The Recipe for Lake Instant: Just Add Water

You could call Lake Arlington “Lake Instant.” In 1957 the recipe for Lake Instant was simple: Just add water. A lot of water. Real fast.

Lake Arlington was born of the spring rains of 1957 that not only filled the lake bed before it was finished but also, more importantly, ended the worst drought in recorded Texas history.

Some pre-deluge back story: In the early 1950s civic leaders of Arlington, led by Mayor Tom Vandergriff, foresaw that the city’s increasing population (1950 census: 7,692; 1960 census: 44,775; 2022 estimate: 400,000) would strain the city’s water supply, especially after General Motors opened its assembly plant in 1954.

lake a 7-13-54 board oksSo, in 1954 the Texas State Board of Water Engineers approved Arlington’s plan to dam Village Creek and impound 25,800 acre-feet of water (1 acre-foot is 326,000 gallons). Through condemnation proceedings the city acquired 2,900 acres of mostly farmland in the J. A. Creary, J. M. Daniel, and David Strickland surveys in the Village Creek basin between Business 287 and Arkansas Lane. Cost of the project in 1954 was estimated at $2.3 million ($20.4 million today). To finance the construction, the city sold bonds.

lake a 2-10-56 line to tescoTexas Electric Service Company, whose adjacent power plant would draw water from the new lake, also helped finance the project. The project included installing a water supply line from the lake to the power plant, which is located on the site of Northern Texas Traction Company’s interurban power plant at Lake Erie, impounded in 1902.

lake a erie googleToday only a sliver of Lake Erie survives as the northwest corner of Lake Arlington. Although Lake Erie was located only about one mile west of Village Creek, Lake Erie was fed by a creek flowing in from the northwest. In fact, water released from Lake Erie flowed into Village Creek as Village Creek flowed north to the Trinity River.

lake a vandergriff with shovelThe good news: Construction of Lake Arlington officially began on May 15, 1956 when Mayor Vandergriff turned a shovelful of dirt at the site of the dam. (Photo from UTA Libraries.)

lake a 5-17-56 ground brokenThe bad news: By 1956 the estimated cost of the project had risen from $2.3 million to $4.25 million ($37 million today). The good news: Contractor J. W. Moorman said the lake might be completed in fewer than the stipulated 250 working days.

This WBAP-TV archival news film (no audio; film from UNT Libraries Special Collections) shows construction of the dam in late 1956:

And then the rains came.

In fact, the rains more than came. The rains came, they pulled off their coat and threw it in the corner, they unpacked their bags, they took off their shoes, they put their feet up, they loosened their belt, they asked for a cold beer, and they stayed a while.

lake a rain chart

The rainfall of 4.18 inches for the month of March 1957 was just over the average of 3.7 inches. But almost twenty-five inches of rain fell in April and May as the Metroplex slogged toward 50.49 inches of rain in 1957! For comparison, the year 2015, of course, was the wettest year on record for the Metroplex with 62.61 inches of rain.

As Lake Arlington was under construction and as the rain began to fall early in 1957 Texas was suffering through a drought that had begun in 1946. In many parts of Texas, including the Metroplex, that drought was the worst in recorded history.

The rains that filled Lake Instant ended that drought.

lake a 4-1-57 filling wbapThis script from a WBAP-TV news broadcast of April 1, 1957 says the dam had been completed and was impounding water after March’s 4.18 inches of rain. Part of Arkansas Lane in the lake basin was under two feet of water.

lake a 4-5-57 boatThree days later water at the base of the lake was nine feet deep, and the lake had its first boat traffic.

over spillway 57 redoOn April 27, 1957 construction engineer Richard Smith watched water flow over the spillway of Lake Instant. (Photo from UTA Libraries.)

lake a 4-30-57 spillwaysA foot of rain fell in the month of April 1957, causing flash floods. The Star-Telegram reported that lakes Bridgeport, Worth, and Eagle Mountain were full—the first time since 1950 that all three had been full at the same time. Water at Lake Arlington was two feet above its service spillway and eight feet below its flood spillway. By the end of April Fort Worth had already received more rain than it had in all of 1956. The rainfall total for the year through April 29 was the highest since the rainfall that had caused the flood of April 1922.

lake a 5-24-57 rains pi fullBy May 24, 1957 Fort Worth had received 26.93 inches of rain for the year so far—more rain than had fallen in any entire year since 1950. Village Creek was “out of its bounds,” which, of course, was raising the level of Lake Arlington. Note the reference to TCU Airport.

lake a tcu airportTCU Airport (1946-1957) was a private three-runway airfield owned by B. M. Roberts and located along Granbury Road where today’s Westwood subdivision is (two and a half miles southwest of the TCU campus).

lake a 9-6-57 connectioin“Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink”: The new lake was full, but this report says the city of Arlington could not yet draw water from the lake because a supply pipe from the lake to a filter station had not been completed. This report says the spring rains of 1957 filled the lake in three weeks. Other accounts range from twelve to thirty days, depending on how “filled” is defined. But no matter how “filled” is defined, the lake filled so quickly that earth-moving equipment being used to build the lake was submerged before it could be evacuated. Poly Webb Road was submerged, as was the western end of Arkansas Lane. A grain silo on a farm north of Poly Webb Road was submerged. The top of the silo would stand above the water line into the 1970s.

