What Can We Learn From The Bursting Of An Austin Dam Some 100 Years Ago?
In a West Austin dog park, you can find haphazard monuments to a 100-year-old disaster. Several chunks of granite that were once part of Austin’s first dam line the parking lot of Red Bud Isle.
But you’d be hard-pressed to find many details about it on signs throughout the park.
“It looks like [the signs are] mostly about off-leash dog areas,” says Bruce Hunt, a history professor at UT Austin. “No hint of the historical importance here.”
On an April afternoon, Hunt wanders around the park and then across a nearby busy road in search of some allusion to the grim event that happened where dogs now play. Then, on a small rocky inlet he finds a placard.
“Adjacent to this plaque is the original block of Texas red granite which was part of the first dam on the Colorado River at Austin,” it reads. “Built in 1893, destroyed by the flood in 1900.”
A dam. Then a flood. But so much more.
In the late 19th century, growth was on the minds of Austin's elite.
By 1880, the city's population was roughly 11,000. The railroad had come to Austin a decade earlier, making the city more accessible to both people and goods.
"[Austin] was growing," archivist Ed Sevcik says. “But [it] wasn’t really booming. There wasn’t really anything exciting happening.”
(Except, of course, the alleged presence of a serial killer. But that’s a tale for another day.)
As a UT student in the early 1990s, Sevcik published an article about Austin's first dam, titled “Selling the Austin Dam: A Disastrous Experiment in Encouraging Growth.” According to his research, based primarily on historic newspaper articles, a handful of wealthy Austin residents came up with a plan to engineer a boom: They would construct a dam.
“The idea was that Austin would build a big dam on the Colorado River,” Sevcik says. “All this hydropower that would be released by this dam would somehow make the city rich and lead to lots of businesses and lots of development and lots of growth.”
Several men involved in banking and real estate — industries that might benefit from population growth — began pitching the dam to residents, offering it as a panacea for whatever problem Austin was having at the moment.
Drought conditions hurting you economically? The dam would provide irrigation to farmers. Time for Austin to become a big industrial town? Water power generated by the dam would bring factories to the city.
The hope was that the city would issue municipal bonds to pay for the dam. (In other words, the local government would borrow money and then pay it back with tax revenue.) But there was a hitch: Doing so would violate the city’s charter, which prohibited using bonds to pay for private industry.
So, the dam pushers revised their pitch. Austin should borrow money to build a dam to power its first-ever public utility company.
Around the same time, one of the original boosters of the dam idea, Alexander Wooldridge, bought one of the local papers, the Austin Daily Statesman. The paper began running letters in support of the city borrowing money to build a dam, many of them arguing how it would transform the city.
A Statesman writer responded to a letter describing how a dam could make the region an industrious port with miles of “navigable water”: “We know now the latent possibilities in the treasure halting to the sea past our doors and need but to pile rock upon rock to find pure gold on the crest of the pent up waters as they curl for their fifty-foot plunge.”
The Statesman was capitalizing on an already captive audience.
Local leaders had been unhappy with service provided by the private utility, the Austin Water, Light and Power Co. Since the company had signed a contract with the city in the 1870s, leaders had accused it of providing poor service — failing to flush the city’s gutters, for example, and therefore letting trash pile up — and, on top of that, charging customers “exorbitant” rates for it.
The city held an election May 5, 1890. The marketing campaign worked; Austin residents (well, the white men, since they were the only ones with the right to cast ballots) voted 1,354 to 50 in support of the city going $1.4 million into debt to build a dam.
Austin would do the dam thing.
But disagreements and missteps plagued construction from the start.
The dam’s chief engineer quit, claiming contractors were using poor materials and that the spot the city had chosen for the dam was structurally unsound.
“It was put in exactly the wrong place,” Hunt says. This area is along a fault line, meaning there are cracks and fissures in the limestone.
City leaders moved on, hiring a new engineer, and in about three years the dam was complete.
As for the amount of power supporters predicted the dam would generate, that never fully materialized. Dam supporters had told citizens the structure would produce more power than the city could use. Some days, however, the dam generated no power — like in the middle of a Texas drought.
