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.
In medical terms Lake Arlington was a preemie: born of the spring rains that not only filled the lake bed before it was finished but also, more importantly, ended the worst drought in recorded Texas history.
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; 2021 estimate: 400,000) would strain the city’s water supply, especially after General Motors opened its assembly plant in 1954.
That year 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.
Texas Electric Service Company, whose adjacent power plant would draw water from the 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’s interurban power plant at Lake Erie, impounded in 1902.
Today 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.
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.)
The 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.
The rainfall of 4.18 inches for the month of March 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.
This 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.
Three days later water at the base of the lake was nine feet deep, and the lake had its first boat traffic.
On April 27, 1957 construction engineer Richard Smith watched water flow over the spillway of Lake Instant. (Photo from UTA Libraries.)
A foot of rain fell in the month of April, 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 caused the flood of April 1922.
By 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.
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).
“Water, water everywhere, nor any drop to drink”: The 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.
Yes, Lake Arlington was a preemie. 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 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.)
After 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).
And a new country club. ($12 would be $100 today; $120 would be $1,000 today.)
Fun-in-the-Sun opened in 1962.
As 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-three years after ground was broken for Lake Arlington—Lake Instant—the lake today is a reminder of the spring rains that ended the worst drought in recorded Texas history.