Saddling the Colorado: How LCRA brought Central Texas into modern era



Highlights

Eighty years ago, the LCRA opened for business.

The authority shepherded construction that brought power, drought management and recreation to the region.

Days after a fourth special legislative session in 1934, Texas Gov. Miriam “Ma” Ferguson delivered the Lower Colorado River Authority into existence with her signature on a bill authorizing its creation. The following February, 81 years ago, the agency that transformed much of Texas from the Hill Country to the coast opened for business. Here, then a look back.

Before the LCRA, before the lakes and the dams and the power they made, people in the Hill Country lived in conditions largely unchanged since before the Civil War.

In 1937, a man from Johnson City, one Lyndon Johnson, was elected to Congress. Shortly after, Buchanan Dam — so named for Congressman James. P. Buchanan, whose death had hastened the election in which Johnson won his seat — was completed. Another flood laid waste to the region, leading to no small amount of finger-pointing. Eventually there was electric generation and light.

Still, some farmers and ranchers were recalcitrant. If it cost $5 to join a co-op, that was a lot of money then. The joke unofficial LCRA historian John Williams tells in “The Untold Story of the Lower Colorado River Authority,” to be published in December by Texas A&M Press, is that a lot of farmers only turned on the lights long enough to fire up their kerosene lanterns.

In Austin, homes had been wired for electricity since the late 1800s, but by the early 1950s, reliable electric service spread over the region. The lakes, as they filled up, became a recreational attraction. Today, more than 1 million people rely on the lakes for their water supply. The river had always been a volatile and testy neighbor. Although the control of nature is a dangerous human illusion — the Colorado had 15 major floods between 1843 and 1938 — at least the ever-capricious river had a saddle on it.

The construction of the dams and lakes also forced the relocation of farmers, ranchers and at least two communities. By 1940, the Buchanan, Inks, Mansfield and Tom Miller dams were either built or under construction. The lakes were completed in 1951, during the then-drought of record.

Officials modeled the LCRA on the Tennessee Valley Authority. The TVA had earlier begun to dramatically transform the Deep South; so did the LCRA in the Hill Country. The agency today has statutory authority in 10 counties from San Saba to the coast, and its electric service spans all or part of other counties. It sells electricity, water and other services to more than 2 million people and boosts economies.

One economic analysis of the upper Highland Lakes in Burnet and Llano counties produced in 2011 — in the middle of the most recent drought — showed that visitor spending accounted for $161.3 million in direct economic activity and was tied to 3,125 jobs, or almost 26 percent of the region’s employment.

We got power, recreation, a steady water supply and flood mitigation. You don’t want to imagine what life was like here before the LCRA.

An untamed river

Life was miserable in the Hill Country even before the Depression. Texas Power & Light had agreed to serve a handful of towns, including Johnson City, but the company claimed running lines over the sparsely populated rural Edwards Plateau would be too expensive. Diesel-powered generators in towns like Burnet provided enough power to illuminate a low-wattage bulb for a few hours a day.

In the country, there was no refrigeration and almost no indoor plumbing. Some did without an outhouse. Cows were milked in the predawn dark. Women hauled water from streams or hand-pumped wells several times each day for laundry and cooking. Wood for the stove had to be hauled, too.

Johnson historian Robert A. Caro, in his first volume of “The Years of Lyndon Johnson,” vividly details the unrelenting Sisyphean drudgery of merely existing. People there knew they were cut off from the rest of the world, Caro writes, though they just didn’t know how far cut off they really were.

In times of drought, it was said the Colorado could be jumped over without getting one’s boots wet. But floods drowned precious livestock and washed them downstream.

The grand vision

Controlling the river was not a new idea. The city of Austin had built the first significant dam on the Lower Colorado in the 1890s. It was destroyed in the 1900 flood, which killed 27, including seven men working at the dam’s powerhouse, and caused $14 million in damage. It wasn’t replaced until the Tom Miller Dam went in upstream in 1940.

Adam Rankin Johnson, who as a Confederate general was accidentally shot and blinded by his own men in the Civil War, returned to Burnet County after serving. He attempted to tap the river’s power near Marble Falls, but the dam was only partially built because he ran out of money.

What was different this time was the scale of the ambition. It’s been likened many times to building the Pyramids of Egypt.

It’s largely forgotten that about a century ago, this country gave serious consideration to socialism, which Theodore H. White called the belief that government could be used to help people “in the wild cycling cruelty of depression and boom.” There were socialist newspapers and socialist candidates elected to numerous local positions and a congressional seat. Socialist Eugene Debs got 6 percent of the vote for president in 1912.

In the 1920s and into the Depression, there was growing popularity for the idea that unregulated private power companies were gouging customers and that a better option might be public ownership of utilities, particularly hydroelectric ones. That led to passage of the Public Utility Holding Company Act of 1935.

In its wake, many private providers in the Tennessee Valley came under government or TVA control — or went out of business. Once the LCRA became a power provider, it encouraged communities to buy their electric utilities and switch to the LCRA. Those that did saw their bills drop almost by half.