“There was usually never enough water behind the dam to really supply all the power that was required,” Hunt says.
At least Austin residents now had a lake — Lake McDonald, named for John McDonald, the mayor at the time. People rode steamboats on the water and the city held a rowing regatta. One newspaper report from 1899 describes Labor Day celebrations out at the dam, with a contest held to choose the “prettiest” baby.
“Austin was really full of itself at this time and really proud that they had built this enormous dam,” Jeffrey Kerr, a local historian, says.
Then, some rain knocked the city down.
Heavy storms battered Austin the night of April 6, 1900. By the next morning, water raged over the dam.
“The river began rising with wonderful rapidity after daylight yesterday morning, and was pouring over the dam to the depth of fully twenty feet,” a reporter for the Austin Daily Statesman wrote.
People lined the banks of the dam to watch the torrent of water. News reports from the time estimated the wall of water over the crest of the dam to be anywhere from 10 to 20 feet high; one onlooker said it looked like Niagara Falls.
And then, just after 11 a.m. on April 7, the dam broke.
“[The dam] was basically pushed off its foundation and it buckled outward in the middle, under the force of the water, and then broke and collapsed,” Sevcik says.
The water first flooded the powerhouse, which had been constructed on the shores just below the dam. Eight people died instantly, “drowned like rats in a trap,” a reporter wrote for The New York Times.
Once the dam broke, water surged toward downtown Austin. Witnesses jumped on horseback, hoping they could outrace the waters and warn those farther south of the imminent flood.
The alarm reached hundreds of people gathered on or near the bridge at Congress Avenue, but not in enough time for people to flee. Luckily the bridge remained intact, despite being hit by a 50-foot wall of water.
All in all, the flood killed at least 50 people and destroyed 100 homes. One witness told the Austin Statesman decades later how he and others tried to unearth the bodies of those who had died once floodwaters had receded.
“We had no equipment to uncover the dead,” Lee Watts told the paper in 1937. “We worked for 24 straight hours with anything we could get our hands on.”
Newspaper reports in 1900 described the dam break as Austin’s “greatest tragedy.” Not only had the city lost dozens of residents, but it was also now without power, water and a dam it had gone deep into debt for.
One man quoted in the local paper blamed the breaking of the dam on Austin’s “reign of wickedness.” He said frequent recreational weekend plans at the dam, such as a boat excursion or a balloon ascension, kept people out of the church pews.
The dam break, he said, was penance for these sins.
A couple days after floodwaters destroyed Austin’s first dam, city leaders met to figure out what to do.
The head of the private utility company made an offer: He would buy what was left of the city’s powerhouse and pipes and once again provide residents with water and electricity, but now at a lower cost to customers than what the city-owned utility had been charging.
Some leaders thought it was an offer the city had to take.
“If the water and light was good I would now take it if the devil furnished it just now,” Alexander Terrell, a judge, told the men gathered.
But they said no.
“His proposition was made but nothing done with it,” a reporter wrote for the Austin Daily Statesman.
Austin leaders decided they would stick with a publicly owned utility company and find the money to buy steam engines to get water and power to residents. Local historians KUT spoke with could not explain why the men made this decision, and newspaper reports from the time don’t explain it, either; their reasoning is entirely unclear.
But Sevcik ventures a guess.
“[Austin] had made this big leap into owning a public utility and then decided not to go back,” he says. “It may have been that despite all the disaster and trouble they felt that it was better to just stick with a public system.”
Hunt goes even further. He says that Austin, faced with a natural disaster that left its residents without basic necessities, decided keeping these utilities under public ownership was of greater value than entrusting them to a private company.
And the city and its residents have stuck with public utilities since then; the story of the city's first dam is the origin tale of Austin Energy and Austin Water.
“I think they had a sense that these were public goods,” Hunt says.
”[That] having a reliable electric supply at reasonable rates … that was good not just for the individual consumers, but it was good for the community as a whole to have those things. [It was better supplied] by a public utility than water and power would be by private companies that were just seeking to maximize their return. That the returns to the community were greater than the returns to the investors.”
Got a tip? Email Audrey McGlinchy at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @AKMcGlinchy.
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