Scenic White Rock Lake Park

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Park History

You may also enjoy browsing a Timeline of White Rock Lake History.

About this Online History:

This very brief history of White Rock Lake Park, which is divided into four parts, is adapted from my book, From Water Supply to "Urban Oasis," which is presently out-of-print.

From Water Supply to Urban Oasis cover

About the Book:

From Water Supply to Urban Oasis was first published in 2004. It was adapted from a two part series originally published in Legacies, A History Journal for Dallas and North Central Texas in 2002 and 2003. A revised, expanded, and improved special "Centennial Edition" was published in 2011, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the completion of the White Rock dam.

The Downtown Dallas Public Library has a first edition and the Lakewood branch library has a copy of the Centennial editon, or you can read my original Legacies articles, Part One and Part Two, online at UNT's "Portal to Texas History."


Before There Was A Lake (Prior to 1910)

bison grazingBefore Dallas County was settled, the land on which the lake was built was a shallow, tree-lined valley in which Native Americans hunted for the bison that came to drink from White Rock Creek and graze upon its grassy banks.

In the 1840s, while Texas was still an independent republic, white settlers began establishing homesteads on the high ground surrounding the White Rock Valley. Among them were the Coxes, the Dixons, the Humbards, the McCommases, the Fishers, and many others. In the late 1840s some of the men went off to fight in the War with Mexico with Col. John Coffee "Jack" Hays. Others joined the Confederate Army when Texas seceded from the Union in 1861. Some of those veterans are buried in the old Cox cemetery, established in 1848 when the daughter of Solomon and Lydia Dixon (for whom Dixon Branch is named) was buried there.

Following the Civil War, Freedmen and their families established a community named Egypt on what is now the northeastern shore of White Rock Lake. There, in addition to their homes, they had a church, a school, and a cemetery, now all gone.

Another nearby community was Calhoun, later named Fisher, on the northwestern side of the present-day lake. It too is gone but its name survives in Fisher Road, which still runs down to the edge of White Rock Lake.

Named for a Swiss family, the community of Reinhardt sprang up alongside railroad tracks near present-day Casa Linda Shopping Center. Like the town of Fisher, Reinhardt was eventually absorbed by a growing Dallas. It's name survives only in an elementary school that stands near the former center of the town.

In the 1890s another Swiss immigrant, Jacob Buhrer, established a dairy farm, most of which now lies beneath the waters of White Rock Lake. His family's home stood on a hill, now bare, that overlooked the White Rock Valley and a picturesque bridge over which travelers crossed the creek on their way to or from Dallas.

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A Water Supply for Dallas (1911-1929)

White Rock dam catwalkAs Dallas began to grow in population during the late 1890s and early 1900s (in 1890, it was briefly the largest city in Texas), water started to become a problem. Some people relied on artesian wells to provide their needs; others turned to the Trinity River. But it was clear that these sources were going to be enough in the future.

A dam was built on Bachman's Creek in 1903 but the resulting lake was far too small to meet Dallas' growing needs. In 1907, city officials began to acquire land in the White Rock Valley for a future reservoir that would be larger than Bachman's Lake.

The famous flood of 1908 was followed by the drought of 1909 and in 1910 the growing water crisis prompted the City of Dallas awarded a contract to build a dam on White Rock Creek to the Fred A. Jones Company. Jones went to work in March 1910 and by October 1911, announced the work was finished. Jones celebrated by inviting a veritable "who's who" of Dallas elites to join him for a chicken dinner and speeches in a tent that was erected behind the dam and the pump house, which was then still under construction.

In 1913, the first water from the reservoir was pumped into the Dallas mains and the following year, the lake was formally declared to be full.

Although it was not built with recreation in mind, Dallasites quickly discovered that the new reservoir and the land surrounding it was an ideal place for outdoor sports. Fishing became legal in 1917, the same year Joe E. Lawther was elected mayor. During his administration, prisoners from the Dallas County Jail constructed the road encircling the lake that was afterward named for the World War One-era mayor.

In addition to fishing, Dallasites also enjoyed boating, camping, and hunting at the lake, which was then administered by the Dallas Water Board.

