Double Death, Double Dam (Part 1)

Keeping cool in Texas during the summer has always been catch-as-catch-can, especially before the advent of refrigerators, air-conditioning, swimming pools, water parks, etc.

In the nineteenth century the Trinity River was Fort Worth’s Wet ’n Wild.

Sometimes with tragic results. There were no lifeguards. The water was murky, the bottom uneven.

Two people drowned in the river in June 1898: one in the Littlefield Hole on the Clear Fork, another below the confluence of the two forks near Douglass Park.

The next month, on July 27, the river would match June’s total in a single afternoon and bring tragedy to a family already in mourning.

Mack Williams writes in Old Fort Worth that Thomas Coughlin, who operated a tin shop near the Texas & Pacific yard downtown, recently had lost his wife and her baby during childbirth. As Coughlin grieved he threw himself into his work, making tin cornices for the ceilings of the new Santa Fe passenger station, St. Ignatius Academy, and other buildings. He was helped by his oldest son, John William, eighteen.

On July 27 John William took his five younger siblings—Jenny, Mary Ann, Catherine, Annabelle, and Thomas Jr.—to City Park to cool off in the water impounded by a dam on the Clear Fork. The dam had been built to hold water for the nearby Holly waterworks, but the dam, with its deep water and cascading falls, soon became a favorite swimming hole.

Father Thomas Coughlin had told his children that he would pick them up at the dam in his wagon after work.

As the Coughlin children played in the water at the dam, Jenny, fifteen, waded too far out into the river and stepped into water over her head. She could not swim. Brother John William, who could swim, rushed to her aid. But as Jenny panicked and struggled, she pulled her brother under with her into the deep water. The four younger siblings—Mary Ann, Catherine, Annabelle, and Thomas Jr.—watched in horror.

Brother and sister drowned, and mourning was redoubled in the Coughlin household.

(Williams writes that the double drowning was on the front page of the July 28, 1898 Fort Worth Record. The 1898 Record is not archived, so Williams may have been sent a clipping by a Coughlin family member. I can find no coverage of the drowning in other newspapers of the time.)

Of the four surviving children, the three daughters, Williams writes, lived long lives and died in Fort Worth. Thomas Jr. became mayor of Blythe, California and died at age ninety-two.

City Park was created in 1892 when the city purchased fifty acres on both sides of the Clear Fork. On the eastern part of the land the city built the Holly waterworks. The rest of the land, thirty-one acres stretching from about West 7th Street south to today’s Lancaster Avenue, was dedicated as “City Park.” In 1910, after the city had developed other parks (Forest, Glenwood, Capps, Marine), City Park was renamed “Trinity Park.”

The dam was removed when the Trinity River floodway project of the 1950s-1960s widened and straightened the river channel.

Mack Williams accompanied his story about the Coughlins with this photo and wrote that City Park was located “about where the West Freeway crosses University Drive.” I believe that description puts the park about one mile upstream from where the park was in 1898.

This 1901 map shows City Park and the waterworks between West 7th Street and North Street, which became Lancaster Avenue.

Williams also included this photo and wrote that the dam was located on the Clear Fork “near what is today University and Vickery.” I believe that description puts the dam about one mile upstream from where it actually was.

Ah, but there was a dam one mile upstream.

Hmm. Or were there two?

Tomorrow: Double Death, Double Dam (Part 2)

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