Born from fire: Lake Worth celebrates 100th year

08/23/2014 8:48 AM

08/23/2014 7:36 PM

In the early 1900s, city leaders assumed they had an endless supply of water.

The thought may seem crazy in this era of droughts and water restrictions, but the prevailing widsom a century ago was that Fort Worth had “an inexhaustable supply of pure artesian water,” as the Fort Worth Register wrote Nov. 24, 1901.

When a huge fire destroyed about 26 blocks on Fort Worth’s south side April 3, 1909, nearly depleting the city’s artesian wells, it became clear that another source of water was needed.

From 1911 to 1913, the city spent $1.5 million to acquire land and build a dam on the West Fork of the Trinity River. When an unexpected deluge hit North Texas in August 1914, the new lake was filled in days.

The morning of Aug. 19, 1914, residents drove out to the dam to see water running over it.

Lake Worth was born.

Almost from the beginning, when Fort Worth bought all the shoreline surrounding Lake Worth as it was being built, city leaders have managed the development of the lake.

In 100 years, it has transformed from a wildly popular beach resort — called the “Coney Island of the Southwest” — to a recreational lake that is home to hundreds of homeowners, the Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge, and untold acres of undeveloped land.

Today, there are ongoing debates about how much of lake should developed, including the proposed rebirth of Casino Beach. Some have suggested that it could re-emerge as recreational and entertainment destination; others want it to remain untouched.

“Selfishly, I don't want anybody else to come out here,” said Johnny Simons, 75, who spent a lot of his childhood at his aunt’s home on the lake and recently moved back to Lake Worth for the third time. “I don’t want it to become Disneyland. I know there are more beautiful places on earth, but I love this place.”

Casino Beach era

When the lake first filled, city officials tried to keep boaters and swimmers off of it, saying they would harm the quality of the water.

But by 1917, a bathing pavilion and public beach opened at Casino Beach, and Lake Worth was called “the largest municipal park in the world” by Fort Worth Parks Commissioner Harry Vinnedge.

“By the end of the first summer season, nearly 75,000 people, equal to the total population of the city at the time, visited the newest resort in the country,” Fort Worth historian Quentin McGown wrote for the Lake Worth Centennial Anniversary website.

The 5,430-acre lake, with about 40 miles of shoreline, remained popular through the 1920s and ’30s as campgrounds and picnic areas popped up.

Casino Beach had a boardwalk, a ballroom and an amusement park, complete with the Thriller, a state-of-the-art roller coaster that stretched 72 feet skyward. Elsewhere, the Moslah Mosque, where Mosque Point park is now located, had the largest ballroom in the southwest. Star-Telegram founder and Publisher Amon G. Carter built Shady Oak Farm, which opened in 1923, hosting dignitaries from around the world.

In the 1930s, Whiting Castle was created, where Samuel E. and Elizabeth Whiting remade an 1860s farmhouse to resemble the Scottish castle that was the home of Shakespeare’s Macbeth. Later, it was briefly the home of actor James Stewart while he was in Fort Worth filming Strategic Air Command in the 1950s.

But the hordes that flocked to the lake stayed away after World War II.

“People came back from the war and had access to automobiles,” McGown said. “The concept of a lake being a major recreation area became less popular. People had air conditioning and they quit going outside.”

The boardwalk eventually collapsed; the ballroom was demolished in 1973.

Lake Worth sat quietly for years, mostly ignored, and silt made much of it unnavigable.

Yet for some, the forgotten era was a treasured time.

‘A very poetic place’

Simons, artistic director and one of the founders of Hip Pocket Theater, estimates he has incorporated Lake Worth into at least half of the plays he has written.

“To me, it's a very poetic place,” Simons said.

“I always felt like it was sort of a blue-collar lake in contrast to Eagle Mountain,” Simons said. “… There was always something about the lake. It had numerous beer joints and a great deal of character. People that went to those places were so colorful and unique.”

One of those characters was Catfish Charlie, who hung out at a beer joint called Opal’s Shady Grove.

Simons wrote and produced a play titled Nova’s Shady Grove in the 1980s that included a character named Catfish Charlie. Simons even named one of his daughters Lake.

In 1969, the lake gave birth to one of the region’s most enduring legends — the Lake Worth Monster, also the title of one of Simons’ plays.