Although some of the speechmakers at Jones' 1911 celebratory party had predicted Dallas' water supply was assured for 100 years or more, by the 1920s it became evident that they were wrong. In the mid-1920s work began on a new reservoir, in neighboring Denton County.

As soon as the new "Lake Dallas" (now Lake Lewisville) was completed, White Rock Lake and the land surrounding it became a city park. The date: December 13, 1929.

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The People's Playground (1929-1958)

White Rock beachIn 1927, anticipating the popularity of the newly-proposed park, an anonymous newspaper reporter predicted it would quickly become "The People's Playground." During the administration of populist "hot dog" Mayor J. Waddy Tate (1929-1931), the prediction became reality.

The first permanent lakeside amenities were constructed by the City of Dallas in 1930: A Bath House and Bathing Beach (complete with sand!) on the eastern shore and a municipal boathouse with berths for 36 speedboats on the western shore. The architectural firm of Carsey and Linskie designed them both.

In 1931 the City of Dallas erected several picnic tables made of stone and concrete in a shady grove of pecan trees alongside Dixon Branch Creek. They are still there today, beside the picnic shelter (probably designed by Martin C. Kleuser) constructed by the Civil Works Administration (CWA) in 1934.

CCC Enrollees at White RockIn 1933, newly-elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, asked for and received Congressional approval for the establishment of a Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), as part of his "New Deal," a plan for combatting the Great Depression. Two years later, CCC Company No. 2896, consisting of a little more than 200 previously unemployed young men from Dallas, Tarrant, and Collin counties, took up residence on the eastern shore of the lake, just behind Winfrey Point. Over the next seven years, until World War Two began, they and the enrollees who came after them labored to make improvements to White Rock Lake Park, most notably at Doran's Point (now Flag Pole Hill), Sunset Bay, Big Thicket, and Winfrey Point. The CCC also planted or transplanted hundreds of trees, the shade of which park visitors are still enjoying today.

During this same era, the Civil Works Administration (CWA) and the Works Progress Administration (WPA), two other "New Deal" federal agenices, also made contributions to the infrastructure of White Rock Lake Park. It appears that the men employed by the short-lived CWA were used primarily for the purpose of picking up trash around the park or landscaping projects. The WPA's contributions were more visible and lasting. Two bridges funded by the federal agency between 1935 and 1937, one on either side of the lake, are still in use today. Together, the CCC and the WPA widened Lawther Drive. The WPA was also responsible for some landscaping projects and building a new pier for the White Rock Sailing Club, which caused the city a little trouble. Because the pier was for private, not public, use, the Dallas Park Board was required to refund the federal government's contribution to the project, which was $1,787 out of a total of $5,081 spent on the pier's construction.

In 1939 the Park Board hired a planning firm, Hare and Hare, to make recommendations for the beautification of White Rock and other city parks. The consultants advised the city to keep White Rock "in a natural state" and to remove the private fishing shacks and campsites that lined its shore, principally on the east side. The city took the advice to heart and by 1940, the "majority of cabins were removed" following the expiration of their leases. It helped that former mayor Joe E. Lawther, a respected figure and White Rock advocate, came out publicly in support of the idea.

After World War Two began, the CCC camp was turned over the the Army Air Corps' Fifth Ferrying Command, which used the site as an induction center and "boot camp" for nearly two years.

In 1944, the CCC camp got a new lease on life as a Prisoner-of-War camp for German non-coms captured in the North Africa campaign. During their incarceration at White Rock, they worked nights at Fair Park repairing army equipment. At war's end, they were repatriated to their "fatherland." Apparently, they were reasonably well treated. At least one former POW wrote a letter to the Dallas Morning News after the war, asking someone to sponsor him so that he and his family could move to Dallas.

During the 1946-1947 school year, the aging CCC barracks were inhabited for a final time, used as overflow housing for Southern Methodist University students. Many of the students were veterans attending classes on the G.I. Bill, a benefit enacted during the war by a Democratic-controlled Congress and signed into law by President Roosevelt two weeks after the 1944 "D-Day" invasion of Europe.

