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By Laura Landsbaum

The original 1972 plan drawn up for The Woodlands included Lake Woodlands. This distinctive body of water always was part of the vision for this pioneering master planned community. It just took more than a decade and an economic downswing in Houston to bring the lake to fruition.

“Everyone on the team thought that a major water amenity would be good for the community,” reveals Robert Heineman, former vice president of planning and development for The Woodlands Development Company and Howard Hughes. “The space between Woodlands Parkway and Research Forest Drive is about two miles, and the goal was to be able to see the lake from both roads. As you’re traveling along Woodlands Parkway, while the dam is separate from the road structure, you see over the dam and you see the expanse of the lake every time you come into The Woodlands.”

The Army Corps of Engineers approved the permit for the lake early in the planning, but the build had not been started. That permit ended up getting renewed several times, according to Virgil Yoakum. Yoakum was the senior project engineer for the Lake Woodlands project. The lake site had been used as a construction storage area, and in 1983 was used to collect forest debris from Hurricane Alicia.

Shortly after that, while Houston was in the midst of a depression, The Woodlands founder George Mitchell called Plato Pappas, then the first civil engineer to work for The Woodlands Development Company.

“It’s time to build the lake,” Mitchell told Pappas, according to Yoakum.

Zachary Construction had equipment available and idle workers because of the region’s economic downturn. In order to keep Zachary Construction’s workers engaged, the firm agreed to a deal favorable to both parties, according to Yoakum.

George Mitchell once again seized on an opportunity at a time when many other developers shied away from taking risks. Construction would begin on Lake Woodlands with about 750,000 cubic yards of dirt removed to create a lake that would be eight feet deep.  

“For a lake in this climate to be healthy for fish, you need a depth of at least eight feet,” Heineman notes.

That excavated dirt was placed along the shoreline, and then trenched for a concrete pour to create the lip of the 200-acre lake.  

“The concrete pour shortened the construction as well as the cost.”  Heineman says. “It was really all that we needed around this lake. And after it stabilized, we came back in and scooped up the soil that was on the lake side.” 

Lake Woodlands is about two miles long and at least 400 feet wide at its shortest width.

Lake Woodlands is the site of a lot of outdoor fun, serving as one of The Woodlands’ distinctive features.

Teacup Island

Teacup Island, as it’s known, is the small island at the South end of Lake Woodlands with a two-story gazebo. Legend has it that while the plans for the lake were on a table, someone put a coffee cup down and inadvertently left a ring behind on the plans. That is how the idea of Teacup Island materialized.

Bottom of the Lake Festival

Before Lake Woodlands held water, The Woodlands held something called the last annual Bottom of the Lake festival, which was created by Randy Woods, the former vice president of public relations for The Woodlands Development Company.

“He mobilized the whole community into the Mud Master Task Force,” Susan Vreeland-Wendt who worked for the development company, explains.

The three-day festival took place May 17 to May 19, 1985.  It brought events like a mud-slinging contest, tug-a-rope and carnival rides.

“The weather held out, as I recall,” Vreeland-Wendt says. “We had skydiving. We had a fantastic flyover — four jets from Ellington Field.”

The iconic sculpture, “Rise of the Midgard Serpent” by Marc Rosenthal, was unveiled at the celebration before the  whole lake was actually filled. The sculpture is made up of welded steel plates and recycled pipe from Hughes Tool & Die. It’s 35 feet long and weighs 1.5 tons. The six sections of the sculpture are elevated on concrete pillars, similar to bridge supports.


The Rise of the Midgard Serpent sculpture is one of Lake Woodlands’ anchoring touches. (Photo courtesy of Visit The Woodlands.)

Jim Wendt, who served as the director of planning for The Woodlands Development Company, was charged with placing the sculpture that Cynthia Woods Mitchell bought at what was then Houston’s Westheimer Colony Art Festival in 1983. 

“We looked at three different locations (in The Woodlands) and it was pretty clear that there was only one really good location,” Wendt says. “What I was trying to do by locating the dragon in the lake was to have it kind of framed by a tower.”

For the unveiling, the sculpture was covered. Woods then donned scuba gear to pull the cover off and reveal the serpent.

After the celebration, engineers closed the dam at Woodlands Parkway. Nearly immediately afterward, a heavy rainstorm came and literally filled Lake Woodlands from upstream flow.

Lake Woodlands has been a part of the community for nearly 40 years now as The Woodlands itself approaches its 50th anniversary (it’s happening this October 19th). The Woodlands just wouldn’t be the same without it.


Many thanks to The Woodlands 50th Anniversary Sponsors:

FOUNDING – Howard Hughes

PRODUCER – The Woodlands Township

LEGACY – Woodforest National Bank

HERITAGE – Waste Connections Inc.

GOLD – Entergy Texas, Houston Methodist The Woodlands Hospital

SILVER – SVN/JBeard Real Estate, The John Cooper School