SUNLAND, CA: Lancaster Lake is a name that conjures up fond memories in the minds of many old-time Sunland-Tujunga residents. My own boyhood memories of the lake are no exception.
Carved out of a swampy area in the lower Foothills just below Sunland Park by Edgar “Grandpa” Lancaster, the lake opened to the public for swimming, fishing and boating in 1925.
It didn’t take long for this bucolic, almost tropical, retreat to catch on as the place to go to cool off on a hot summer day. Grandpa initially managed nearly all the operations himself, but as time wore on– and with his increasing age– these responsibilities were gradually shifted to his daughter, Marie Murray, and her two sons, Harold and Marshall, who lived next to Grandpa at the lake.
Summer weekends during World War II were Lancaster Lake’s real heydays. No doubt this was largely due to wartime gas rationing, which required local residents to find their recreation close to home. During these years, my brother Dick and I were in grammar school, and at that age, particularly during the summer, we found the lake to be an almost irresistible magnet on a daily basis. If we couldn’t be found somewhere in Sunland Park, we were horsing around at the lake and, in the process, probably annoying one or another members of the Lancaster family. Indeed, we hung around there so much that eventually we became unwelcome little pests– so much so that seventy-odd years later I can still hear one of the Lancasters or Murrays saying something on the order of: “Boys, I think I hear your mother calling,” or “Don’t you boys have some place else you can play?” Eventually though, when the family finally reconciled itself to our constant presence, they did the next best thing to getting rid of us– they put us to work.
Our job was to help keep the small fleet of Lancaster Lake’s wooden rowboats as dry as possible. This was no easy task, since all the boats leaked! Even though Grandpa Lancaster frequently had his boats out of the water and up on sawhorses for re-caulking, he never quite succeeded in plugging all the leaks. As a result, when a boat came in after an hour or so of rental on the lake, it usually had enough water sloshing around on the floorboards to discourage new customers. That’s when Dick and I would swing into action. Armed with empty coffee cans, we’d jump right in and bail away until we had things reasonably dry. On busy days, as the boats kept coming in, we repeated this same process over and over and over again.
We were never paid money for the work. Instead, we got something we considered much better– free use of one of the boats for about an hour or so when it wasn’t likely to be wanted by a paying customer. Although during the summer this might mean we could only use a boat early on a weekday morning, we didn’t mind at all. In fact, we thought we had a pretty darn good deal going for us.
Another attraction that kept us around the lake a lot was Grandpa Lancaster’s Bible classes. As the founder of the Sunland First Baptist Church on Oro Vista Street (now the New Hope Community Church), he used these lakeside classes to recruit new members into the fold. As kids we all liked to go because he’d let us fish for free as a reward for attending the class. By one means or another, he always managed to weave fishing into his Bible stories to make our fishing experience relevant to what he was telling us. I’m not so sure we always got the connection, but we sure liked the fishing part. And my-oh-my, how well I still remember those big wads of stale bread we’d squish onto those oversized hooks to catch those big, ugly catfish!
One time after Bible lessons were over, I fell out of one of the boats into Lancaster Lake. It wasn’t all that deep, but still well over the head of a seven-or-eight-year-old boy. It was before I had learned to swim, and I nearly drowned before being rescued. Rather than fishing like we were supposed to be doing, we had been racing another boat. I was rowing as fast as I could when, in rushing a backstroke, I completely missed the water with the oar and tumbled over backwards into the lake, taking the oar with me. Left with only one oar in the boat, the other boys had a hard time reaching me. I think I was going down for the third time when they finally pulled me out. About the only physical consequence was how sick I got from swallowing all the muddy lake water. Psychologically though, the impact was much worse. Almost drowning is something you never forget, and I think the experience got me a lot closer to becoming a church member than Grandpa’s Bible classes ever did. In fact, as I think back on it now, I think Grandpa would have had more recruiting success if he had just thrown a few kids in the lake and forgotten about the Bible lessons.
[Coming soon – Part 2: There was more to Sunland’s Lancaster Lake Than Muddy Waters]