The lake was declared completed on July 19, 1957.

Using the July 19 completion date, by my calculation the contractor failed by 36 days to complete the lake in the stipulated 250 working days, no doubt due in part to almost twenty-five inches of rain in April and May.

lake a dedicationLake Arlington was not formally dedicated until April 29, 1958. Participating were, from left, Marvin C. Nichols (of Freese & Nichols consulting firm), Clarence R. Foster (mayor pro-tem), Tom Vandergriff (mayor), and Beeman Fisher (TESCO vice president). (Photo from UTA Libraries.)

lake a 6-9-57 sun valleyAfter Lake Arlington was completed, it attracted new subdivisions such as Sun Valley in 1957. Homes featured knotty pine kitchens, Venetian blinds, and Formica drain ($9,250 would be $79,000 today).

lake a 3-24-61 fun in sunAnd a new country club ($12 would be $100 today; $120 would be $1,000 today).

lake a 4-1-62 fun in sun openFun-in-the-Sun opened in 1962.

lake a 12-29-57 end of droughtAs the year 1957 ended Star-Telegram writer C. L. Richhart detailed how the heavy spring rains had replenished area lakes. Richhart pointed out that without area lakes to hold all that water, 1957 could have been one of the worst flood years in the state’s history.

Sixty-six years after ground was broken for Lake Instant, the lake today is a reminder of the spring rains that ended the worst drought in recorded Texas history.

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15 Responses to The Recipe for Lake Instant: Just Add Water

  1. Karen says:

    My dad, Carl Jensen & friend, Dick Cottingham were the first to sail on the lake and we’re founding members of the Arlington Yacht Club. Our family had many wonderful years at the Fun in the Sun Club. My parents called it Miracle Lake. I even remember the lifeguard’s name, Bobby, who was my first swim teacher who taught me how to blow bubbles & open my eyes underwater. I’ll never forget catching frogs at dusk on the putting green with the other children or lying under the trees and listening to the halyards clanking against the masts. Such wonderful memories. Thank you for the article.

  2. Kathy Tull says:

    Mike this is fantastic. I suspected Lake Erie was the beginning of Lake Arlington

  3. Charla Hawkes Vinyard says:

    Lake Arlington was NEVER called “Lake Instant.”
    It was dubbed “Miracle Lake” by my father, Charles Hawkes, Editor of “The Citizen” (which later became the “Citizen Journal”.). Because the lake filled so quickly, the “Miracle Lake” nickname stuck for many years after.

    • hometown says:

      Charla, I remember your father. Vaguely remember being in his office. May have interviewed him as an assignment in journalism class.

  4. Ruby Hurd Harse says:

    Thanks for this article. I grew up in Forest Hill when all this rain started. My dad, George Hurd Jr was the Volunteer Fire Chief. Every afternoon after working a long day @ Coke a Cola Bottling Co, he would come home and start helping to sandbag an area. That summer he would take us to the lake to park at a street that was flooded to go swimming. That spot later became a park.

  5. Jesse Worrell says:

    Did the ‘Fun in the Sun Club’ change it’s name to something like Arlington Lake Country Club at some point? If it’s the place I’m thinking of, my father was the manger there for awhile in the early 70’s.

    • hometown says:

      Jesse, there was a Lake Arlington Country Club. But I can’t find an address, and the dates I find for ads in the Star-Telegram indicate that Fun in the Sun and Lake Arlington Country Club existed at the same time. I find an ad for LACC in 1964 and an ad for FUSCC in 1965.

  6. Shirley Enis says:

    I was working for attorney who handled adoptions and couple from up north were here to pick up their baby, new mother asked me “is this your rainy season?”

  7. Dave and Shirley 80 something says:

    Terrific article. The only one I could find that recounts the early filling of Lake Arlington. Newspaper archives on line are useless.

  8. LINDY says:

    The Friday, May 24,1957 article talks about a lightning strike near the TCU Airport? Where was that?

    • hometown says:

      “TCU Airport (1946-1957) was a private three-runway airfield owned by B. M. Roberts and located along Granbury Road where today’s Westwood subdivision is (two and a half miles southwest of the TCU campus).”

  9. Susan Moorman says:

    I just discovered your post on “Lake Instant” (March, 2017). I LOVED it! My grandfather, J.W. Moorman, was the contractor for the Lake Arlington Dam and it was probably part of his equipment that was submerged in the lake due to the rain. Thank you so much for your most interesting article!

    P.S. I’d be interested in any other information or articles you might have about his work in the area.

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