Waco Dam

Throughout its history, Waco has been affected by a constant cycle of drought and flooding due to its prime location near several major rivers. The construction of Lake Waco Dam was one of the most successful efforts to address these issues, providing the city with flood protection and a stable water supply.

Many Wacoans, including Mayor H. F. Connally, opposed the construction of the original dam in the 1920s, preferring to rely upon the city’s artesian wells as a water supply. Though some saw the dam as a foolhardy and risky luxury, the city put the issue up to a vote in 1926 after the wells began to run dry. Voters approved the construction of the dam by a slim margin of just over one hundred votes. In 1929, Callahan Construction Company completed work on the dam on the Bosque River.

The small dam, though beneficial to Waco, proved to be insufficient to protect the city from severe flooding. After a record flood in 1936 submerged East Waco and displaced two thousand people, Congressman Bob Poage received authorization for a US Army Corps Engineering flood control study of Lake Waco. The results of the study in 1938 recommended an enlarged Lake Waco with a bigger, more modern dam.

However, the onset of World War II put the Lake Waco project on hold for some time. The construction of dams on Lake Whitney and Belton Lake took precedence in 1946, though the need for a larger water supply was becoming more apparent each year. Several Wacoans appealed to the federal government for funding, and in 1954, Congress authorized the construction of a new dam in order to lessen the flood threat to the city of Waco and provide more efficient water storage.

As the US Army Corps of Engineers began to design the new dam, Central Texas conditions worsened. The most severe drought of the twentieth century struck Texas in the 1950s. The period saw all but ten of Texas’ counties declared federal disaster areas, and in Waco, despite efforts to ration and conserve water, taps ran dry and factories slowed production. Additionally, the water supply in Lake Waco was hampered by the buildup of silt from farming up river.  

A second disastrous flood hit the city in April 1957, reenergizing efforts to complete the dam. The Brazos River Authority and the city offered to provide a loan to the federal government in order to begin construction on the dam quickly. After some negotiations, President Eisenhower included one million dollars in his proposed budget for the construction of the new dam.

In the weeks following the dam’s completion in the fall of 1961, engineers detected a problem with disastrous implications. Cracks appeared in the eastern face of the dam and slowly began to spread. Soon, a portion of the east side fell sixteen feet, sliding downstream. The US Corps of Army Engineers quickly discovered the problem was a layer of compressed shale in the ground which the weight of the dam had pushed out. They modified and stabilized the dam, completely finishing construction in the spring of 1965.

Army engineers and the city of Waco agreed to raise the level of the lake seven feet in 2003 in order to provide a more secure source of water for Waco and surrounding municipalities. Waco civic leader Jack Kultgen described the dam as the “single biggest factor in the progress of Waco” in the twentieth century because it gave Waco an advantage over many other Central Texas cities. The Lake Waco Dam provides the city with a constant source of water, ensuring the city’s ability to grow in spite of weather conditions. 

Images

Souvenir Postcard

Souvenir Postcard

After its completion in 1929, a publicity campaign touted the original Lake Waco dam as the "crowning achievement of Waco's 80 years of Romantic history." | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

Unexpected Damages

Unexpected Damages

Despite its promising beginning, the original dam soon proved insufficient to meet the growing city's needs. The dam did little to reduce flooding in the 1930-40s, and its gates were often clogged by logs or other debris. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University View File Details Page

Moving Ahead

Moving Ahead

Although it took quite some time to plan the new dam and acquire the appropriate funding, construction proceeded at a steady pace after the project received congressional approval. On July 5, 1958, Senate Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson participated in the dam's groundbreaking ceremony in order to show support for the development of sufficient water reservoirs in Texas. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University | Creator: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers View File Details Page

Nearing Completion (1961)

Nearing Completion (1961)

A study conducted by the Soil Conservation Service showed that 60 percent of the lake's capacity had been lost as a result of silt buildup. This finding prompted construction on the dam to be sped up. The study also predicted that the lake would be unusable for a water supply by 1973. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University | Creator: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers View File Details Page

Main Tower

Main Tower

In addition to the main earthen structure, the dam consists of a spillway for flood control, a reservoir pool to provide the city with water, and a flood pool which fills up when heavy rains occur. This tower houses the three electrically operated sliding gates which control the release of water. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University | Creator: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers View File Details Page

A General Inspection

A General Inspection

Lieutenant General W. K. Wilson of the US Army Engineering Corp (pictured with the pipe) visited Waco in 1961 to check on the progress of the investigation into the collapsed eastern portion of the dam. Maj. Gen. Robert Fleming, Waco Chamber of Commerce representative J. H. Kultgen, and Col. R. Paul West accompanied Wilson on his tour of the site. This visit was likely intended to bolster waning public confidence in the dam project. | Source: Image courtesy of the Texas Collection, Baylor University | Creator: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers View File Details Page

Audio

Saving a Home During the Flood

Patricia Cornett tells the story of a woman who saved her home after the flood of 1957. | Source: Cornett, Patricia Kennedy, interviewed by Brian Reed, November 21, 2008, in Waco, Texas. Baylor University Institute for Oral History, Waco, TX. View the full interview View File Details Page

Fishing off the Dam

Paul M. Barron reminisces about fishing off of the Waco Dam as a child in the 1960s. | Source: Barron, Paul M., interviewed by Stephen M. Sloan, October 20, 2009, in Waco, Texas. Baylor University Institute for Oral History, Waco, TX. View the full interview View File Details Page

Cite this Page:

Amanda Sawyer, “Waco Dam,” Waco History, accessed May 30, 2017, http://wacohistory.org/items/show/45.

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