During the 1880s, the west side of Fort Worth was prairie and ranch land as far as the eye could see. In 1890 the railroad boom transformed Fort Worth into a major livestock shipping center causing speculators, such as Attorney Robert McCart and Chicago financier Tom Hurley to buy large tracts of land on the west side of Fort Worth.
Englishman and Denver real estate developer, Humphrey Barker (H.B.) Chamberlin and his brother, Alfred W. Chamberlin of The American Land and Investment Company were struck by the beauty of the countryside and purchased a portion of the property for $20,030. The Chamberlin’s mapped and platted and the Chamberlin Arlington Heights subdivision was created one mile from the city.
In March 1889, H. B. Chamberlin built a dam to impound water from a tributary of the Clear Fork of the Trinity River, creating a manmade lake. The lake was named Lake Como after the fashionable waterfront north of Milan in Lombardy, Italy, one of the most beautiful lakes in Europe. The name of the lake was intended to attract households that desired to live in an area with natural open space, amenities, and distance from the busy Fort Worth city. On March 14, 1890 the Fort Worth Gazette reported that work had begun on the powerhouse at Chamberlin’s Lake Como to provide electricity for his Arlington Heights streetcar line, streetlights, and the homes to be built.
To encourage people to buy lots, H. B. Chamberlin in 1891 had architects Sanguinett and Staats build a grand two-story pavilion on the lake, creating a 160-acre resort in the middle of an untamed wilderness. They named the entertainment structure “Lake Como Pavilion”. Sanguinet, also designed a grand hotel “Ye Arlington Inn with electric lighting, steam heat, hydraulic elevator, telephone connections, and en suite bathrooms.” The inn was located at today’s Merrick Street and Crestline Road. The stage was set, and Lake Como became a popular playground for wealthy families from Fort Worth’s and beyond. Some notable attractions included a streetcar line, a casino, boardwalk, amusement rides, dance pavilion, row boats, roller coaster, shooting gallery, fun house, etc.
The Silver Panic of 1893 caused bank, railroad and company failures, including Chamberlin’s American Land and Investment Company. Chamberlin was hit with a double whammy Ye Arlington Inn burned in 1894 (Reported November 11, 1894 by the Gazette). When the company failed, development of Arlington Heights and Lake Como slowed for a few years. During that time the lake provided little more than fishing and boating.
Formed in March 1905, the Arlington Heights Traction Company- a streetcar line that brought pleasure seekers to the north side of the lake– announced a plan to enlarge the pavilion and enhance the recreational facilities. The beautiful new pavilion– designed by Louis Weinmann– was built in 1906 and extended over the lake, with twin towers in front and a domed entrance. The boathouse was beneath the pavilion, with a summer theater and ballroom on the first floor. The second and third stories housed a restaurant, parlors and other facilities. The entire building was encircled in galleries and could be enclosed for winter functions. A bridge stretched from the pavilion to the east side of the lake with a covered area in the center for socializing. Next to the pavilion was a roller coaster nearly as tall as the two-story building. There were boat rentals, a boardwalk, and picnic grounds. The bathhouse accommodated hundreds. In addition to the natural beauty of the lake and park, there were water carnivals, a boat decorating contest with a dance afterwards and other events. Streetcars ran every forty minutes from downtown to the lake– the fare was a nickel.
In 1906 the Arlington Heights Traction Company was plagued with financial problems and sold out to the Citizens Railway and Light Company. The 1907 Stock Market Crash and competition from other local power companies put Citizens Railway into jeopardy. On July 1, 1911, Citizens’ properties were sold.
As Fort Worth’s north and south sectors expanded, investors and land speculators lost interest in Lake Como and the surrounding areas, causing land values to plummet.
To the dismay of many, the Lake Como Pavilion burned in 1916. Some say that the fire coincided with the opening of the Fort Worth Casino at Lake Worth. This could only imply arson, but, if so, that story smoldered quietly in the pressroom.
The lake’s last glory days were during World War I, when the Chamberlins’ acreage was chosen as the site for Camp Bowie, a military training camp built in 1917. The nearby streetcar line, railroad spurs and the free use of the 2,000 acres were great incentives for establishing the camp on the still undeveloped real estate. The camp’s hospital and maneuvering grounds were to the east of the lake, and servicemen walked over to enjoy some recreation while preparing to go to France.
