This article originally appeared in the Garland/Mesquite section of The Dallas Morning News  on November 17, 1995.





By Michael R. Hayslip

Some of the surplus materiel from World War II was quickly recycled into the Bonnie Barge, a familiar party and dance boat that ploughed the waters of White Rock Lake from 1946 to 1956.

John H. (Johnny) Williams Sr., a Garland native, fashioned the double-decker craft in 1945 from two military pontoon boats fastened side-by-side. Constructed entirely of cold steel and eventually powered by a Chrysler Sea Mule Engine, the barge was affectionately named after Mr. Williams’ wife, Bonnie, a Rose Hill community product, who was gracious enough to help operate it for hire.

Although possibilities for the lake had been discussed as early as 1884, it was 1914 before 5.8 billion gallons of water from White Rock Creek filled the basin behind a new dam and spillway. The original objective for the project had been to assure Dallas an indefinite water supply, and 2,292 acres were accumulated at a cost of $176,429 to accommodate the effects of the costlier $260,000 dam and spillway. But priceless recreational benefits began accruing immediately, not only for Dallasites, but also for residents of Garland, Mesquite and surrounding towns for whom it was then the closest lake of any size.

Uses for the lake became Dallas political issues, as enthusiastic proponents of a Coney Island atmosphere collided with suspicious owners of luxury lake-view homes that gradually rose around the perimeter of White Rock. For a time, until they were finally rooted out by the city, small recreational cabins clustered about on leased sections of the shoreline. At another lakeside site, Dallas maintained a prison farm known as the Pea Patch, where prisoners could work out fines for drunkenness and other non-violent offenses. A Civilian Conservation Corps camp was located there during the 1930s. Yet by 1938, Dallas Morning News writer Paul Crume reported in an article that “the National Park Service rated White Rock Lake as possibly the most used municipal playground in the nation.”

Little of this escaped the entrepreneurial mind of Johnny Williams, who had lost a leg in a youthful motorcycle accident, but later won swimming contests and walked on crutches at a faster clip than the average biped. He and his wife had begun their aquatic entertainment ventures on White Rock in 1937, offering speedboat rides on the lake for 25 cents a head.  Although inflation eventually drove the price up to 50 cents, the little runabouts stayed full of passengers.

The barge offered an added entertainment dimension, wherein dozens of people could congregate on each of the two floors, enjoying snacks and soft refreshments from the boat facilities or sharing whatever they brought on board. The season extended from April 1to November 1, and rarely did she fail to book a night’s fee of $54 on weekdays and $64 on weekends. In severe weather, the barge hugged the dock while the parties went on.

Johnny Williams Jr., who literally grew up on the lake, was required by city ordinance to have an adult on board when he piloted either the runabouts or the barge before his eighteenth birthday. “We always had responsible passengers that ranged from church groups to fraternities.” said Williams. “Even Billy Graham partied on the Bonnie Barge.”

By 1956 the city had decided to eliminate speedboats of more than 10 horsepower, but allow the popular barge to remain. “My Dad felt like the speedboats were insurance for the barge in case it got into trouble, so when they went, the barge went,” explained the younger Mr. Williams.

For awhile the Bonnie Barge rested in a pasture on Rose Hill Road, then she was pared down to a smaller size. The last time any of the Williams family saw what was left of her, she was dredging mud on Lake Dallas.


Bonnie Barge - White Rock Lake

Photo Captions: .

The Bonnie Barge, a double-decker party craft, docked at White Rock Lake about 1952.


2. Johnny Williams, Sr. and his wife Bonnie aboard one of their rental speedboats.


3. Although the Bonnie Barge catered to a wide variety of church groups, this party was different. (bathing beauties)


Photos courtesy Johnny Williams, Jr.