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How Curious: Is Lake Hefner In The Wrong Place?

Nov 12, 2018

When John Hiller moved to Oklahoma City, he noticed a lot of businesses near May Avenue and 63rd Street have “lakeside” or “lakeview” in their names. His friend told him it was because developers thought Lake Hefner’s shore would be closer to that area. Hiller asked How Curious: Is Lake Hefner in the wrong place?


What’s In A Name?

 

Dozens of neighborhoods and properties near Lake Hefner make reference to it, including Lakehurst, Lakeside and Lakeview, though only some of them are waterfront.

Real estate developers often name neighborhoods or subdivisions after seemingly random geographic features or animals--a practice that’s spawned many internet jokes. An online real estate subdivision name generator spits out monikers like “Flamingo Reef,” “Sleepy Timbers” and “Whaler’s Meadow.”

Landon Whitt, a realtor at Metro First Realty in Oklahoma City, said the name makes a difference. He said homes are larger on streets that have the word “lake” in the name.

The median size of a home on a street with a name like Lakeside is 2,545 square feet, compared to 1,695 square feet for a generic home in the Lakeside Estates neighborhood, according to Whitt.

“Builders are deciding to build fancier homes on streets that are called ‘lake,’” Whitt said.

And fancier homes cost more.

Houses on streets with the word “lake” have increased in value, or appreciated, 6 percent faster over the past 10 years than average Oklahoma City homes, Whitt said.

He said developers have discovered humans like living close to water and are trying to capitalize on it.

A 2016 study in the Journal of the Marine Biological Association of the United Kingdom found people living near the coast are generally healthier and happier.

A Water “Master Plan”

 

Dale Birchett grew up near Lake Hefner and spent lots of time playing there as a kid. As an adult, he got involved with the group Friends of Lake Hefner, a nonprofit that works to protect the lake and enhance its recreational areas.

During his time researching, Birchett has amassed 10 gigabytes of computer files on Lake Hefner.

Birchett said the lake’s history starts in 1889.

The land the lake now occupies was part of the 1889 Land Run, when the U.S. government opened up the “Unassigned Lands” for settlement after forcing out Native Americans.

Settlers claimed plots across what is now Oklahoma City--and they all needed water.

According to the city utilities department, at first, most settlers bought water by the bucket from one city well. As its population grew, the city built more wells, but struggled to meet the increasing demand. In 1918, Overholser Dam opened.

City leaders developed a Water Master Plan in 1939, which included a $4 million project to build a dam and reservoir at Bluff Creek, northwest of the city limits at the time.

Then-mayor of Oklahoma City Robert Hefner and the city council approved it.

According to Dale Birchett, some of the people who lived on the land refused to sell, so the city took it by eminent domain, which lets governments take private property for public use.

The city began building the dam and reservoir in 1940. The project was delayed for several years during World War II because of a shortage of workers and supplies.

One couple, Ollie Gray and Maggie Gossin, waited a while to move off the property, according to Birchett.

“They actually didn’t leave their farm until the water was lapping at the doors,” Birchett said.

“In times of extreme drought, you can actually walk out there and see the foundations of their houses and their buildings that were out there.”

The Oklahoma City City Council reportedly voted to change the name from Bluff Creek Reservoir to Lake Hefner in 1945, and the project was completely finished in 1947.

The lake, measuring 2,500 acres, is now one of Oklahoma City’s six water sources, as well as a popular recreation spot.

“When we travel other places to sail and tell them where we’re from, they say, ‘Oh yes, I’ve been there,” said Bruce McDermott, historian for the Oklahoma City Boat Club, a private sailing group.  

McDermott said Lake Hefner is a popular sailing lake because it has relatively smooth water and a lot of wind.

Some residents call the lake area the “Central Park of Oklahoma City” because of its draw for outdoor enthusiasts.

Is Lake Hefner In The Wrong Place?

Lake Hefner’s current location matches the original plans for the Bluff Creek Reservoir at the city clerk’s office.

Plans from the 1940s at the Oklahoma City Clerk's Office, including Bluff Creek Reservoir, now Lake Hefner.
Credit City Clerk's Office

But archivist Jennifer Day said city officials would likely only save the approved plans and not hold on to some original ideas that were ultimately scrapped.

According to Dale Birchett, the lake was supposed to extend farther to the north, but a business called the Gaylord Golden Guernsey Dairy stopped the city from taking its land by eminent domain.  

In rare aerial photos of the Bluff Creek Reservoir Dam’s construction, there are no visible businesses or homes near the lake, meaning there probably weren’t properties or neighborhoods with the word “lake” in their names before the lake was built.

 

How Curious is a production of KGOU Radio. It's produced by Claire Donnelly and edited by Jacob McCleland. David Graey composed the theme music. Email your questions about Oklahoma to curious@kgou.org. Subscribe to the How Curious podcast on iTunes or your favorite podcast app.

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