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Austin's Town Lake - 1959


For centuries it was just a river. It flowed through the lower end of town, sometimes slowly, and sometimes with a vengeance. The floods that allowed the Colorado to invade the town as far up as Third Street, and as far south as Riverside Drive, were controlled by dams built upstream in the 30's, 40's and 50's. But the river through Austin was unkempt, filled with logs and debris including trash from the many storm sewers.

The area was something to be avoided. Commercial buildings edged away as far as possible. Homes were built on the hills nearby only for the view across the river. Gravel bars and mud banks meandered back and forth as the currents shaped them.

I discovered Chamber of Commerce records as far back as 1932 telling of efforts to get a "low water dam" built to create a small scenic lake in the heart of Austin. No, I was not there then, and nothing had happened in the intervening years. I became C of C CEO in 1956, and continued to champion the idea. Much sooner than I had ever hoped, things began to happen.

The head of the Austin Electric Utility visited with me and indicated that the utility needed an additional facility, and that cooling water would be needed for its operation. His preliminary studies indicated that a dam across the Colorado at Longhorn Crossing could serve such a purpose. He wanted to be sure that the "business community" would favor such a plan. I assured him that I felt it would.

The project was adopted, but not without a lot of problems to solve. First a shoreline had to be established. Adjacent owners really didn't know where their property lines were out in that riverbed. Some had deeds that gave them land to the middle of the river, wherever that was. Another challenge was determining what type of zoning to establish on adjacent property. Which areas should be public lands for parks or other uses?

I became part of a five person Town Lake Planning Committee established by the City to address all these problems, and to make the lake as scenic and useful as possible. We were assigned a city hired planning firm, Sissom and Tanaguchi, to draw up the plans. It wasn't easy. And I never thought that the Hike and Bike trails would work!

The plan was completed about the same time the dam was completed in 1960. As the gates were closed and the water rose, it was like the ugly duckling being converted into a beautiful swan. But it took a while. Most of the shorelines needed cleaning, shaping and landscaping. The gravel in the river bottom needed to be removed in order to allow a sufficient flow in times of flood. The dredging took ten years, with two "Little Toot" tug boats pushing barges from the dredge to a site near the dam. And then I had the pleasure of working with a large Town Lake Beautification Committee. It is 2004 now, and the results still look pretty good.

Vic Mathias - February 11, 2004