The dark shadows of Lake Highlands

What you read here might change the way you perceive our neighborhood, by way of exploring some of its mysteries and lore.
Photographer Kathleen Wilke’s Lady of the Lake series captures the ethereal beauty of White Rock’s cherished ghost story. The model is former Woodrow Wilson High School student Katie Shank.

Underneath what looks, on the surface, like a near-utopian area — where chatty mommies push strollers, high school students toss footballs and sing show tunes, and cyclists traverse freshly paved trail — lurks mystery, a dark history and an unseen menace. What you read here might change the way you perceive our neighborhood, by way of exploring some of its mysteries and lore.

The many mysteries of White Rock Lake

Residents of the White Rock area keep the Lady of the Lake legend alive: 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.

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by Kathleen Wilke

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.

Could this 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.”

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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.

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.

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

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The spirit at Lake Highlands High School

When the lights flicker or the soundboard hums and suddenly shuts off during theater rehearsals at Lake Highlands High School, the students blame it on Elizabeth — not a current-day prankster, but the restless spirit of a student who in the 1970s purportedly fell to an untimely death.

Theater teacher Beauen Bogner tells how he heard the story, which he admits has probably morphed over the years.

“There was a girl in the auditorium several years ago named Elizabeth, around the ’70s, and she was up in the grid over the stage, way high up. She fell from one section of the grid to one beneath, killing her, and thus haunts the auditorium with her spirit.”

In other versions of the story, the student was named Eliza or Betsy, or was a distressed young man who jumped to his death from the rafters or from an upstairs window.

photo by Benjamin Hager

Dr. Bob Iden, who attended Lake Highlands High School before returning as a teacher and later principal, recalls the pervasive rumors of death and hauntings, but thinks he would know if such trauma took place during his years.

“I am pretty sure that it is one of those urban myths, unless there was such an occurrence between the time I left in 1985 and returned in 1997, and even then, I am sure that I would have heard about it when I returned as principal,” Iden says.

Where could the rumors have originated? There are no reports in Dallas Morning News historical archives that indicate student suicide or accidental death at Lake Highlands High School.

Bogner guesses that the Elizabeth mystery might just boil down to an old theater tradition.

“Most every theater has a story of a ghost who dwells there,” Bogner says. “For instance, when [I was] at Baylor, our ghost was named ‘Gray Man,’ and every time something inexplicable happened, it was always blamed on Gray Man. The same thing happens with Elizabeth here.”

Graveyards among us

The McCree Cemetery, tucked away behind a residential street, is the final resting place for many of Dallas’ early residents, including Dinah Jackson, who died in 1908 and whose funeral, according to her obituary, was one of the best attended in the city’s history. Photo by Can Türkyilmaz

Just west of the future Lake Highlands Town Center (70 acres of planned development) rest the bones of about 150 people at Fields Cemetery, named for one of Dallas’ first black families. Most Lake Highlands residents are accustomed to driving past this Skillman graveyard, so it doesn’t feel scary — more like a fascinating little swath of history.

Dinah Jackson

But it is a little tougher to get past a cemetery that is practically in your backyard, especially if you’re an imaginative kid. That’s the case for residents of Estate Lane, east of Audelia, where McCree Cemetery is situated between an apartment complex and a neighborhood of single-family homes.

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“I remember thinking that the graveyard was haunted,” says Trisha Stroud, who grew up on Estate. “It is all graves from the 1800s … it freaked me out.”

Indeed, those graves date back to the mid-19th century.

Here at McCree Cemetery, there are about 300 plots — blacks on one side and whites on the other. Among the latter is Dinah Jackson, 1831-1908. A newspaper clipping from 1908 states that she was one of Dallas’ earliest settlers and that her family was “one of the best known in the county,” adding that her funeral was one of the best attended in Dallas history. According to Francis James, renowned for her expertise in Dallas cemeteries, the Jackson family built and owned a general store near Forest-Audelia.

Scariest neighborhood

One night every year, Michael Myers, the escaped mental patient and serial killer from the Halloween movies, walks the streets of the Highland Hills neighborhood near McCree and Audelia. You can’t miss him: The theme music begins to play, and children run screaming in his path. When he’s not walking, he’s sharpening his knives in front of his (really nice, late-century modern) house. (The character is actually portrayed by spirited homeowner Ed Waters.)

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