David Johnson and his wife arrived at this junction of the east and west branches of the Clarion River from Salem, New Jersey, in 1810. They named the town Coopersport for Benjamin F. Cooper of Salem, who owned 400,000 acres of nearby land. However, the Johnson name clung to the area, and about 1880 the village's name was officially changed. The town was isolated and accessed by two rudimentary turnpikes in the 1820s and 1830s.
Around 1880, the lumber industry boomed and square-cut white pine logs tied together as rafts were sent down the Clarion River to Pittsburgh, and sometimes as far as New Orleans. After 1885, the logs were shipped by rail on the Buffalo, Rochester and Pittsburgh line. Steam power helped to launch ever larger industries that relied on lumber products, such as sawmills, tanneries, and wood chemical plants. The bark of hemlock trees was used to make tannic acid, an important component of leather tanning. The Clarion Pulp and Paper Company opened in 1889, and, after numerous ownership changes, in 2007 became Domtar Paper and Pulp Mill (200 Center Street).
A flood wreaked havoc on the town in 1942, and between 1947 and 1952, the Army Corps of Engineers constructed the East Branch Dam of the Clarion River northeast of Johnsonburg. Johnsonburg was built on three levels. Center Street, paralleling the river, carries U.S. 219 and is the town's access route. Lined with a mixture of residential and commercial properties, it has borne the brunt of floods and street widening. The Johnsonburg Hotel (c. 1910; 617 Center Street) is the only survivor of the nine hotels once in town. The first street east, Market Street, is a three-block-long commercial district with several very large brick houses built at the south end by the paper mill's owners and managers. Closely spaced, middle-class brick and frame houses line 3rd through 6th avenues, all in visual and olfactory thrall to the paper mill. Three separate sections of housing lie west of the Clarion River; north to south these neighborhoods are Terra Cotta, West End, and Rolfe (named for a former tannery).
The commercial district of Market Street includes the pressed-metal storefront of the Howell Pharmaceutical Company (c. 1890) at numbers 538–540; the former Zierden Department Store (c. 1885) at numbers 519–521, a three-story brick structure that is now a Western Auto Store; and the gray stone Johnsonburg National Bank (1891) by architect Patrick A. Welsh at Market and Bridge streets SE. The paper mill sponsored construction of the community building (1919–1920) at Bridge and Market streets SW, designed by Ridgway architect Frank Orner and built by the Hyde-Murphy Company. It contains a pool, gymnasium, and auditorium. Patrick Welsh also designed the Armstrong Real Estate and Improvement Company (c. 1890) at 523–569 Market Street, which has a repetitive bay system of two-story, three-bay units. Trimmed with stepped ornament at their parapets, the projecting second stories create an arcade along the street. Welsh moved from Lock Haven in Clinton County to Philadelphia and established a successful architectural practice between 1881 and 1907, concentrating on Roman Catholic churches.
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