During the 1930s, 1940s, and into the 1950s, White Rock Lake Park lived up to its designation as "The People's Playground." Dallas was smaller then (in both land size and population) and White Rock was literally a day's outing in the countryside. With no home air conditioning, people flocked to its shores in droves during the summer to enjoy the cooling breezes and to swim, fish, go sailboating or speedboating, or camp out. Until the 1940s, more than a hundred private fishing cabins lined the shoreline. Regularly-held sailboat and speedboat races were watched by thousands of people who parked their cars on T.P. Hill. On the Fourth of July, bathers jammed White Rock Beach and swim and in the evening, to watch fireworks explode over the lake. For a brief period of time in the 1930s, there was a dance pavilion beside the bathhouse, where couples could take to the dance floor and enjoy the music of Babe Lowry and her all-female band, the "Rhythm Sweethearts."

One of the most popular attractions, after the war, was the "Bonnie Barge," a floating dance pavilion and excursion boat, owned by speedboat concessionaire Johnny Williams.

Monday, September 1, 1952 was the last day the bathing beach was open. The following year, during a drought, White Rock Lake was put back in service (temporarily) as a a water supply and swimming was banned. In the meantime, fueled in part by fears of potential racial conflict, the City of Dallas embarked on a program of building smaller, neighborhood pools. The beach at White Rock was never re-opened and the ban on swimming is still in force to this day.

In 1958, a ban on outboard motors of more than 10.5 horsepower put an end to speedboats on the lake and also the Bonnie Barge.

The closure of the beach and the ban on large motorboats, combined with the building of newer, larger reserviors on the outskirts of town, helped spell the end of White Rock's reign as "The People's Playground." Other contributing factors were a rise in automobile ownership and highway building (allowing easy access to area lakes where swimming and motorboating were allowed), home air conditioning, and the advent of the age of television.

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An Urban Oasis (From 1959 to the Present)

Recent Improvements, 2010Beginning in the late 1950s, White Rock Lake Park entered a decades-long period of decline that has only recently begun to be reversed. As a result of neglect, many of the permanent improvements made by the City of Dallas and the CCC in the 1930s and 1940s began to deteriorate. Vandals took advantage of the absence of regular police patrols to deface the dam and other park structures with unsightly graffiti. Flagpole Hill, covered with empty beer cans and liquor bottles, became deeply rutted by soil erosion.

The 1970s and 1980s were particularly trying decades for White Rock Lake Park. Although Dallas voters approved a bond program that resulted in a long-overdue lake dredging in 1974, there were other problems. Lawther Drive became a popular cruising lane for teenagers and the bathhouse parking lot a youthful "hangout" for where fights frequently broke out. One altercation between police and drunken teens, in 1977, resulted in 49 arrests. Two years later, in an attempt to address the situation, city officials approved the dividing of East Lawther Drive into four sections, rendering it impossible to drive all the way around the lake in one continuous direction.

But it wasn't all doom and gloom. In 1971 the first "Run the Rock" marathon was held and in 1976, the city built a combination cycling and jogging path around the lake. Five years later the abandoned bathhouse was converted into a community center for the visual and performing arts. A ban on alcohol within the park's boundaries, implemented in 1989, has been credited not only with a decrease in park crime but also the return to White Rock Lake Park of many former park visitors who had become fearful of spending time there.

In 1987, the City of Dallas Park and Recreation Board adopted a management plan for White Rock Lake Park and in February 1990, a $12.8 million "Master Plan for Implementation of the 1987 Management Plan" was issued. It called for a number of improvements to White Rock Lake Park, including a long-overdue desilting of the lake, which was accomplished between 1996 and 1998.

In 1995 a collection of concerned Dallas citizens formed a grass-roots activist organization called For the Love of the Lake. Working in partnership with the Dallas Parks and Recreation Department, this group has been responsible for numerous park improvements.

During the first decade of the twenty-first century, a renewed interest in the lake's history combined with an activist "can-do" spirit has resulted in the reversal of much of the deterioration and decay of decades past. Several repairs have been made and numerous improvements, such as a leash-free dog park at Mockingbird Point and a nearby pedestrian bridge, have been added by the City of Dallas. Thanks largely to concerned citizens such as the volunteers of FTLOTL, the lake is a cleaner, healthier, more vibrant place than it was in the 1970s and 1980s. As citizens celebrate the centennial of the lake in 2011, the future looks much brighter for Dallas' "urban oasis" than it did a little more than twenty years ago.

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