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How Curious: Did an Oklahoma City lake revive a movie star?

Belle Isle Lake
Metropolitan Library System of Oklahoma County
Belle Isle Park

Belle Isle Lake in Oklahoma City was built in early statehood to generate electricity for the trolley system, becoming a premier destination for swimming and boating. But was the lake responsible for reviving one of the most iconic horror actors of the 20th century?

In northwest Oklahoma City lies Historic Brookhaven, a neighborhood between Western Avenue and Classen Boulevard. The neighborhood has a distinct look, featuring homes shaped like cinder blocks and a creek called Deep Fork.

KGOU listener David Glover’s house backs up to the creek.

“It is always flowing. There is always a little water moving,” Glover said. “You can see there is dozens of different species and sometimes we see fox, possums, raccoons. But the water comes down from the left and the right. It comes right together on those rocks.”

The Wolf Man’s origin

The creek used to feed Belle Isle, a lake built around the time of statehood that no longer exists. Most OKC residents associate Belle Isle with the shopping center, library, neighborhood and brewery of the same name.

But Glover remembers Belle Isle Lake for a different reason: For allegedly reviving one of the most iconic horror actors of the 20th century.

Lon Chaney, the horror movie man, is shown May 14, 1945.
AP Photo
Lon Chaney Jr., the horror movie man, is shown May 14, 1945.

“It looks like Lon Chaney Jr. - his parents were here on Belle Isle Lake, and supposedly he was born a number of months premature and came out not breathing,“ Glover said. “And they threw him in the cold water and it revived him. It seems like there is some different people that have different versions of it, but whether or not he was brought back to life with the frozen water, I do not know if that is true.”

Lon Chaney Jr., whose father of the same name was also a famous actor, starred in movies in the 1940s like “The Ghost of Frankenstein," ”Son of Dracula” and “The Wolf Man.”

Oklahoma City promises fortune

So to figure out whether Chaney Jr.'s origin story was true, I first needed to know more about Belle Isle Lake and the man who started it.

After Anton Classen graduated from the University of Michigan Law School in the late 1880s, Classen desired to build his fortune.

Anton Classen, right, and unidentified man touring Belle Isle property.
Metropolitan Library System of Oklahoma County
Anton Classen, right, and an unidentified man touring Belle Isle property.

“And Oklahoma City was a place that the Land Run offered that opportunity to build something from scratch,” Larry Johnson, special collections manager at the Metropolitan Library System, said.

If that name sounds familiar, it is because Classen Boulevard in OKC and Norman is named after him.

This ambition led to Classen starting the Oklahoma Railway Company.

The railway opened a power plant in 1908 to run the trolley, traveling within Oklahoma City, and the interurban to surrounding cities, like Guthrie and Norman.

The power plant was northeast of Belle Isle Lake, which was constructed to cool the plant. But since the power plant generated more electricity than needed, Johnson said the railway decided to follow a national trend.

“All over the country, streetcar companies opened what are called trolley parks, which were amusement parks that used up the excess electricity they had,” Johnson said. “And so Belle Isle was selected. And so the lake was built there and the amusement park there.”

Belle Isle Power Plant
Metropolitan Library System of Oklahoma County
Belle Isle Power Plant

An ad from the time that ran in The Oklahoman refers to Belle Isle Park as the “playground of the southwest.” The lake, which took up most of the 280-acre park, was a premier spot for swimming and boating since the power plant heated the water for much of the year while the amusement park featured a ferris wheel and a merry-go-round.

But Belle Isle Park was built to serve what Classen described in a letter as his two main interests: real estate and electric railway.

The trolley traveled from downtown Oklahoma City north up to Classen Boulevard. Belle Isle Park was located at what was considered at the time the northern edge of OKC.

“I hate to make it about money, but that is really - if you think about it, he built it into open prairie,” Johnson said. “There was nothing there to carry people to. And then once he started selling the lots and building the houses, then the traffic followed after that.”

Belle Isle Lake runs dry

But even with the increase of residents in the area, the trolley went bankrupt in the late-1920s, as cars increased in prominence, and Classen ran out of property to sell.

In 1928, Belle Isle Park was sold to OG&E, who built a power plant that was considered innovative for its time. But OG&E ended up moving locations in the mid-1960s, making the abandoned power plant a popular destination for teenagers.

Johnson knows from personal experience.

“It would have been in the early '80s when I was a teenager,” Johnson said. “Some of us would kind of break into places like that and explore. But I have heard people would go up in the smokestacks and climb up all the way to the top. I was not that brave.”

Where you could once find a family fishing, riding a canoe or supposedly submerging a dying baby who would become a movie star is now the location of a Walmart at Belle Isle Station shopping center.

Did Belle Isle Lake revive Lon Chaney Jr.?

An article that appeared in a 1982 edition of The Oklahoman corroborates the story Glover heard. According to the article, Chaney Jr. was born on a cold February night in 1906 in a cabin on Belle Isle Lake. The “bluish baby” appeared to be dead so his father plunged Chaney Jr. in the icy water, reviving him.

Belle Isle Park
Metropolitan Library System of Oklahoma County
Belle Isle Park

Chaney Jr.’s family did not respond to my requests for an interview, but a similar retelling of events appears on the official Chaney Entertainment website, adding that Chaney Jr.’s father created an incubator out of a shoebox for the baby.

But Johnson said it is difficult to verify this story.

“There really should not have been anybody living on the lake,” Johnson said. “If they did live out there, that was not in the city limits and so we would not really have a directory or any kind of records, and if they were leasing the house or renting it, we would not have the property records in their name.”

And Chaney Jr. was born in February 1906. Even though a development was laid out that year, Belle Isle Lake was not filled and opened until 1907.

While this evidence seems to disprove the story, Johnson said it is still fitting.

This guy was the Wolf Man and Dracula,” Johnson said. “He was all of these monsters. What better origin for a monster than to be risen from the dead right at the beginning.”

I returned to Glover’s house to relay what I found.

“My guess is there is probably some truth in it somewhere, but we will probably never know,” Glover said.

How Curious is a production of KGOU Public Radio. It is produced by Katelyn Howard. This episode was edited by Logan Layden. David Graey composed the theme music. If you have an Oklahoma-related question, email curious@kgou.org. Subscribe to the How Curious podcast on your favorite podcast app.

As a community-supported news organization, KGOU relies on contributions from readers and listeners to fulfill its mission of public service to Oklahoma and beyond. Donate online, or by contacting our Membership department.

Katelyn discovered her love for radio as a student employee at KGOU, graduating from the University of Oklahoma with a bachelor’s degree in journalism, and then working as a reporter and producer in 2021-22. Katelyn has completed internships at SiriusXM in New York City and at local news organizations such as The Journal Record and The Poteau Daily News. Katelyn served as president of the OU chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists from 2017 to 2020. She grew up in Midland, Texas.
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