The Star-Telegram reported more than 100 people saw him, describing the beast as a tire-throwing half-man and half-goat.

The monster’s origin has been disputed for years, and people say high school students were pulling a prank.

Since 2009 the lake has held the Lake Worth Monster Bash, a family-friendly event that celebrates the legendary beast. The tribute is at the 3,240-acre Fort Worth Nature Center and Refuge, which is celebrating its 50th birthday this year as one of the largest city-owned nature preserves in the U.S.

The nature center’s boundaries include much of the upper shoreline of Lake Worth and the center is home to alligators, bobcats, deer and around 300 bird species.

‘Batting for the fences’

While the lake’s history is colorful, its residents, developers and Fort Worth officials are focused on the future.

Arlington real estate lawyer Mike Patterson continues to pursue plans to redevelop Casino Beach.

Last year, Patterson reached an agreement with the city to buy 15.7 waterfront acres for $1.8 million and to lease 39 city-owned acres.

But the deal has never closed for the property, which sits along the lake near the Jacksboro Highway bridge.

“The initiative right now is in his court,” said Fort Worth Councilman Dennis Shingleton, whose district includes Lake Worth.

Patterson said that he hopes to start the first phase by next summer and that it would include building two or three restaurants and 200 boat slips. The financing is in place, Patterson said, but he has faced challenges attracting the right mix of eateries.

“The most difficult of this part of whole deal has been to get the right restaurants out there,” Patterson said. “They say, ‘build it and they will come.’ I wish I could have a Joe T’s on the water or Tim Love on the water but that hasn’t been the case so far. We're batting for the fences out there and we're getting some reluctance.”

Lake Worth homeowner Joe Waller, former president of the Lake Worth Alliance, said he hopes the Casino Beach development gets off the ground, but he’s concerned about development on other city-owned land around the lake.

There are about 4,545 acres of parkland around Lake Worth, including 3,240 acres in the Nature Center. The Fort Worth Water Department still owns 950 acres of land around Lake Worth.

In a letter sent to Shingleton last week, Waller urged the City Council to designate all city-owned property around the lake as parkland to protect it for future generations.

“We now have the opportunity to make the decision to preserve those additional acres for public access parkland for future use as such,” Waller said. “To sell off that land obviously permanently eliminates that land for public parkland. If it becomes privately owned, it will be developed for private uses.”

Shingleton said that a “limited amount of land” could still be developed, but that any decision is still probably several years away and would probably depend on what happens at Casino Beach.

“I know some of them are antsy that the city is going to sell off parkland but that's not going to happen,” Shingleton said.

Mayor Betsy Price said she will “wait and see” what a city-commissioned Greenprint study by the Trust for Public Land says about the best ways to protect Lake Worth’s watershed before making any decisions about future development. Council members are expected to be briefed on that study by year’s end.

Price said she wants to keep Lake Worth “as pristine as possible.”

Dredging finished this year

Homeowners have done their share of revitalization at the lake as well.

For years, the city leased land to homeowners, but in 1997 it began allowing lake dwellers to buy their property. Since then, most of the simple fishing shacks built over the years have been replaced by nicer lakefront homes.

Today, 79 leases are left around the lake.

“People are much more willing to invest in nice house,” said Bob Crow, who moved to the lake as a child, moved back and demolished his father’s old place.

Crow, co-chairman of the Lake Worth Centennial Celebration, said he likes the direction the lake is heading, toward becoming a destination again.

He and others said a crucial part of the lake’s future was its dredging, which began in 2012 and ended this year, enhancing its recreational appeal by removing unwanted silt.

McGown said, “The dredging project is probably the most important project in the history of the lake.”

City officials have also developed the Lake Worth Vision plan, which is designed to protect the water quality and connect the lake to the Trinity Trails system.

Somewhat ironically — considering the ongoing drought — while Lake Worth began as a major source of water for the city, it now accounts for only a fraction of the region’s water supply.

Most of the water that comes into the lake is released upstream from Eagle Mountain Lake and Lake Bridgeport, said David Marshall, engineering services director at the Tarrant Regional Water District.

And because of contractual obligations to Lockheed Martin, which uses water from the lake to cool its facility, Lake Worth can never drop more than 4 feet below full.

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