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The Backstory: Taming the wild Colorado River that flows through the heart of Austin

Huge dams that collapsed during flooding brought catastrophe to Austin in earlier times.

AUSTIN, Texas — One of the most attractive features in Austin is the scenic Colorado River that flows through the center of town, creating our familiar Lake Austin and Lady Bird Lake.

 The river that courses through the heart of Austin is usually placid now, but in earlier times, taming the Colorado River when floods struck the Capitol City was a constant challenge. Runaway floods and the battle against a raging Colorado have been an ongoing chapter in our city’s history.

The first attempt at controlling the river came in 1893. Workers built a 60-foot high, 1,200-foot-long granite dam just west of the city. The dam provided water power for electric generators. And with that, Austin became one of the first electrified cities in the U.S. 

But the dam wouldn't prevail against a swollen Colorado. Seven years later, a surge of water from heavy rains smashed the dam and flooded the city. It was rebuilt in 1912, only to crumble three years later after a flood that claimed 60 lives and destroyed a thousand buildings in Austin. 

Finally, in 1940, effective flood control for the city arrived for the construction of the Tom Miller Dam, one of a series of Lower Colorado River Authority dams that regulate the Colorado River as it flows through Austin. 

A second dam east of downtown named Longhorn Dam was completed in 1960 and created what's now known as Lady Bird Lake. 

Credit: KVUE

Those early dams have connections to our boomtown lives today. That first dam from way back in 1893? It's one of the reasons that Austin is among the few cities in the U.S. today that still operates its own power company, known, of course, as Austin Energy, although it no longer uses water to generate electricity. 

And next time you drive down Redbud Trail by Tom Miller Dam, you might take a quick look at all those granite stones in the water. Those stones were once part of that first dam that collapsed in 1900, the one that brought Austin into the age of electric power, which led to more businesses and more people moving here all those years later. 


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