Dallas Lake and Park
White Rock Lake is a lovely blue jewel, glittering against Dallas' rather drab backdrop of concrete and prairie. The effect is as though a charming piece of idealized Texan wilderness somehow got spliced into the middle of the sunbaked East Dallas urban sprawl. The lake and its surrounding park is one of the big D's most endearing and enduring landmarks and they have been enjoyed for generations.
White Rock History
The White Rock Valley, cut into soft chalk by creeks over the course of uncounted centuries, was well-known to the Native Americans of the area. After the Republic of Texas declared its independence from Mexico in 1836, Anglo settlers began to swarm into the area, and the highlands near White Rock Valley became prime real estate. Towns and villages sprang up around the picturesque little valley.
1908 and 1909 brought a long drought to North Texas. Dallas' new reservoir, created just a year before by damming Bachman's Creek, could not keep up with the rapidly expanding city's need for clean water. The city contracted a local company to dam the White Rock Creek and create the new reservoir. The 1,015 acre lake was officially completed in 1913. Area residents were quick to exploit the new lake's recreational potential. People came to White Rock to sail or canoe on the tranquil water, to fish or to camp and hunt in the surrounding woods.
As Dallas continued to grow, White Rock Lake could no longer serve the water needs of the community. Lake Dallas (now named Lake Lewisville) was created in 1929 to take over as Dallas' reservoir . White Rock Lake was officially declared a city park on December 13, 1929.
In the 1930s, the Great Depression ravaged the United States, and people everywhere looked for inexpensive ways to entertain themselves. White Rock became "the People's Playground," as camping facilities and piers for fishing and boating were created. In 1930, a scenic sand bathing beach was set up on the eastern shore—a beautiful and majestic art deco-style bath house was built and equipped with showers, lockers and refreshment stands. This area became a center of recreational activity for the area for over twenty years.
The 1950s saw the decline of the People's Playground. A drought in 1952 forced the city to press the lake into use as a drinking water reservoir once more. Large motorboats were also prohibited from its waters and Dallas fun-seekers headed to neighborhood pools and larger local area lakes (accessible through the newly-improved roads). White Rock Lake was never again opened for swimming.
During the following 25 years, the lake began a steady slide into disuse, disrepair and disrepute. Lawther Drive became a popular cruising circuit for teenagers and the Bath House became a hangout for many unpleasant characters. Vandalism, drug use and all sorts of crime made the once-pleasant park into a dodgy, risky sort of a place.*
As the 1980s approached, Dallas began to clean up and revitalize the lake. Bit by bit, the old park was cleaned up, a bike trail was added and police patrols were increased. In 1981, the abandoned and boarded-up Bath House was turned into the "Bath House Cultural Center," an art gallery and performance venue. Further steps included limiting access to the lake (but the best make-out spots managed to stay open) and a park-wide ban on alcohol. All of this managed to remove some of the rowdiness and danger that had been associated with White Rock Lake for decades.
White Rock Lake's nine tributaries carry a large amount of silt, and periodic dredging is required to keep the little lake from choking on it. It was dredged in 1974, but by the mid-80s the silt was about to take over the lake. Around 1987 the city cleared money for a major overhaul of this troubled lake, including desilting, but it did not happen for almost a decade. In 1995, a grass roots organization of citizens called "For the Love of the Lake" was formed—they helped to pressure City Hall until something was done. Between 1996 and 1998, the lake was finally desilted. For the Love of the Lake still funds shoreline cleanup and an Adopt-A-Shoreline program.
A Visitor's Guide to White Rock Lake
The lake itself is located in northeast Dallas, bordered by Mockingbird Lane, Buckner Boulevard and Garland Road. Lawther Road circles the lake.
Among the many attractions are:
- The Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Gardens (8525 Garland Road) and the adjacent Degolyer Estate—a 66-acre paradise where patrons walk among beautiful plants and trees with a stunning backdrop of the lake.
- Abundant recreational facilities, including three lovely and enjoyable rental facilities, several picnic areas, fishing piers, parks, baseball diamonds, and playgrounds.