By 1919, the Lake Como resort was closed, in part due to financial hardships and the arrival of the new impressive Lake Worth with its more modern recreation and entertainment features.2
In 1922, the City of Fort Worth annexed Arlington Heights and Lake Como. Even after the annexation into the city, Lake Como continued to decline, and by the mid-to-late 1930s, the beautiful buildings were in ruins. The Lake Como Power Plant and boathouse disappeared in 1928.
During World War II (1939 – 1945), the park lay in waste. The park became overgrown due to neglect. According to Charles Cannon, “the area around the lake was fenced off with barbed wire for many years, and the citizens of Lake Como were forbidden to trespass on the property. A few privileged whites were permitted to fish in the lake. The only time Lake Como residents got any fish from the lake was after severe spring thunderstorm runoffs caused the water to overflow the spillway at its southeast end. Large fish would escape in the overflow and be stranded in shallow pools below the dam. John Ramsay and a few others would wade into the pools and muddy up the water to such a degree that the fish were distressed, they surfaced, and were easily caught.”
“When I was a young girl during the 1940s there was nothing but the lake. It was overgrown and there was a whole lot of brush and stuff around it.” —Maggie Burke Mooney
In August 1948, Lake Como Park received more playground facilities when the Park and Recreation Departments completed conversion of a privately owned tract of land into a park just east of the Lake Como Dam.
On September 23, 1949, three Arlington Heights socialites, Mrs. M. R. Sanguinett, Mrs. S. D. Mattison, and Mrs. Lily Burgess Hovencamp appeared before the Parks Board with petitions for the restoration of Lake Como Park.
By 1950, there still wasn’t a public park to serve the black community on the city’s west side. In October 1952, Amon G. Carter gave the City of Fort Worth 86.5 acres at Lake Como, stipulating that the property was to be developed and used as a “Negro“ park. In giving the land to the City, Carter stipulated that 65 of the 70 acres would be developed as park area, with the 15 to 20 acres remaining to be sold as residential property. In 1955, the park department received $25,000 from the Amon G. Carter Foundation for further development and improvement of the park. This gift came from the sale of residential lots on the east and north edges of the lake which Carter had directed to be sold for this purpose. When this money became available, park director Hamilton Hittson thought the funds should go toward the construction of a shelter in the park, which was built by Horace O. Duncan. Following its completion, a dedication ceremony was held in June 1956.
In 1957, Robin Llewellyn signed on to engineer a swimming pool and bathhouse. The landscape architect firm of Carter and Burgess constructed a trail along the south side of the 86.5–acre tract from the dam to the southwest edge of the lake. Other improvements included the clearing of underbrush and a general cleanup of the lakeshore to make it usable for fishing. (Click Here)
Lake Como Community
During the years the pavilion and hotel were in operation, several affluent families settled in Arlington Heights first filing on the east side of Lake Como and the area known as Rivercrest. Some prominent families who lived and owned property on the north side of the lake were the Lawrences, Haws, Boldridges, Kincannons, Sanguinettes, and Overmeyers. The occupants employed African-American maids, butlers, chauffeurs, cooks, and various domestic services. The servants resided in other areas of Fort Worth, however, beginning in 1905 many took up residence on less desirable property located on the west side of the lake. Legally described as Arlington Heights second filing, this burgeoning community was tagged “Lake Como” to differentiate it from the affluent Arlington Heights first filing.
By 1907 enough citizens resided on the west side of the lake to warrant the establishment of a store and a water hauling service.
