Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Death of a Texas Lake

It's officially a 103 degrees at 5pm on a Saturday in July. The thermometer I'm carrying says 113 degrees. Looking across over a mile of dry lake bed in South Dallas through the waves of heat a figure appears. Through the crinkles of heat it appears to be a human, running. As it approaches, the figure takes the shape of a man in a kilt, running at break neck speed to the south. I have seen a number of odd things along the Trinity. But never a man in a kilt running on a pancake flat plain in the scorching Texas heat of July. Turns out I was in the path of a hash harrier club conducting a race from Loop 12 to Simpson Stuart and beyond. Not down the new multi million dollar paved Trinity Trail but using the Trinity River itself as a course then crossing the lake, briar thickets and swamps. Pretty remarkable considering the terrain and river in that area is usually impassable, impossible, improbable.

When at regular pool, Lemmon Lake is a few hundred acres in size commanding a vast piece of real estate in Southern Dallas county near Loop 12. Originally called Miller Lake, it was owned by the Miller family who owned much of what is now South Dallas. One of the handful of original pioneer families they owned much of the land from what is now the Dallas Zoo all the way to Hutchins, Texas. I cannot pin down an official date as to when the lake was actually impounded. It is drawn in maps of Dallas County dating back to the 1880s. In 1897 the lake and some of the surrounding property was purchased by the Trinity River Rod and Gun Club on May 25, 1897. Many of Dallas most prominent citizens bought shares in the club.

As insurance against Lemmon Lake going dry in a drought, a flume and aqueduct was constructed in 1897. Water was tapped from Five Mile Creek to the west and brought over via ditch to Lemmon Lake. Known as Cobb's Ditch. The ditch is still intact for the most part. It was built with 7 foot high levees on each side of the ditch and supplied water through numerous Texas droughts and dry spells. In the 20th century, a concrete mixing plant was built off of I-45 and robbed Lemmon Lake of this water source causing silt to build in the lake.

Cobb's Ditch now lies directly south of A Maceo Smith High School. In 2001-2003 the swampy area behind the school gained national notoriety for a population of alligators that took up residence there. Some beavers moved up the ditch from Lemmon Lake and constructed a dam to the immediate southeast of the football practice field flooding some of the land. With the arrival of beavers and nutria, the alligators were quick to follow.

With Cobb's Ditch now only serving as an infrequent water source from runoff, Lemmon Lake is faced with going completely dry in periods of prolonged drought conditions.

Below are a series of photos taken in one week intervals starting around July 17, 2011 showing the somewhat rapid evaporation and drying of Lemmon Lake...

Sunset over Lemmon Lake two weeks prior to going dry

July 24, 2011

Sunset over Lemmon Lake one week prior to going dry

July 31, 2011

A dry Lemmon Lake looking south

Dried lakebed Lemmon Lake July 2011

By July 31st, Lemmon Lake was dry save for a 10x10 foot puddle located in the middle of the lake. It was here in this puddle where the last of the waterborne swimming residents of Lemmon Lake were in the last day of their lives. Below is a short clip of a dozen or so alligator gar and a couple freshwater drum in that pool of water

That's life. Whatever lies in that pool will make a meal for the feral pigs or coyotes who frequent the area and weave a spider web of tracks in the rapidly drying playa. Not much ever goes to waste here. I have seen 200 pound feral pig carcasses picked clean by scavenger animals in 24 hours. The demise of one animal feeds many others. The feral pig below, which I would guess weighed around 90 pounds was picked clean less than 24 hours after I took this photo. The pig was on the Trinity River Trail Phase II and appeared to have been killed the previous night. Unknown how it was killed, not by a human. It did have a broken neck. Buzzards had already begun to nibble at the easy pickings.

Dead Feral Pig Trinity River Trail Summer 2011

The summer of 2011 has been a record breaking summer in a number of ways. The sustained heat, high overnight temperatures and lack of rainfall have contributed to a number of the long standing records falling in Dallas. The benchmark of the searing 1980 summer by which all other summers are judged here in Dallas, has seen record after record eclipsed by the summer of 2011. South Dallas, in the Great Trinity Forest area actually saw a decent amount of rainfall in the late spring. A number of very powerful storms blew through Southern Dallas County dropping large amounts of rain, hail and even tornadoes. Since May 25, 2011, the day of the last measured rain in that area, it has been a very dry affair.

The drought is not the longest in Texas history. A 10-year drought that took hold in 1940s and lasted into the next decade holds the record, but that was in the days of radio and black-and-white television, when the weather was discussed at the coffee shop, not constantly tweeted about or glaring on iPhone screens. This year’s weather is feeding the 24-hour news cycle, prompting reporters to go beyond the fried-egg-on-the-sidewalk story. There is no new news in the weather, just a parade of whimsy and warning.

While the aquatic animals have all perished, others take the heat in stride. The damp marshy reeds where they meet the traditional edge of the lake are often full of barking green Texas Tree Frogs in the evenings. I have never seen them before up close. They seem to prefer the boundary area where the abrupt tree line meets the cat tails, reeds and sawgrass of the lake.

Texas Tree Frog at Lemmon Lake

It has been difficult to find out much about Lemmon Lake. Roughly 1/4-1/3 the size of White Rock Lake few people alive know much about it. Those that did visit it in its heyday are long since deceased. At one time, in the early 1900's, the railroad even had a special stop for Lemmon Lake called Lakewood Station. At the time the lake was not even in Dallas and could best be described as 8 miles from downtown, near Lisbon, north of Hutchins or east of Pleasant Run. Back then as it almost is today, it sits in the middle of nowhere. Really the only living witnesses to that time are the old trees that line the lake.

“If you don’t like the weather, stick around.” So goes the old saying in Texas, a land where Mother Nature’s fickle ways are on display year round. Someday, the lake will be back.


  1. I was one of the Hash House Harriers ( hashing that trail. Were you the mountain biker who met up with us at the beer check?

    I have been reading your blog this morning and completely agree with you that there is very little information about how to use the trails that are being built in the Trinity River Corridor Project. I have run or mountain biked almost every part you have referenced in your blog. Yesterday I rode from the southern Gateway up toward McCommas Bluffs but part of the trail (N of that chapel) was turned into a stream and I couldn't go through.

    I am also amazed that provides Mapsco but no GPS directions.

    Have you thought of creating a web resource that would use GPS and maps to give potential runners and bikers easier access to the trails? I was thinking wikipedia but maybe there is a better idea. I may start that project myself, but could use some help.

    Feel free to contact me at fredleason at gmail dot com.

  2. Yep. That was me. I came up the old ranch road from McCommas Bluff and came across your group beer check. You people are crazy!

  3. I do know this lake was in the bonnie and clyde movie. I walked around it in 2004 and discovered many concrete slabs which I was told it was a hot spot for camping in the 1920's and the slabs i was seeing where small cabins. I was told the dam washed in the trinity and there were no attempts to fix the lake. I also would be careful down there if you are going hiking because of the crime in the area.

    1. In one of my other posts, there is a movie scene from the film with Texas Ranger Frank Hamer being set adrift into the lake. Not much left of the dam on the north east facing side. It has been damaged by past flooding, not much is left. The south facing section is very much still in place and in great condition.