- An Audubon Society designated bird-watching area. White Rock boasts over two hundred species of birds, dozens of mammals and abundant amphibians and reptiles. The urban wildlife preserve on the southwest side of the lake is a wonderful place to see the animals of White Rock Park.
- The lake offers two sailing clubs. White Rock is home base for a lot of canoe and kayak enthusiasts.
- Much more information about the history, geology, and wildlife of the area can be found at the White Rock Museum, located at the Bath House Cultural Center.
- Mockingbird Point Off-Leash Dog Park (opened in 2001)—this facility provides a beautiful place for dogs and their human pals to enjoy the fresh air and beauty of White Rock Park.
- Overlooking the west side of White Rock Lake, the old Cox Cemetery has the graves of many of Dallas' early settlers and of veterans dating back to the Civil War.
- Near Cox Cemetery is Mount Vernon mansion, a nearly-exact replica of President Washington's famous home. Built in 1938, this was long the home of self-made oil millionaire H. L. Hunt.
- More than 11 miles of hiking and biking trails.
- Several annual events including the Run The Rock Marathon.
Legends of the Lake
The most colorful legend associated with White Rock Lake is that of the Lady of the Lake. According to the story, a ghostly apparition of a beautiful woman has been seen on the shores of the little lake. In a variation of the Vanishing Hitchhiker tales, she has disappeared from the cars of those people who have offered her a lift home. The tales go on to tell that when her would-be Good Samaritans arrive at the address that the vanishing woman gave them, they are informed that she died in a boating accident on White Rock Lake a few weeks earlier.
Alternate versions of the legend tell of a suicidal woman who drove her car into the lake. Her specter supposedly still haunts the one of the old abandoned buildings near the lake. The woods and roads near the lake can be pretty spooky at night—a perfect place to see a woman garbed in old-fashioned white clothing, rising from the waters.
Residents also tell the more light-hearted legend of Bonnie Belle Island, a fanciful isle that is sometimes spotted in White Rock. This ‘magical isle’ is actually a sort of joke based on a recurring error made by map-makers. For some reason, many maps of the lake feature an island called Belle or Bonnie Belle Island, even though no such place exists. Other fables tell of creepy groups of devil-worshipping cultists who gather at Cox Cemetery or nearby Flagpole Hill to perform occult rites (which, in the imagination of teenaged boys, involve all manner of absurd horrors!)**.
There are several plausible but unconfirmed stories of the remains of Dallas-area mobsters being found during dredging of the lake. At least one story that circulated in the late '60s claimed that several of Jack Ruby's associates, possibly able to shed some light on President Kennedy's assassination in 1963, have met their fate in White Rock Lake's murky depths. Skeletons in chains or "concrete shoes" have supposedly been found near the Mockingbird Lane bridge or further out in the deeps.
As the lake, now rescued from oblivion by the concerted efforts of many concerned citizens, nears its centennial, we can hope that its sparkling waters and verdant parks will provide beauty, inspiration and recreation for many more generations to come.
*As a boy of about 12, I was awakened from a nap and dragged out to our back yard, which overlooked the lake by my father. Lining our street were more police cars than I have ever seen in one place at one time before or since. The Bath House was a blur of riotous activity, and a stream of cops were dragging people up from the riots to be taken away. The din was deafening. My overall feeling was not really fear, but just amazement, "What the hell is going on? Has the world gone crazy?" I later read that 49 people were arrested that day.
**I know of three teenaged
idiots boys who went bravely searching the dim, winding lanes of Flagpole Hill for these cultists one creepy and intoxicated evening. Our spooky adventure turned genuinely terrifying when we found ourselves stuck in a narrow alleyway that had been intentionally blocked with slabs of concrete. After escaping that, we never tried that stupid stunt again!
Dallas park and recreation website: http://www.dallascityhall.com/dallas/eng/html/white_rock_lake.html
Stephen Butler’s Tour and history of WRL, I can't speak highly enough of this site, it may be the ultimate resource on the lake: http://www.watermelon-kid.com/places/wrl/wrl.htm
For the Love of the Lake, dallas organization: http://www.whiterocklake.org/