Wenham Lake (224 acres) is a lake located in the Essex County towns of Wenham and Beverly, in the U.S. state of Massachusetts. In the 19th century, the lake was famous for its ice, which was harvested and transported by ship throughout the world. Due to its purity, ice from the lake was popular in Victorian Britain and reputed to have been used by Queen Victoria herself. The lake is now a reservoir for the Salem and Beverly Water Supply Board.
Wenham Lake collects water from the water table and from a system of brooks leading from Beaver Pond, Norwood Pond and Longham Reservoir in the fields and woods to the east. These streams are controlled waterways. Drainage into the lake is through a pipe running under Route 1A in the vicinity of the golf course to the north of the lake. To the west drainage enters the lake through deeply cut ravines in glacial features forested with hemlock and pine, near Beverly Airport.
The lake and its shores are not accessible to the general public. The facilities at the southern end are restricted by high fences and kept under surveillance by cameras. The shores of the lake are posted against trespassing. Stands of evergreens left on the knolls surrounding the lake are privately owned. Due to increased isolation of the lake bed, migratory birds typically seen only in Wenham Swamp a mile to the north, now rest and feed in larger numbers in the lake. Even though it is a non-trespassing area, most locals see it as one of the most consistent fishing places in northern Massachusetts.
Although Native Americans probably lived around Wenham Lake before European settlements in 1635, no evidence of their activity has been found in the area. The Agawam tribe owned the lake as part of its tribal lands, which comprised all of eastern Essex County. Those lands were ceded to the English in a quitclaim deed by Chief Masconomet to John Winthrop the Younger as part of an amalgamation arrangement of what was left of the Agawam (they were decimated by disease) and the English colonists of Charlestown, Massachusetts.
The lake first appears in recorded history as Great Pond, part of Salem, Massachusetts. It was the site of the well-publicised murder of John Hoddy by John Williams. Hoddy's dog detained the murderer until his discovery and arrest.
In 1638, Hugh Peters, the Puritan minister of the First Church of Salem, delivered a sermon to a small group of settlers on its shore. His sermon turned upon "Enon, near Salem, because there was much water there," a biblical reference to John 3:23. The small village nearby was thus named Enon. (A stone with an engraved plaque off Route 1A marks the spot today.) It was officially recognized by the General Court of Massachusetts as a village of Salem on November 5, 1639. On May 10, 1643 it was incorporated as a distinct community and was renamed Wenham, after a group of towns in England. The lake then became Wenham Lake.
The Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier wrote in 1877 the poem "The Witch of Wenham" which was set on the shores of Wenham Lake.
In the early 1900s, American ornithologist and hunter John Charles Phillips published, "Wenham Great Pond" recounting his almost 10 years at Wenham Lake.
In the early colonial times, alewife fishing was an important part of the economy. All the ponds in the region were interconnected through swamps and streams. Wenham Lake was a major alewife spawning ground via an outlet that emptied into the Miles River, which in turn joins the Ipswich River after a drop in elevation of about 34 feet. Alewife harvests continued to be important until the 19th century, when dam construction on the Ipswich River and other streams ended the trade. Every drop of the lake was tapped for water power via a mill dam and a mill. Today the outlet has long since been filled by the roadbed of Route 1A and the land used for the Lakeview Golf Course. Similarly, all the ponds have been protected as part of the drinking water supply.
The transatlantic ice trade began in the 1840s, with the first ice cargo arriving in England in 1844 from Wenham Lake. The Landers family, owners of the lake's first ice house, constructed a railroad spur to help transport ice; one of its builders was Grenville Mullen Dodge, later to become famous as a Major General in the Union Army and central figure in the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. The railroad is now the Beverly-Newburyport Commuter Rail Line. The roadbed of the spur is still visible directly behind the fifth hole at the Lakeview Golf Course.
Ice was harvested as follows: A crew of 100 men and 30 to 40 horses was required. The crew waited for a foot of black ice to form in the lake. Snow was swept off and snow-ice was scraped off by horse-drawn vehicles if necessary. Then a horse-drawn cutting tool, the marker, scored a grid 2-3 inches deep forming 21-inch squares over 2-3 acres of ice. Men with saws cut along a line one direction while men with ice spades knocked the blocks free from the strip. Another crew with ice hooks drew the ice onto platforms over ramps. Full platforms were slid onto sledges for transport to ice houses on the shore. An ice house was built of pine walls filled with sawdust to the thickness of two feet. The blocks were packed in sawdust for transport, moved to the train in special wagons and brought directly to a wharf in Boston. They arrived within an hour of cutting with no loss. Transport to Britain by ship lost about a third of the ice.
The ice business continued until at least 1912, when John C. Kelleher founded Beverly Ice Company to harvest the lake's ice. Its end came shortly afterwards.
Wenham Lake was set aside as a water reservoir for Salem and Beverly Water Supply Board (established 1913). Today Wenham Lake is integrated into the local water distribution system.
In 2001, the Wenham Lake Watershed Association discovered significant contamination of the lake from large deposits of fly ash dating from the 1950s and 1960s. These deposits totaled about 7,800 cubic yards, and were more than 3 feet deep in some locations. Their origin was the nearby Vitale dump, an abandoned gravel and sand quarry that had illegally stored refuse from coal burned at the Salem Harbor Power Generating Station. In subsequent years the lake has been dredged and is now monitored for its long-term health.