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The Great Granite Dam across the Colorado River

Granite Dam Proposals for building a dam across the Colorado River had periodically been discussed during the 1860's and 1870's with the issue never gaining the support necessary for such a massive project. On Jan 1, 1888 an essay published in the morning paper by Alexander Penn Wooldridge initiated another debate. Wooldridge envisioned a dam built above the town that would form a reservoir behind it and a canal to carry water up Shoal Creek to power factories built along its banks. The water would then be transported to the valley below the town to irrigate farmland. He professed that unless such a structure was built the Austin economy would become stagnate. The issue was wildly debated for a period of time, but interest eventually began to subside.

One year after his initial essay was published Wooldridge again proposed the building of dam, but this time he suggested the formation of a public corporation that the citizens could buy stock in to fund the project. The idea was again debated, but failed to intrigue the citizens sufficiently and foundered. However, the issue did not die and eventually proponents of the project decided that a bond issue by the city might adequately fund the project. A mayoral election was scheduled to occur in December of 1889. The dam project quickly became a hotly contested issue. Dam proponents came forward with their own candidate, John McDonald, who was solidly behind the dam initiative. The incumbent in the election, Joseph Nalle, was convinced that the dam would be more costly than projected and too difficult to build.

The issue was hotly debated and the public awareness of the initiative began to increase. Eventually, the dam project carried the election. McDonald won three-fifths of the vote. Dam supporting candidates also captured eight of the ten city council seats that were up for election. Almost immediately Joseph P. Frizell, a civil engineer from Boston, was hired to plan the project. Frizell's plan called for a 60-foot high dam to be built at the present-day site of the Tom Miller Dam at a cost of $1,362,781. The plan included a reservoir, a powerhouse, system to allow water and electricity to be distributed throughout the city. The city council quickly adopted the plan and scheduled a bond election for bonds totaling $1,400,000 in May of 1890. The bond issue was adopted by a vote of 1,354 for to fifty against. The day the bid was accepted and the construction contract awarded fireworks and bonfires lit up Congress Avenue and Sixth Street as people celebrated the event.

Granite Dam w/Paddle Boat Excavation was begun on the dam and a railroad was constructed along the present route of Lake Austin Boulevard to transport materials to the site. The first stone was laid in May of 1891. Limestone aggregate was set in hydraulic cement and then covered the granite blocks quarried from the same site that supplied granite to the capitol. Towers were erected on opposite banks and a cable that stretched between them was used to convey materials across the site. The project became a spectacle for the townspeople who came out to watch the construction.

The last stone was laid into place on May 2, 1893. However, the powerhouse would require another two years to complete. On March 7, 1895 water was sent through the powerhouse pipes to test the installation. In May the first dam-generated electricity was used to illuminate the towns new light towers. Soon dam power was running the tower lights, streetcars, and the water system pumps. The Austin Dam and Suburban Railway, the railway that had carried materials to the dam, now carried passengers from downtown to the dam.

Residents soon began to enjoy the recreational benefits of Lake McDonald, the reservoir created behind the dam and named after Mayor McDonald. People would come to watch high water rush over the dam or walk across the dam when water was low. Steamer Ben Hur Some fool even went over the dam in a barrel. The Ben Hur, a side-wheel steamer, provided excursion trips to the head of the lake. Passengers could pass the time gazing at the scenic surroundings or enjoying onboard activities including dinner, dancing and vaudeville shows. As the word of Austin's success spread articles appeared in papers as far away as New York praising Austin's grand achievement. Lake McDonald was praised far and wide as a first class resort destination for recreation and sportsmen alike.

It seemed that building the dam was the best thing ever to happen to Austin, but the future of the dam project was not to be as bright as it's beginnings. Enthusiasm for the dam had waned by the end of the decade as townspeople began to realize that the dam wasn't capable of generating enough power to meet the demands of the city. The lake level began to fall during extended periods of low rainfall. This resulted in power shortages sometimes so severe that all electric service to the city had to be suspended. This scenario repeated itself several times in varying degrees of severity between 1897 and 1899. At times even water service from the reservoir had to be suspended in addition to the frequent power generation suspensions. Still more problems were evident by 1900.

The reservoir behind the dam had lost more than half of its original capacity due to mud and silt that had built up behind the dam. Public discontent continued to build, as these problems became more frequent and severe. It was clear the dam was not going to live up to its billing. Professor Thomas Taylor, dean of the UT school of engineering, studied the problem with his students. They discovered that the town been deceived by the dams original planners. The planners had grossly underestimated the rivers minimum flow rates and had neglected to consider the additional effects of evaporation from the reservoir. Taylor and his students concluded that when the irregularity of the flow rates of the Colorado were factored into the equation the dam was capable of producing only one-sixth of the power promised by its planners.

Even without this blunder is it doubtful that the dam could have severed its intended purpose of supporting a burgeoning manufacturing industry. Steam power was quickly supplanting direct drive waterpower throughout the country. Steam power generation plants could be located further away from flowing rivers and their output was steady and unaffected by seasonal river flow changes. Austin's dream of a direct drive powered industrial boom would apparently have been doomed even if the events that were about to unfold had never taken place.

Panoramic View of the broken Dam, Austin, Texas On the Friday morning of April 6, 1900, it began to rain at 4:30 A.M. It rained heavily for twenty-four hours. Shoal Creek overflowed its banks and washed away several homes. By dawn on April 7th the rain had subsided and people had gathered to watch water flow over the dam at a depth of eleven feet above the dams crest. At 11:20 A.M. the onlookers heard and felt an explosion. The flood broke through the dam and pushed two large sections about sixty feet downstream. The ensuing rush of water through the opening hit the adjacent powerhouse flooding the lower stories. Five workmen and three young boys were drowned. The flood swept downstream and inundated farms and houses in its path washing all away. Austin was left without water, power, or light. The private utility company that had competed with the dam was also shutdown by the flood. Steamer Ben Hur It took five weeks for water service to be resumed and five months for the electric streetcar service to be restored. The moon tower lights remained off until January of 1901. It was determined that the dam had collapsed due to "sliding". As water swept over the face it had eroded the limestone under the base of the dam on the downstream side. This continued until the water pressure behind the dam overcame the friction that bound the dam to its base. A steam plant was opted for in place of rebuilding the dam for power generation. The dam would eventually be rebuilt, but would suffer more damage in future floods. Tom Miller Dam and Lake Austin, Austin, Texas Today the Colorado river has been mostly tamed by a series of dams and flood control reservoirs. Tom Miller Dam now stands in the place where the Granite Dam was originally built and the reservoir behind it is now known as Lake Austin. It is a constant level reservoir with million dollar homes lining its shores. A flood on this section of the Colorado today would cause billions of dollars of damage.

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