Johnsons Lake is situated in Salisbury, Maryland at the head waters of Wicomico River's "north prong" and reaches from the dam near Isabella Street in Salisbury North to the Naylor Mill road area, where it changes to streams with surprisingly deep channels. It runs under Naylor Mill road and north to the next upstream resevoir at Leonards Mill Pond.
The name of the lake and the dam holding back its water has changed multiple times over the past couple hundred years. Mills for sawing lumber, grinding grain, carding wool and even an electric power plant have drawn their power from the water of Johnsons Lake tumbling into the Wicomico River. In the age of hydro-mechanical power these dams often were refered to as mill dams.
The Wicomico River and Johnsons Lake divide Salisbury. A major east / west route, Isabella Street, crosses the site where the lakes dam originally stood for many years. Traffic of all kinds, auto, horse and buggy and foot traffic have traversed the river at this site for over 200 years. Legend has it that area Indians also crossed at this spot on a walkway made from "saplings punched into the river bottom and strung together with vines". (1)
In 1758, a mill dam was built there by a man named Bailey and atlases of the late 1800's show Isabella street crossing over the dam with mills adjacent. (2) Gray's New Map (1877) of Salisbury depicts Johnsons Lake, then called H. Humprhrys Pond, pictured at right (not to be confused with Thos. Humphrys Lake which fed the other prong of the Wicomico River). This series of detailed maps consisted of many areas showing roads, residences, land features as well as business locations and references. While there can be some question to the accuracy of scale or dimension to these old maps, it is an excellent snapshot of the time.
One hundred twenty years ago the dam was called Wicomico Falls and served as the power source for several mills. This mill site, with power from the falls along with railroad and sailing ship access, was a prime business location. Humphreys Saw Mill was situated on the west side of the "Mill Falls" and a wool carding mill, grist mill and H. Humphreys Planning Mill were to the East along the railroad. An 1890 photograph depicts the "Isabella Street Falls" with adjacent mill buildings.
The business reference on the old map describes Mr. H. Humphreys business as:
"Manufacturer of and Wholesale and Retail Dealer in Dressed Flooring, surfaced Boards, House-framing, Box-boards, Oak Lumber suitable for Vessel Material, Gum, Walnut, Oak and Cherry Hubs, Balusters, Newel Posts, Fence Picktes, Post Caps, Flowere Vases, Broom Handles, Spinning Wheels, Pumps. Turning of all Kinds and Styles of Wood and Iron a Specialty. Wool carded from July 1st to October 31st. Also Manufacturer of Flour, Meal and Feed Stuff. Wicomico Falls Mills, No. 2 Mill Street, Salisbury, Md."
The mill dam at Isabella Street failed a number of times over the past 100 years carrying a torrent of water and debris down the river each time.
In 1926 a major Hurricane which caused massive dammage and death in
Florida pounded the East Coast with excessive rainfall. The dam, then called
The Electric Light Dam and owned by the Eastern Shore Gas and Electric
Company, failed without warning seriously damaging the famous Pivot bridge
on West Main Street. .(Aerial photos of
the dam and lake in 1926 before the beak) Sometime in the
early morning hours of Tuesday, August 10th,
1926 (see photo) the concrete and wood pilings of the spillway failed.
Constant erosion from recent rain storms aggravated the already aging structure.
Besides washing out Isabella Street connecting West and East Salisbury,
a gas main and high tension electric wires strung along the dam were taken
out causing the city to be without power for about 6 hours. Though the
dam was owned by the Eastern Shore Gas and Electric Company it had been
abandoned as a source for generating electric power.
The Wicomico Weekly News, Thursday August 12th, 1926 edition colorfully
described the scene of the catastrophe.
"What was once a lake in which city youngsters sought release from the intense heat, is now but a desolate waste land from which project slimy tree stumps and decaying debris. thousands of fish of many sizes and species are left stranded in the odious muck. Ten thousand gallons of water per minute, during dry weather, flowed through the spillway from the water shed which covered 43 square miles, engineers say. Only a shallow stream or two now trickle through the basin."