The explanation often heard about why African Americans in the early 1900s began locating to Como is associated with employment. African American domestic servants (mostly women) that were employed in the affluent adjacent households and the men that worked on the nearby rail line desired to be closer to their employment. However, other explanations attribute the relocations to more than employment purposes and include the attraction of a newly established college for African Americans (Fort Worth Industrial and Mechanical (I&M) College), natural open space areas that provided opportunities to hunt and fish at the lake, less flood-prone land compared to other residential areas that were available to African Americans during that era (e.g., the Bottoms residential enclave adjacent to the Trinity River). Additionally, the west side of Lake Como provided more autonomy from the broader society that treated African Americans as second-class citizens.4
Some notable names of Como’s first families include Curtis Bowles, Brown, the S. C. Crooks (proprietor of the first dairy in Como), Tippens, Lavois, Jesse Howard, Eva Jones, Joe Sweeney, Eugene Baker, Ben Littlefield, Claude Henderson, Etta Wilson, and Elijah White. A Bohemian family lived at 5420 Wellesley Avenue, which is the oldest house in that block. A number of white families also lived in the community. On the south side or the Como side, on the land where the James P. (Patrick) Wicks’ home is located today, there lived a Mr. Lloyd and his family. In the 1920s, a number of white families also lived in the community– the Bowers, Cannons, Crawfords, Ferrells, Hemphills, Hills, Angus Wood.
These early African American settlers forged ahead, and as the population increased they achieved a level of self-sufficiency, with their own grocer and established churches and civic organizations to meet their spiritual and social needs. They turned the undeveloped land on the west side of Lake Como into a caring community and refuge for themselves and future generations.
Quest for Higher Education
During the end of the Reconstruction Era and throughout the early 1900s African Americans wanted higher education but they were not allowed into any of the white institutions. When no one else would accept them, individual black communities that raised most of the funds, bought land, created school houses, and hired teachers to educate their own. In Fort Worth, Lake Como was at the forefront of creating paths for higher education for black people by black people.
1909 (circa) Feeling the need for a college, a group of Baptist ministers combined their ideas and started the old Industrial and Mechanical College on the land that was south of Humbert Street in the 5300 block to the 5500 block extending south to Helmick. A small Negro college was begun, and an all-level school for the children was held in one of the college buildings until the county built a school some years later. The leaders and prominent ministers connected with the college were Rev. L. M. Johnson, the father of Professor L. M. Johnson, retired principal of I. M. Terrell High School, Rev. Lacy K. Williams, Mr. Boone, and a Rev. Scott who lived in the community with his family.
Education – Highlights
- 1909 (circa) – A group of African American Baptist ministers purchased land south of Humbert Street in the 5300 block to 5500 block extending south to Helmick to establish the Fort Worth Industrial and Mechanical (I&M) College to provide higher education opportunities for African Americans in Fort Worth and the surrounding area, which at that time would have been the only institution of higher learning for African Americans in Fort Worth. The Fort Worth I&M College eventually closed due to financial hardships.
- 1922 – The Lake Como and Arlington Heights neighborhoods are annexed into the city of Fort Worth.
- 1925 – The Lake Como cemetery was founded by Zion Baptist Church to serve the Como community.
In the fall of 1914, the few families that lived in the Lake Como community felt an urgent need for a school. As a result, a teacher was employed. Mrs. Lucinda Baker taught for two years in a small wood frame, one-room schoolhouse. The first school had an enrollment of eleven pupils. Mrs. Ruby G. Crawford Jones was one of first students. Due to a decrease in enrollment, the school closed after two years. The school opened again in 1917, and Mrs. Tennessee Smith was the teacher. In 1918, Mrs. Pearl Walker Connor was called as head teacher.
The Zion Baptist Church was established in 1919 in the chapel of the old Industrial and Mechanical College at 5400 Humber Avenue in the Lake Como community. The early organizers were Elijah and Ida White, Eugene Baker, Elizabeth Lewis, Fannie Sweeney, Leola Sweeney Hall, Minnie Ola Sweeney Nealy, Viola Sweeney Richardson, Victor O’brien and about six children. Reverend Frank Ford, Rev. Craft, and Rev. Redmond served as pastor for a short time. After World War I, the community began to grow, and more people moved into the community. There was even more a need for a larger and better school building.
Mr. R. N. Riddles was the County Superintendent at this time, and a school building with two rooms was built on the southeast corner of Faron and Bonnell Streets (5535 Bonnell Avenue). Mrs. Gertrude Wilkerson-Starnes was the head teacher, and Mrs. Geneva Carrington was her assistant. Later Mrs. Jessie Raleigh and Mrs. Ruth A. Greenwood joined the staff. Mrs.M. L. Patterson came to the school as a teacher in 1931.
