We love the Clear Fork now. But for years, Fort Worth feared it.
In May 1949, the river that now draws bicycling families and margarita drinks leaped out of its then-brushy banks and swallowed much of west and central Fort Worth.
More than 10 inches of rain west and northwest of the city turned the Trinity River into a 14-block-wide sea of muck, killing 10 and forcing 13,000 from homes.
Old-timers still argue whether the flood reached what is now the first or second floor of what is now Montgomery Plaza, but for years the waterline was in plain view. Today’s West 7th shopping district, the Fort Worth Zoo and Colonial Country Club were all knee- to shoulder-deep in floodwaters.
“Fort Worth chose the month of May to have itself a major-league flood,” novelist Dan Jenkins wrote in his memoir “His Ownself,” adding that the water rose up the then-Montgomery Ward regional headquarters “even though the Montgomery Ward building was bigger than Waco.”
It was the Clear Fork’s third whack at Fort Worth, after damaging floods in 1908 and 1922. Finally, city leaders and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers collaborated to build the system of lakes and levees that protects the central city today.
Residents of nearly new postwar homes in the Crestwood and Linwood neighborhoods west of downtown were forced to higher ground, along with residents of Greenway and Riverside east of downtown.
Gawkers stood on Camp Bowie Boulevard in what is now a sub shop parking lot, watching boats go through the busy intersection at University Drive.
Water stood 10 to 12 feet deep throughout today’s West Seventh Street shopping district.
The Star-Telegram account is chilling:
“Mrs. Jose Kent [an 80-year-old] was swept away by raging floodwaters early Tuesday morning near Baker’s Floral Shop on [South] University Drive in Forest Park.
“Her daughter, Mrs. Ira D. Adams, saw her mother carried away by the floodwaters as she clung to a ferris wheel” at a nearby carnival.
More than 2,000 evacuees found shelter in Will Rogers Coliseum, with more in the Stock Show cattle barns and in the gymnasium at what is now Naval Air Station Fort Worth.
One in 20 Fort Worth residents had to seek shelter.
Water service was out three days.
According to the book “Flash Floods in Texas,” a new water pump motor was rushed in from Indianapolis with a police escort through Missouri and Oklahoma.
The damage estimate was $15 million total, equivalent to $154 million today.
The floodwaters only involved the Clear Fork, which splits southwest toward Benbrook and Mary’s Creek toward a headwaters north of Weatherford. The West Fork rainfall was managed by the Eagle Mountaim Lake dam.
The weather forecast had called for “occasional showers.” But the same storm system had generated 5 inches of rain in Wichita Falls and Breckenridge, west of Fort Worth.
The Star-Telegram was careful to call it only the “second worst” flood in city history. A 1922 flood killed 13, but did only $1 million in damage.
The floods remain the worst disasters in the history of the city of Fort Worth.