a glimpse into past and future city landscapes.

Like ghosts, the buried streams still haunt our cities, contributing to downstream water pollution and flooding. Occasionally they burst to the surface, swallowing the ground and structures above in sinkholes.

There are stories of buildings in Baltimore getting six feet of water in the basement and then the water mysteriously receding. And it’s not because of a water main break – often it’s due to hidden waters that flow under foundations of old buildings and contribute to flooding issues in the city.

Ghost Rivers reveals the hidden history and path of Sumwalt Run, which now flows through underground culverts beneath Baltimore’s Remington and Charles Village neighborhoods.

Ghost Rivers installations add a permanent map-like overlay to the physical environment, a meandering blue line that traces the lost path of Sumwalt Run across city streets and sidewalks spanning a 1.5 mile long stretch of the stream.

9 of the 12 Ghost Rivers sites have been installed in October 2023 – Howard St, 28th St, Cresmont Ave, Remington Ave, 27th St, Lorraine Ave, 26th St, 24th St, and 23rd St – with 3 remaining sites slated for installation in spring 2024.

Ghost Rivers started as a passion project for Willen during the early part of the pandemic, while exploring his neighborhood more deeply.

The research for Ghost Rivers involved substantial digging through public and private archives in Baltimore and beyond, and led to Maryland State Archives digitizing and preserving the original engineering plans for Baltimore’s sewer system, previously stored only on degrading 1950s-era microfilm.

In over two years of community engagement for Ghost Rivers, Willen has conversed with hundreds of residents about the project, held community history workshops, and presented at ongoing community meetings.

He worked closely with the Greater Remington Improvement Association (GRIA) on designing and carrying out a community engagement plan for the project, including one-on-one interviews that added the voices of longtime neighborhood residents.

The pale blue color of the artwork references the hues of waterways found in vintage maps, and the sinuous line suggests the iconography of flowing water. This color and form unites the Ghost Rivers installations across multiple sites, standing out among other roadway markings and a visually-crowded streetscape, to help visitors follow the project through the neighborhood.

Sculptural interpretive signs feature cut-out river shapes that help visitors “see” the lost creek, and a QR code that links viewers to additional content, imagery, and local resources related to each site and topic.

The artist worked with Baltimore City Department of Transportation to develop a design and material approach that meets the approval of BCDOT’s Traffic, Safety, and Planning divisions and its street design guidelines. The pavement artwork is made from preformed thermoplastic, the same material used for bike lane markers and other permanent roadbed decals.

The project structure encourages exploration. Many visitors will first stumble upon one or two Ghost Rivers installations, with each site’s accompanying narrative working as a standalone vignette. As viewers visit multiple sites, these narratives link together to illuminate larger themes within social and natural landscapes.

A project map on the signage, along with an interactive Google Map, help visitors to navigate between Ghost Rivers installation sites.

A full-featured multimedia website – – enriches the context with photos, historic imagery, and action-oriented resources, serving as a digital companion for visitors and a way for people around the world to experience the project virtually.

Project details

Design: Public Mechanics / Bruce Willen
Project Location: Remington Neighborhood, Baltimore, Maryland, USA
Typology: Public art
Built: 2023 (completion spring 2024)
Partners: Greater Remington Improvement Association (GRIA), Blue Water Baltimore, Baltimore National Heritage Area (BNHA), Baltimore City Department of Transportation, Baltimore City Department of Public Works, Baltimore City Office of Sustainability, Friends of Wyman Park Dell
Supported by: Maryland State Arts Council, Gutierrez Memorial Fund, Maryland Heritage Areas Authority, Chesapeake Bay Trust, Spiniello (in-kind), Public Mechanics (in-kind), and BCT Design Group
Fabrication and installation: Elemental Metalworks, Equus Striping, Public Mechanics, Preform, Floyd Godsey II
Photo credits: © Frank Hamilton, Public Mechanics, Side A Photography

Public Mechanics

Public Mechanics

Public Mechanics is a design studio focused on experiential projects for public and cultural spaces. The studio collaborates with cultural, civic, and design innovators on projects that include placemaking, public art, creative strategy, and branding for communities and cultural institutions. Founder Bruce Willen has led high-profile multidisciplinary projects that have shaped the visual language of Baltimore and the sustainable building industry, helping to make memorable places and tell essential stories.