by Maxine Gross

From the bedroom window of my childhood home, I would gaze at the lake just across the railroad tracks. In the summer there were waterlilies, and the fall brought cattails, followed by a covering of ice in winter. My father told tales of his childhood at that lake with his friends — my friends’ parents — swimming, fishing and skating. By the 1960s, it was no longer safe to fish or swim in the lake, but Daddy taught us to skate there in the winters. To us, this was simply Lakeland’s lake. But even as there’s evidence that natural lakes used to exist in Maryland, none survive today. So how did this lake come to be? It exists thanks to the two rail lines just feet from its bank. 

Lake Artemesia's bridge featured, the history of the lake dates back to the B&O
Lake Artemesia’s story dates back to the construction of the B&O Railroad in the mid-1800s.
Courtesy of Derek Ohringer

Lake Artemesia’s History

Lake Artemesia’s story dates back to the mid-1800s, when workers excavated stone for construction of the Baltimore and Ohio (B&O) Railroad, leaving an enormous hole. While many likely saw this hole as an eyesore, Edwin Newman, a local attorney, inventor and developer, saw opportunity. He purchased the pit and the area surrounding it and drew up a plan for a resort-style community which he named Lakeland. The community was conveniently located on the B&O line between Washington and Baltimore and was easy to get to, with 20 passenger trains stopping every day at the station right by the lake.

The main feature of Newman’s development was that hole in the ground, which he named Lake Artemesia in honor of his wife. Newman filled the lake using water from nearby natural springs, and he piped in more water from Paint Branch. Newman’s lake covered 7 acres and was a modest 5 feet deep. 

Lake Artemesia and Lakeland

Newman then set about making the community around the lake into an attraction. Investing the equivalent of more than $4.25 million in today’s dollars, he built homes on tree-lined streets. According to an 1891 article in The Washington Post, Newman also spent an additional $2 million in today’s dollars to enhance the lake itself. He stocked it with bass, built wooden walkways and brought in pleasure boats, all in an effort to create a 12.5-acre park, also named for his wife. By 1893, people were flocking to the lake from as far away as the District to skate in the wintertime. 

A multi-faceted businessman, Newman seized upon another way to take advantage of the geological features in Lakeland. The community was nestled in a hollow near both Indian and Paint Branch creeks, and much of the area around the lake was marshy — a challenging spot to build homes but a great one for aquaculture. Newman established Aquarium Fisheries in 1903 to grow and sell fish and aquatic plants. Over time, the operation expanded to include several ponds on both sides of the railroad tracks.  

The Lake Artemesia area is further developed

Keen to capitalize on opportunities, three organizations came to operate aquaculture enterprises in Lakeland: Newman’s Aquarium Fisheries was joined by the parallel operations of Henry Bishop, Inc. and the U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Fisheries. Each operation used special containers that they loaded onto trains to transport their live products. Railroad records even show a fish house just next to the lake. 

By 1906, Newman’s Aquarium Fisheries business was going swimmingly, so much so that he held tours for visitors to Lakeland, including Maharaja Sayajirao Gaekwar of Baroda, the progressive leader of an Indian state. His Highness was a world traveler who sought out innovation and replicated many cutting-edge inventions back at home. Gaekwar was so impressed by the fishery that he spoke of building one of his own. (On the day of his tour with Newman, he also visited  the Maryland Agricultural College, which we now know as the University of Maryland.) 

While Newman was raising fish in the ponds, pioneering work was taking place just yards away, at the Army Signal Corps Aviation School located at the College Park Airport. Wilber Wright was training early military flyers, and aerial photography and air mail were both taking off. And at least one plane made an unplanned landing in one of the ponds — indeed, records document one such instance on a windy day in 1919. Speaking of things falling from the heavens, would you believe a 1895 Washington Star report of a meteor landing in that same lake? 

Newman eventually folded his goldfish business, and the federal government then stepped in and stocked the lakes with black bass, crappie and catfish —about 130 fish, total. When the lakes were drained six months later, researchers counted more than 74,000 fish; this astonishing headcount prompted Newman to lease the site to the Department of Commerce, though he did push for a full sale instead. The government drew up ambitious plans for the fishery, with ponds extending from the site of the current lake all the way to Baltimore Avenue. Department of Commerce Secretary (and future president) Herbert Hoover inspected the fishery in 1924, but legislation authorizing the purchase failed, and the proposal for additional lakes was off the table.

By 1937, the fish platforms along the railroad had been retired, and the fisheries were likely closed. The main lake had become a quiet place where children played and fished, and skated in the winter. Arthur Dock, a member of Lakeland High School’s class of 1950, the school’s last graduating class, remembered bringing “the image of the lake into the room” for their prom. Students gathered honeysuckle and placed tubs of floating waterlilies in the hall. “It was so beautiful and smelled so good,” he recalled.

Lake Artemesia becomes part of College Park

The lake, along with the community around it, became part of College Park when the city incorporated, in 1945. In reporting the event, the Greenbelt Cooperator (later renamed Greenbelt News Review) reported that “Lakeland voted overwhelmingly against the merger: 173 against to 9 for, and it is rumored that certain persons spread an impression throughout the colored community that the University of Maryland under the incorporation, planned to take from Lakeland its lakefront property.” 

By the 1970s, the lake’s neighborhood was a quiet, semi-rural spot with homes and an old school building which had been repurposed as a church, and skeletons of buildings were all that remained of Newman’s fishery. The City of College Park purchased the lake and surrounding community as part of an urban renewal program. Residents were forced to move, and the community was leveled — only the lake remained. Redevelopment plans were not realized and the land was left fallow. Until it was discovered by WMATA.

The development of the current Lake Artemesia

Local residents enjoy Lake Artemesia
People enjoy biking and strolling around Lake Artemesia
Courtesy of Derek Ohringer

With a great deal of pride, WMATA and local officials set out to create the Lake Artemesia we know today. A piece in The Washington Post described the lot where the lake is now located as “a 38-acre undeveloped area,” the large pit resulting from excavations in the 1980s for Metro’s Green Line. This mirrored the process nearly a hundred years earlier when Lake Artemesia was first established. The reinvented lake and trails now occupy land where homes and the community’s first school used to be.

The Lake Artemesia Natural Area is now under the auspices of the Maryland-National Capital Park and Planning Commission. As you explore the park’s trails and enjoy the lovely vistas, pause to remember the lake’s long and complicated history and consider, too, the people who once lived, worked and played in this community.