Men in the community helped supply coal for heating and maintained the building and grounds. The building was heated with coal brought from the Stove Foundry by a patron of the school, Mr. F. W. Isler. Water was hauled in barrels from the college well and later from a well located on the east side of the lake. Mr. John Atkins was employed as school custodian in 1933. The community continued to grow and teachers were added.
In 1922, Fort Worth began to grow due to the oil boom. The city annexed Arlington Heights and Lake Como. Later, Arlington Heights would be subdivided into the communities of Westover Hills, Ridglea and Rivercrest. During the Great Depression in the 1930s, there were approximately 180 families living in the Lake Como community and approximately 15 servants were living in private homes in the Arlington Heights community.
In 1935, the school outgrew its building space. Land was purchased and the school was moved to Horne Street. The school campus bordered on Horne Street on the east, Libbey Street on the south, Holloran on the west, and Goodman on the north. J. Martin Jacquet was hired as school principal in 1936. Jacquet served as principal for ten years. Oscar M. Williams succeeded him in 1946. The present Como Elementary School was built in 1950. Wilbur H. Byrd succeeded Mr. Williams as principal in 1967 until the school closed in 1971.
In 1959, the school had an administrative staff of a principal, twenty-six teachers, a visiting teacher, a school nurse, a secretary, a custodial staff of five, and an enrollment of 585 students. Como High School closed in 1971, during the aftermath of integration. The Como School began with eleven pupils in a one-teacher schoolhouse and grew to have two campuses with approximately 2,000 students.
PIC Today, Como Elementary is still in operation, and Como High School is now the Como Montessori School.
1936 with the construction of Casa Manaña, a frontier village, the Will Rogers Complex, and other facilities associated with the Fort Worth Frontier Centennial, “A Century of Negro Progress,” a centennial exposition specifically for the city’s black community, was held at Lake Como. The four-day event, which was also tied to the community’s traditional “Juneteenth” celebration, included a midway, an exhibition building, and a night club.
In 1940 William H. Wilburn, Sr. and his wife, Travis, began publishing the neighborhood newspaper, the Como Weekly– published under several titles between 1940 and 1986– to chronicle events in Fort Worth’s African
American community. On November 30, 1940, more than 500 copies of the mimeographed 20-page newspaper in magazine form were distributed free by the editor and his 4-year old son, William H. Jr.
After World War II, more families purchased homes in the community. There was also a GI Training School located on Bonnell Street to train veterans skills to help them transition back into the workforce.
The Lake Como Community Center was officially opened on June 28, 1948. “The Center provided supervised recreation for young people, clubs for boys and girls, a health clinic and library. Features planned include a free employment service, a kindergarten and day nursery, a boy’s workshop and playground. The Community Center was headed by W. H. Wilburn. The Center was located at 5201 Wellesley.
On July 4, 1951, “Negro War Vets to Parade for Lake Como Day” read the headline. “The first Lake Como Day, complete with free barbecue will be held Wednesday afternoon for residents in the area and guests. The barbecue will be part of an all-day 12th Annual State Encampment beginning with a parade at 9 a.m., under the sponsorship of the John Davis Post No. 2 Colored War Veterans of America. The parade will start on Merrick and move north to Rosedale and south on Horne to Bonnell. C. W. Haley, post founder, recounted “The barbecue, with 850 pounds of meat to be served, was held near the Community Center at 5201 Wellesley, and sponsored by the Como Civic League. Harry Hale presided at the encampment with Mrs. V. A. Davison in charge of the Ladies auxiliary.”
“Sewer Project Ok’d for Lake Como Area. The new sewer line will serve 67 houses and 120 building sites in the Arlington Chamberlin Heights Addition, in the 4400-4500 blocks of Prevost and the 5300-5800 blocks between Farnsworth and Humbert.”
—Fort Worth Star-Telegram, May 22, 1952
“Como Request Arouses Talk of Voting Machine. A request for the creation of a new voting precinct in the Lake Como area precipitated a discussion among county commissioners…the county’s need for voting machines.”
