All the death, tragedy and unsolved mystery at White Rock Lake

Deaths at White Rock—many old bones are still down there. A small plane once crashed into the lake, killing all of its passengers. In 1941, swimmer 27-year old John Ira Howard, who held the world’s record for underwater swimming, died while stunting for friends. In 1938, teenage drowning victim J.C. Hacker Jr., a Woodrow graduate, was never recovered …

It’s October, Halloween’s month, which gives me license to dredge up all the weirdness and creepiness associated with White Rock Lake.

Years before Reader’s Digest dubbed it one of the world’s most haunted bodies of water, I became mildly obsessed with our peculiar pond.

Lady of the lake
Photographer Kathleen Wilke’s Lady of the Lake series captures the ethereal beauty of White Rock’s cherished ghost story. The model is Woodrow Wilson High School alumna Katie Shank.

Obvs, the story of the Lady of White Rock Lake put us on the ghoulishness map.

So we shall begin with a recap of that one:

After the sun sets and the traffic dwindles, a figure in flowing white roams the lake’s fringes looking for a lift, they say. Rumors abound of sightings and close encounters in which the eerie lady hops in the car only to disappear — leaving behind a puddle — before arriving at her requested destination, usually a home on Gaston Avenue or in Forest Hills.

Joy Maner, director of research at the Association for the Study of Unexplained Phenomenon, led a study on the hauntings of White Rock Lake. She says White Rock Lake’s “rather deadly” history makes it ripe for hauntings and urban legend. She says she believes the 1927 death of 19-year-old Hallie Gaston spurred the Lady of the Lake lore. Hallie was the only passenger to die in a boating accident near Big Thicket, she says.

“I personally believe this started the legend among young people in Dallas early on,” Maner says. (1)

But there have been many accidental deaths and suicides at White Rock. Dozens of drownings at the lake are reported in Dallas Morning News archives; some of the bodies never were recovered. In 1934, a small plane crashed into the lake, killing all of its passengers. In summer 1941, a famous swimmer, 27-year old John Ira Howard, who held the world’s record for underwater swimming, died while stunting for friends in White Rock Lake. In 1938, suspected teenage drowning victim J.C. Hacker Jr., a Woodrow graduate, was never recovered.

Sadly, several times a year we still hear stories of bodies found in or near the lake. A more-recent case was that of a young woman shot and killed by drug dealers she was set to testify against.

Could such grim history explain why runners on the White Rock trails claim to see or feel a possible paranormal presence? Blanca Gonzales was running near the White Rock Dog Park as the sun was just beginning to rise. She saw a figure standing on the trail ahead, near the water fountain. A moment later, the person, or whatever, was gone.

“I have never run so fast in my life,” she says.

Other lake users say that cold spots on the lake give them the creeps. “Even in the hot summer months, there is one spot on the trail that seems chilled,” White Rock hiker Andrew Hall says. “It’s this stretch along Mockingbird, near the dog park. I’ve always believed there was something supernatural going on with these cold spots.”

Real or not, ghost stories will persist, Maner says.

“What I believe keeps the stories alive is the hope of life after death, as well as just the fright and excitement of a good ghost story,” she says.

The goatman cometh
Illustration by Jynnette Neal

There is also the legend of the White Rock goatman. The only reported sighting we can find is in the writings of Nick Redfern, an author of four books about monsters and creatures. He claims to have lived near White Rock Lake in Dallas, which he writes is “without a doubt the strangest place I have ever lived.” He notes in “Memoirs of a Monster Hunter” that a female jogger relayed the story to him of an odd half-man, half-goat creature who appeared during her nine-mile loop around the White Rock Trail: “Large, and covered from head to foot in thin, coarse brown hair and with two large horn-like protrusions sticking out of its head, the beast strode purposefully in her direction with a malevolent, sneering grin on its wide face.”

Then, just as swiftly, he vanished. We should note that Redfern also mentions sightings of 30-foot snakes and giant catfish at White Rock Lake.

Still, the goat man legend is well known among lake users. Michael Ferrell and some friends even formed a running group called Team Goatman, and a local charity race offers up a Goatman trophy. The true tale is hard to research, Ferrell says.

“Seems any lake has a goatman mystery,” he says.

And then there’s the Cox Cemetery
Cox Cemetery near White Rock.

The old cemetery at White Rock Lake dates to the mid-1840s, and its tombstones bear the names of our neighborhood’s pioneers: McCommas, Fisher, Glover, Lavender.

Among Woodrow Wilson High School alumni, it is known as a haunted cemetery and the site of much hijinks.

To initiate freshman band members, for example, upperclassmen would blindfold them, take them to Cox Cemetery, and then leave them there at night.

“That was kind of a rite of passage,” says Woodrow alumnus Kyle Rains.

Although it’s rumored the cemetery is haunted, we couldn’t find anyone who claims to have seen ghosts there.

But abandoning one’s friends in the cemetery to scare the wits out of them was common among high school students in the ’70s.

Lisa Cavanaugh, a 1979 Woodrow graduate who is now a teacher at J.L. Long Middle School, recalls such a story “back in the late ’70s, when cell phones were not around.”

After a football game one night, she and her friend went driving around with some guy friends. They had filled up on Cokes at a pizza place, and before long, the girls were feeling the effects. Finally, the guys stopped and let them out to relieve themselves in the dark near White Rock Lake.

“Unbeknown to us, the guys chose Cox Cemetery to drop us off, and boy did they drop us — they drove off,” she says. “Screaming didn’t do any good. It just scared us all the more.”

After about 30 minutes in the pitch-black cemetery, the guys reappeared.

“What I believe keeps the stories alive is the hope of life after death, as well as just the fright and excitement of a good ghost story.” —Joyce Maner

Cavanaugh ran into one of those guys recently, and she reminded him of the prank, admonishing him with, “How would you like it if someone did that to your daughter now?”

He gave her a woeful apology, she says.

Rains says Woodrow/Bryan Adams high school rivalries played out at the cemetery too.

“They used to come over to our side of the lake to explore, and we didn’t like that, so we used to hide behind the tombstones and wait for them,” he says.

“Once, my friend Ricky Rodriguez and I scared a B.A. guy so much, he hurdled the fence.”

Cox Cemetery is not open to the public, but it usually is unlocked.

Includes excerpts from 2011 Advocate Magazine story. Rachel Stone contributed. 

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