The thrust of water caused damage to the "Pivot Bridge" at Main Street. The famous bridge, which at the time unknowingly existed in a precariously decayed condition, was undermined in such a manner that it could not be opened and closed again. Ships were trapped in the upper North Fork of the Wicomico. Large amounts of silt and sand were washed into the Wicomico creating sand bars.
The washing out of the dam and it's consequenses was likely a political nightmare. Shipping interests pressured the city and the War Department to open the Pivot Bridge. Business interests pressured the city to keep the bridge closed to allow East/West passage. The success of the annual fair at the Carnival grounds in a weeks depended on a passable bridge. Who was responsible to repair the waterway, the bridge and the dam? Was it the War Department which regulated the waterway or the Power Company who owned the dam? Because of the extensive repairs necessary to the Pivot Bridge, a temporary bridge at Isabella Street was constructed.(3) There was some concern that the drained lake would be a menace to the public health.
It was to be over a year before the city, county and other concerns were able to get rolling towards the new dam. In October of 1926, the Electric company which owned the dam and the lake, with much civic duty, pride and responsiblity, generously donated the lake and dam property except for two small tracts of land on either side of lake. It is also assummed that the same civic pride and responsiblity caused a provision to the deed be added decreeing that the new dam may not be used for the "generation of electric light, heat or power".
Now with the deed to Johnsonís Lake in hand and a $5,000 check from the Electric company the city worked towards garnerinf funds, which estimated to be $20,000, for rebuilding the dam and restoring the lake. The Wicomico County Commissioners eventually promised $7,500 towards the project if the city could match the rest. The only obstacle to work beginning on the new dam was replacing the West Main street bridge because Isabella Street now was the only East - West access across the Wicomico River.(4)
In the Spring of 1927 work on the new West Main Street bridge began. Firms were awarded contracts and the building began as evidenced by these newspaper excerpts.
Salisbury Advertiser Saturday April 16, 1927
"MAIN STREET BRIDGE WORK UNDERWAY"
Work was started on Wednesday by the Riggin Construction Company of Baltimore on the concrete abutments for the new main street lift bridge across the Wicomico River. that section of the city is now a beehive of industry and the work marks the first step toward the elimination of what has since last summer been a serious handicap to local traffic."
Salisbury Advertiser Saturday. May 7, 1927
"NEW SALISBURY BRIDGE CONTRACT TO OHIO FIRM
Mt. Vernon Bridge Company's Bid Of $29,554.90 On New Span, Successful One.
John N, Mackall, Chairman of the State Roads Commission has just announced award of a contract to the M. Vernon Bridge Company, Mount Vernon, Ohio, for the construction of the new bridge over the Wicomico River here as a cost of $29, 554.90."
Excessive rainfall from a hurricane in 1933 claimed the dam again. ...To be continued...visit back soon.
In 1936, the Army Corps of Engineers and the WPA built a new dam (see photo) several hundred yards north of Isabella Street. This new dam was a 300 foot concrete and steel ogee spillway with wingfalls and 100 foot clay fill embankment on either side of the dam. Three manually operated 48" sluice gates allow regulation of the water held in the lake.(5)
Johnson Lake Today - photos
1. Salisbury In Times Gone By, Richard Cooper, Gateway Press, Baltimore, MD, 1991 pp. 260-1
2. Salisbury In Times Gone By, Richard Cooper, Gateway Press, Baltimore, MD, 1991p. 61
3. Wicomico Weekly News, August 19, 1926 p. 1
4. Salisbury Advertiser, October 23, 1926 p. 1
5. Johnsons Pond Phase 1 Inspection Report, National Dam Inspection Program, Army Corps of Engineers, July 1980
October 1997, Web Page Author George E. Richardson, III