Enter Lyndon Johnson

The story of how Lyndon Johnson brought electricity to the Hill Country is the most noble story of the use of government to help people do something that they could never do for themselves. No individual, no private company, was ever going to bring electricity to the Hill Country, and he did it.

— Robert A. Caro, quoted in the American-Statesman, 2006

Construction of what came to be known as Buchanan Dam began in 1931. But it stopped when it was half-finished after the company in charge of the project collapsed. Buchanan, while still alive and in Congress, helped secure funds to finish the project from the Public Works Administration.

Also critical was attorney, former state senator and future Undersecretary of the Interior Alvin Wirtz, who secured at least the promise of funds if the Legislature created an agency to oversee and finish the project. That became the LCRA; and Wirtz became its general counsel.

The LCRA needed more than money. Johnson, still secretary to U.S. Rep. Richard Kleberg and not elected to Congress, labored to provide access for agency officials, Caro notes. Johnson also helped Wirtz. After his election, Johnson appealed personally to Franklin Roosevelt to relax population density requirements to hasten rural electrification.

Once the dams were completed and the lakes rose, so in turn would Johnson’s fortunes in Washington, winning election after election.

In the summer of 1936, the LCRA selected the site for another dam at what was called Marshall Ford or Marshall’s Ford. Less than two weeks into his first term as a congressman, Johnson lobbied the White House for support of a bill that would clear legal and bureaucratic obstacles for the project. Roosevelt’s answer, Williams writes, was to the point: “Give the kid the dam.” Work on that structure was completed in 1942. A year earlier, the generators had gone online and it was renamed for U.S. Rep. J.J. Mansfield.

Perils of construction

Construction on the dams was accomplished with muscle, mules and not nearly enough heavy equipment. The amount of infrastructure alone required was daunting. Rock had be quarried and railroads and cabling systems built. Camps, with paraffin coating the tent cloth to keep the moisture out, sprang up to accommodate workers and their families — sometimes seven to a tent.

Men waited in line day and night for a job. R.A. Lucksinger recalled “a string of men standing out there at the offices line up for I guess a hundred yards.

“They’d go in there and get registered and get back in that line and say, ‘There’s a job down at such and such a location. Go to it,’” Lucksinger said in the video commemorating 50 years of Buchanan. “And they stood there for months, day and night. This is how bad people were needing work. There was just no work. We paid 40 cents an hour to start for common labor.”

Dr. George Tipton of Austin worked as an on-site physician — or “dam doctor” as he put it in an LCRA video history — from July 1940 to January 1941. He doesn’t specify which dam, but the time frame indicates that it was Mansfield. The conditions he described resemble the MASH units formed at the end of the war he was about to enter: a makeshift infirmary with four beds, a small X-ray machine and a fair number of broken bones. About 3,000 people worked there at the time in three shifts. Workers with broken legs or spinal injuries were sent to town in a funeral home hearse, which served as an ambulance in those days. He recalled a big mess hall with excellent chicken-fried steak and lemon pie. Meals cost 25 or 35 cents.

He also remembered one worker death during his tenure: “He was a painter and was having to go up and paint the top of the superstructure. They were given instructions verbally and printed and the way they were supposed to go up a ladder was to go up the ladder by the back of the rungs so they never lost contact. And they were supposed to tie the bucket of paint to their belt with a rope. This guy didn’t do that. He was grabbing a rung in one hand and the bucket of paint in the other. And he missed. And he fell backward and hit an iron or steel girder (which killed him instantly). That was the only death while I was there. I think there were four, five, six deaths at the dam while it was being built. No one was buried in the concrete, though. I can certify to that.”

Sense of stewardship

Maintaining equipment built before World War II at the dams is a constant for crews. Every day, workers at Mansfield, for instance, have a list of preventive maintenance chores to make sure each of the 24 floodgates works flawlessly in the event of a flood. Now largely automated and run remotely in Austin, Mansfield has a crew of about nine, although workers pull 12-hour shifts during floods.

“The guys that built this didn’t have computers,” said Ryan Rowney, LCRA’s vice president of water operations. “They had slide rules. The guys that designed this were geniuses. Total respect for those guys back in the 1930s. There’s a lot of pride in our crews. It’s a stewardship. It’s hard and dangerous work.”

Indeed, Johnson — who even after his presidency said his proudest accomplishment in public life was developing the river — would be pleased to see the work continues and the region reaps its benefits. His words from 1958 to that effect are on a plaque at LCRA headquarters on Lake Austin Boulevard, so named for a body of water created by a vision he helped realize.

“Every afternoon when sunset approached, Daddy would come running through the house saying, ‘The sun’s about to set! The sun’s about to set! Get in the car! Get in the car!’ And we’d drive up to the highest point on our land, and we would turn around and we would look over a 360-degree view of that Hill Country. … Darkness fell, and the lights would come on twinkling like stars across that incredible Texas sky, and he would turn to me and say, ‘Luci, it was such a privilege, such a joy, to have been part of making those lights come on. Don’t take them for granted, sweetheart. Look out and see what you can do to make the world a better place for your neighbors.’” — Luci Baines Johnson, quoted in the American-Statesman, 2006


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