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Lewistown state fishery still going
 after 88 years

(11/3)  It may not be the shining star it once was, but the old state fish hatchery at 10932 Putman Road, Thurmont, preliminarily completed in 1918, still cranks out trout for state waters and others.

Nestled in the shadows of the Catoctin Mountains, the old Lewistown State Fish Hatchery, now dubbed the state Fisheries Service, Lewistown Work Center, is administered by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

The fishery (aka fish hatchery) traces its humble beginnings to 16 leased, offsite, former goldfish ponds contracted by the state in 1917, and a hatchery pool, completed in 1918.

State fishery interests begin

Efforts by Maryland to increase diminished fish populations in the state began in 1874 with the establishment of the Commissioners of Fisheries. One of the first projects carried out by the commission was the attempt to introduce Atlantic and Pacific salmon in certain streams in the state. The effort was abandoned 15 years later because the salmon invariably refused to return to their "introduced" streams to spawn.

In the 1880s, the state began to establish fisheries specifically for hatching, rearing and releasing trout to enhance recreational fishing in Maryland. Many of the trout, especially rainbow, caught within three years of being released, ranged up to nearly two feet in length.

The Commissioners of Fisheries was replaced in 1916 by the Conservation Commission, which immediately began to assess the state for future fish hatcheries, especially with regard to trout. During the course of 1917, Lewistown was selected for the commission's first hatchery.

Plans for the proposed Lewistown hatchery were drawn up during the fall of 1917, and by January 1918, a 22 by 44-foot temporary hatchery had been completed at the site, and 400,000 trout eggs had been placed into the new hatchery.

Also in 1917, the state acquired a supply of small-mouth bass, crappie and catfish and stocked them in "a large pond near Lake View." It's not clear if that pond was the same one that existed at the site of the Lake View Resort and Casino. That casino burned to the ground around the beginning of the 19th century.

Rise and decline of the Lewistown facility

Effectively on-line in January 1918, the Lewistown hatchery was immediately beset with a severe cold spell that threatened the fledgling trout stock as ice formed in the intake flume and discharge drains. More problems came with the subsequent spring thaw which saw the runoff depositing too much mud and leaf mold in the hatchery, resulting in hatchling kills.

In addition, some losses were attributed to the lack of expertise of staff hired for the hatchery. Nevertheless, the first year did have its successes, and the hatchery shipped 240,600 fry by year's end, retaining 5,000 at the fishery for breeding.

In 1925, the Lewistown facility gained the addition of two series of former goldfish ponds to increase the holding capacity. At this time, the facility had also retained some 580 large-mouth bass and 1,000 crappie for rearing. A redistribution system worked out by state yielded better restocking numbers that year.

Disease hit the Lewistown facility in 1928 for the first time since it had opened in 1918. A.M. Powell, superintendent of state fish hatcheries, wrote, "This season we were almost swept out by octomitiasis (aka Hexamitiasis)," a fish ailment that causes necrosis, a form of which can produce a lethal infection in trout. Powell described the resulting losses as "considerable."

Troubles didn't end there. Heavy rains flooded the bass ponds and caused further losses. "Great numbers of bass were lost," Powell said.

On the up side, the Lewistown facility was much improved in 1928. The hatchery and rearing sheds were roofed with corrugated metal, and a good deal of flooring work was completed. A formerly open-sided rearing shed was partially enclosed and more concrete rearing ponds were added.

Sixteen acres of ponds for rearing small-mouth bass were added in 1933. The Civilian Conservation Corps completed the grading, leveling and other finishing tasks. In 1935, a concrete nesting pond for bass was created, with 175 nests capable of managing 300 brood bass.

But by the 1950s, the Lewistown facility experienced what had become problematic, diminished water supplies. During the early 1950s the facility was basically reduced to a "maintenance and repair station" serving the other state fisheries, although the hatchery continued to hatch brook trout on a limited scale, as well as small-mouth bass. By 1952, it was renamed the Lewistown Work Center, the name it retains to this day.

Lewistown hatchery today

Aside from several of the original buildings, the oldest of which is now condemned because of termite damage, little remains today that would suggest the size of the hatchery operation that once existed until the early 1950s.

None of the rectangular, concrete in-ground breeding pools surrounded by flagstone walkways remain, apparently the victims of downsizing that began in the early-mid 1950s. An occasional isolated walkway or a hint of an outdoor tank's retaining wall can be found, but those pools have long since been filled in.

Ponds for breeding various other species now look like old weathered, overgrown shell craters left over from some past war.

By the time John Mullican, a fisheries biologist for the Western Region, joined the operation in 1988, the golden age of the fishery was nothing more than a memory and only traces of the former expanse of tanks hinted at its days of grandeur.

Little is raised here, Mullican told The Dispatch, aside from a few thousand brown trout in one outdoor impound, the current stock of which is bound for Antietam Creek, and one pond in which sunfish are reared for children's fishing events elsewhere. Even a mobile fish tank for displaying hatchery fish at outdoor events sits largely unused anymore.

The primary function of the workhouse today is to provide assessments for parties interested in introducing stock into their ponds or streams. "The bulk of the effort," he said, "is spent managing the fish on public lands."

But the facility, considered the first real state hatchery and the model for its times, is no more. Since its heyday, it has passed its legacy and former functions on to the Albert M. Powell Hatchery in Hagerstown.

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