Austin Answered: The evolving names of Austin’s big central lakes

Updated Nov 30, 2017
American-Statesman file photo

Reader Daulton Venglar challenges our Austin Answered project: “Settle it once and for all: Lady Bird Lake vs. Town Lake vs. Lake Austin.”

Venglar: “I guess I just wanted a definitive answer.”

To start, two distinct lakes come into question. Both are pass-through reservoirs on the Colorado River, part of a series of lakes that include, further upstream, Buchanan, Inks, LBJ, Marble Falls and Travis.

Lake Austin, the uppermost of the two lowest lakes, lies between Mansfield Dam and Tom Miller Dam. It winds through a spectacular canyon that makes for good boating, skiing and paddleboarding.

Previously, it was called Lake McDonald, impounded at first by a granite structure located near the same spot as Tom Miller Dam. It was supposed to provide limitless electricity and make Austin a manufacturing center during the 1890s. The irregular flow of the Colorado River prevented that goal and dams there failed multiple times,  most dramatically in 1900. Tom Miller Dam, named after an active Austin mayor, finally did the trick in 1940.

Meanwhile, the Colorado continued through ravaged floodplains into central Austin until 1960, when the Longhorn Dam was raised to provide water to cool the controversial Holly Street Power Plant, built into a pre-existing residential area populated primarily by Latinos.

Longhorn Dam impounded Town Lake, named provisionally by a reporter. The name stuck. My colleague Dave Thomas recently dived into our photo archives and shared views of the lake in various conditions.

The Austin City Council changed the name of Town Lake to Lady Bird Lake on July 26, 2007. The recently deceased Lady Bird Johnson had done much to inspire improvements along the waterway, including the popular hike and bike trail on its banks.

We ended up with two Austin lakes adorned over time with at least four names.

GET UP TO SPEED: Check out other Austin Answered stories arising from readers’ questions:

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