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 Douglas Park.

The next month, on July 16, 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 16 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.

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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2 Responses to Double Death, Double Dam (Part 1)

  1. Dismuke says:

    I am a huge fan of your blog and have learned so much from it. Thank you so much for the great service you provide by your wonderful articles.

    I can provide some clarification on a few things you mentioned. Unfortunately, in addition to incorrect information about the dam’s location, Mack Williams provided incorrect dates for the Coughlin drownings. Per the July 18, 1899 “Fort Worth Morning Register,” the tragic incident occurred on July 16 of that year. I assume you have access to the Fort Worth Public Library’s online newspaper database. If so, you can find the article through a keyword search. If not, I will be happy to send you a .pdf copy.

    Also – you are correct in that the dam was in Trinity Park and NOT near the area near University and Vickery. The article explicitly states that they were “drowned in the clear, blue waters of the Clear Fork a short distance above the bridge, south of the waterworks pumping station.”

    That matches perfectly with the dam in the illustration you provided which was located under the present Lancaster Street bridge which one can also occasionally come across reproduced on vintage postcards. The bridge referenced in the article would have been the West 7th Street bridge and the waterworks pumping station would have been the Holly water plant that is directly north of Lancaster Street.

    I have always heard that the dam was removed in the 1930s when the Lancaster Street bridge was built. But I am now uncertain. The “Fort Worth Register” of May 9, 1901 reports that what was then referred to as Dam No 1 was a wooden dam that was getting decayed it would need to be replaced in the near future with a concrete dam. It also said that the wooden suction crib was so rotten that it was liable to go to pieces with any rise in the river and would have to be replaced that summer with a concrete crib.

    I found no articles indicating that this happened. But the “Star Telegram” of May 1, 1905 mentioned that heavy rains had completely washed away the west abutment of the dam. It indicated that it had been built 10 years earlier and was 109 feet long and twelve feet high with a fall of over fifteen feet. The article also stated that the mayor and an official of the water department said that, in all probability, the dam would not be rebuilt.

    After that, all mentions of what I presume to be a repaired/rebuilt dam on the same spot refer to it as “City Park Dam.” The latest reference I could find to “City Park Dam” was in the April 27, 1913 “Star-Telegram” in an article about the construction on Lake Worth dam and how, until the necessary pipes were built for the new lake to supply the city water that had already accumulated behind it could be let down the West Fork to the Nutt Dam west of Main St “and back up through he old City Park dam which has been cut open. Thus it would be available for use at the filter plant.”

    I have info about the dam near the T&P tracks and Vickery – but I will post in the comments of your posting about it.

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