The legendary Bonnie Barge sailed the waters of White Rock Lake for a mere decade, and the lucky few who made the voyage in the ’50s fondly recount memories of dancing the night away under a ceiling of stars. Passengers included everyone from prominent evangelist Billy Graham to notorious stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. The party boat was the brainchild of Johnny Williams Sr., who operated the lake’s boat concession from 1934 until 1958. His son, Johnny Williams Jr. grew up on the water, and he and his wife, Jonie, still live within a mile of its shoreline. This is their story of White Rock’s boating heyday.
Johnny: I was born on Lake Highlands Drive overlooking the Bath House. My parents built the house in 1933, and I was born in 1935. In the early ’30s, my dad built himself a boat dock because he was one-legged from a motorcycle accident, and boating was something he could do. He bought the boat concessionaire rights in the mid ’30s from the City of Dallas. For 50 cents a boat ride, they would take you around White Rock Lake in Chris Craft boats. Those were the boats of the era. They were mahogany — they looked like a piece of furniture with a motor in it. On Sundays, 1,000 to 2,000 people showed up for boat ride concessions.
I worked on the boats and drove them. You had to be 18 years old to drive a boat, or you had to have someone at least 18 years old in there — that was the legal way around it. The lake at that time was a very exciting place to grow up because it had all the action and the life and the drama, and all of it was based around boating.
Jonie: I grew up in East Dallas, and on Saturday, my mom would fix a picnic lunch, and my dad would get home at noon, and we would go to the Bath House and swim and have lunch. You always wanted the boats to come real close because they would cause waves on the swimming beach. My friends and I would get on our bicycles and ride to White Rock Lake. It was kind-of the center of Dallas activity. You could drive all the way around the lake without stopping.
Johnny: My dad also worked for the Times Herald (a daily newspaper) as a contract route manager. He would distribute newspapers over a certain area, and these guys got to associating him with this little boat riding deal. They took publicity shots constantly. In those days, they were always looking for something that would get somebody’s attention, and there’s nothing that will get somebody’s attention like a girl on a surfboard eating watermelon and such.
During the war, my dad had rationing on gasoline, and he did not know how he could get gasoline for these boats. Then one day, he was driving down to pick up his papers, and he noticed that at Fair Park, all the rides were operating; back in those days, all the rides were operated by gasoline engines. He stopped and asked the guy how he was getting his gasoline, and the guy said, ‘I have unlimited — I’m in recreation. If you’re a provider of recreation, you can get all the gas you want because they want people to have fun during this war.’ So my dad went down to the ration board and said, ‘I’m in the recreation business,’ and they gave him unlimited. He had gotten turned down for the boat business.
From 1934 to 1948, it was all speedboat rides; then that led into the barge. The Bonnie Barge party boat was named after my mother. It was 59 feet long and 22 and 1/2 feet wide with a 250 maximum capacity. Churches, schools, sororities, etc. would rent it for $70 a night for three hours. It stayed booked continuously from the first of May to the end of September. It was the queen ship of White Rock Lake. It had a jukebox, so you could go on the top deck and dance.
We sold food and drinks, but it was a BYOB deal because of the situation in Dallas; you couldn’t sell mixed drinks in a park. It was all lit up at night, and it was so beautiful. The sound traveled over the water.
The most bizarre thing that ever happened on White Rock Lake was when I was 16 years old. I was cleaning the Bonnie Barge, and a fisherman came running down yelling at my dad, and he said, ‘Mr. Williams! Mr. Williams! I think there’s a body floating out at the north side of the dock!’
My dad, as I told you, was one-legged, and he was on crutches, so my dad yelled at me. We looked out, and about 75 feet out in the water something was floating out there in the cattails. I had to walk through these cattails — and that’s always pretty spooky anyway — and this wavy stuff was floating, and I picked up this lady’s head, and it was attached to a body, and I said, ‘Yes, it’s a woman.” So I had to drag her in through the cattails and called the police, and the police picked her up.
An hour later the police called and said she was a lady who had had some problems with alcohol. Three hours later, a taxicab pulled up, and a man got out, and he said, ‘Have you seen whatever-her-name-was? I had some friends who said she might be in trouble out here and might drown, so they bailed me out of jail so I could come save her because I could swim.’ It turned out they had been drinking by the lake, and she was floundering around and stepped in a hole and drowned, and none of the rest of them could swim. The lake was very active in drownings in those days. We had to drag for bodies with grappling hooks, snag them and pull them up.
Jonie: Johnny and I went to Woodrow together, and we had our first date at Winfrey Point at a dance. A bunch of girls, six or eight of us, would go together and rent it and bake cookies, make punch and have dances. Sometimes we’d be down at the Majestic Theater, and he’d go outside, and it would be rumbling and raining, and he’d come back in and say, ‘We’ve got to go to the lake. I’ve got to go help dad.’
Johnny: He had people who could run the barge under normal circumstances, but when storms rolled in, you had to have someone with experience. My dad, even though he was a very capable man, he was still one-legged. On crutches he was almost like a cat on three legs, but still, a cat on three legs isn’t as agile as a cat on four.
The only full-time employee he had for most of his life was me. I never had a separation between family and business. It was always one and the same. I don’t care if we were eating breakfast or having dinner or on a trip or what — it was always business. When I was 17, 18, 19, I started backing off, and in 1956, my dad helped me buy a boat dealership, and that was even worse. I moved up here on Garland Road, and it was asphalt and concrete. It was never the pleasure that White Rock Lake was.
They closed the bathing beach down in the early ’50s. There was a water shortage in Dallas, and they used the lake for emergency water supply. In 1958, that’s when the City of Dallas took all the boats off of the lake over 10 horsepower. The lake was getting a little crowded; boating was getting popular, and there was no way in the world to regulate it. Sailboats were pretty and quieter, and it became a sailboat lake.
A couple people have called over the years wanting to know how to get the barge started again. I made a presentation at the Lakewood neighborhood meeting, and at the end, this attractive young blonde came up and said, ‘Let’s do it again,’ and I said, ‘Beg your pardon?’ and she said, ‘That was so much fun back in those days that we should try it again.’ I said, ‘No, you can’t bring the present back to the past. It was a different time.’
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