William Howard Taft was President, Henry Ford sold his 10,000th automobile and Phil Parmelee piloted the first commercial air cargo flight for the Wright Co.–two bolts of dress silk delivered from Dayton to Columbus, OH, in one hour and six minutes for $5,000–in 1910 when the Lake Wichita Pavilion opened for funny business. A jewel in her day, the two-story colonnade playground offered swells and not so swells alike escape from summer’s heat through the 1920s and into the ’30s.
Flash forward 100 years and nothing remains of her but old dry bones.
One of the first man-made lakes in Texas, Lake Wichita resulted from a dam being built across Holliday Creek southwest of Wichita Falls. Completed in 1901, the project was undertaken by Wichita Falls founding fathers Frank Kell and Joseph A. Kemp doing business as Kemp’s Lake Wichita Irrigation and Water Company to provide fresh water for people, cattle and crops. At its peak the lake boosted a 14,000 acre-feet capacity with 2,200 acre surface area draining some 143 square miles.
The pavilion proper featured a skating rink and a cafe on the first floor and dance hall on the second. Kemp and Kell quickly expanded the entertainment complex to the adjoining lake shore to include a penny arcade, racetrack, ballpark, a hotel and even some summer cottages.
The Lake Wichita Trolley shuttled folks between town and lake. At the height of summer seasons, special excursion trains brought in visitors from Fort Worth.
Fire destroyed the hotel in 1918. It was never rebuilt although the remaining attractions continued going strong until the Great Depression. The grand lady herself, the great pavilion was the last to go, her ruins consumed by fire in 1955.
Now the lake itself is close to fading into history because of exceptional drought conditions. While the City of Wichita Falls stopped using the lake as a water source years ago, Lake Wichita remained an attraction for boating, fishing and bird watching. Fresh water mussel shells litter the now exposed lake bed, along with the bones of fish, turtles, tracks left by whitetail deer, raccoons and coyotes and human-deposited trash.
Unless drought-busting rains come soon, the future of this valuable natural wetland appears darkly bleak. The thrill-seeking amusement park days may have closed forever, but many of the old lake’s friends and fans believe she can rise again as a treasured natural resource.
“LAKE WICHITA,” Handbook of Texas Online (http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/rol85), accessed January 10, 2013.
© Jim Miller 2013
- When Extreme Drought Hits Home (jimtxmiller.wordpress.com)
- Day 6 to Wichita Falls, TX (noho2slo.wordpress.com)