—Fort Worth Star-Telegram, August 14, 1952
“Lake Como Now Has Boys Club. Lake Como residents have organized the Lake Como Club for boys from 8 to 17 years old. Officers elected at the organizational meeting are: K. J. Tucker, President’ W. D. Jones, Secretary; and Bennie Houston, director of general activities.”
—Fort Worth Star-Telegram, December 8, 1953
In 1955, the park department received $25,000 from the Amon G. Carter Foundation for the development and improvement of the park. This gift came from the sale of residential lots on the east and north edges of the lake which Carter had directed to be sold for this purpose. When this money became available, park director Hamilton Hittson thought the funds should go toward the construction of a shelter in the park, which was built by Horace O. Duncan. Following its completion, a dedication ceremony was held in June 1956. A swimming pool and bathhouse were built the following year. The engineer for the project was Robin Llewellyn. The landscape architect was the firm of Carter and Burgess.
In 1956, I. P. Anderson was president of the Fort Worth Urban League. He presented a letter dated May 31, 1956 to the Urban League which stated several church groups and organizations in Lake Como requested that the Urban League discuss the possibility of Lake Como be considered for urban renewal. The Lake Como Community Organization requested that the Urban League appeal to the Mayor and other interested committees requesting Lake Como be designated a critical area. The following proposed improvements were asked to be addressed: grading, storm sewers, street paving, concrete curbs and gutters, walks, concrete drives, sanitary sewer, water, gas pipe extensions, electric, telephone, street lighting, school grounds, recreational areas, park and recreational improvements.
“Groundbreaking for Pool at Lake Como Set Monday. The formal groundbreaking ceremony was conducted on May 14, 1957 at 10:30 a.m. Attendees were city officials and recreation board members. Ceremonies were held northwest of the shelter house at the Como Park site. Contractors had 80 days to complete the pool project.”
—Fort Worth Star-Telegram, May 10, 1957
The sixth annual Lake Como Day which was observed on July 4, 1957, was sponsored by the Como Community Center Organization. Festivities began at 10 a.m. with a parade, which ended at lake Como Park. Prizes were awarded for best decorated cars and floats. Other events included a fishing rodeo for boys, selection of Miss Como, and a baseball game.
In 1958-59, the citizens of the Como community were looking at urban renewal for the community in the form of a community recreation center, a new elementary school with playground area and room for building expansion. The urban renewal was defeated when submitted to a city-wide referendum in 1959.
The new 16-man Fire Hall located at 5937 Geddes Avenue was dedicated in 1964 to provide better fire protection in the Como and Ridglea areas. In addition, Como had several community organizations: The Civic League, the Center Organization and the Betterment Council. These groups held regular monthly meetings.
In 1973, a social study was done in regard to the Como community. Eighty percent of the businesses in Como were locally owned and operated. Most of the businesses were eating establishments. Of the 53 businesses, 14 were bars or café/restaurants, 9 were beauty or barber shops, and 6 were small grocery stores. Other businesses included three liquor stores, two mortuaries, and three music/record shops. There were also furniture and salvage stores, a shoe shine parlor, a cleaners and laundry. There was one professional dentist living in the community. There was a very small number of businesses that brought revenue into the community from outside of the community. These included one contractor, two landscaping services, one beauty/barber supply house and a local newspaper which managed to survive on outside advertising.
One of the most popular of these was the nightspot revived in the late 70s by blues musician Robert Ealey. Ealey wanted to establish a place where local musicians could learn from one another and showcase their talent. This hangout became known as the New Bluebird Nightclub and was located on the corner of Horne and Wellesley, in the Como neighborhood. The building still stands today.
The Lake Como Community has come a long way since the development of the lake and its early community. The community has weathered the Great Depression, World War II, the Civil Rights era, integration, environmental impact and restoration of the lake, economic highs and lows of a struggling and transitioning community, and through it all, there is a close knit, strong, and enduring love for the community as there was in the early 1900s.
Lake Como Today…
Today, Lake Como is 1 square mile of businesses, churches, charitable organizations, non- profits, alumni and social clubs that strive to grow and preserve the community.
The Pride of Como is the newly built Como Community Center which allows us to continue the tradition of teaching, learning, and growth for everyone in the community.