Austin History: Mansfield Dam

Nestled in the heart of Texas, Lake Travis is a beloved gem, offering a tranquil escape from the hustle and bustle of city life. As the largest water reservoir of the Highland Lakes, it is a hub of recreational activities and home to thousands of Texans. But behind this serene landscape lies a tale of human ingenuity and resilience – the story of the Mansfield Dam.

The Genesis of a Dream

At the turn of the 20th century, Austin was on the brink of technological progress. The city was exploring ways to harness the power of its flooding rainwaters for hydroelectric power. It was during this time that the idea of Lake Travis was conceived – a dream of big men like Senator Lyndon B. Johnson, who was at the forefront of the fight for hydroelectric power and the building of the seven dams that would eventually create the Highland Lakes of Central Texas.

The need for such a dam was evident. Between 1900 and 1913, Austin experienced over 17 major floods, causing significant loss of life and millions of dollars in damage to fertile farmlands. The situation called for a solution to contain these devastating “walls” of water.

The Birth of Mansfield Dam

The story of Lake Travis began in earnest in 1935, following one of the greatest floods ever to hit Austin. In December 1936, the United States Department of the Interior authorized the creation of the Lower Colorado River Authority, granting it the power to tame the floods of the area. The decision was made to construct a “low dam” at the Marshall Ford site. However, after another catastrophic flood in July 1938, the plan was revised to build a higher dam, standing at 265 feet.

The dam, initially known as the Marshall Ford Dam, was completed in 1942. It was later renamed Mansfield Dam, in honor of J.J. Mansfield, the United States Representative who worked tirelessly to get the dam built. Another key figure in securing federal funding for the dam was Senator Lyndon Baines Johnson, who would later enact the Rural Electrification Act, a catalyst for creating the Highland Lakes.

The Geography of Lake Travis

Lake Travis, the largest reservoir of all seven Highland Lakes, stretches 63.5 miles long on the Colorado River. Its serpentine shape starts in western Travis County and extends into southern Burnet County. The Mansfield Dam is built across a deep canyon at Marshall Ford, a long-time river crossing before the dam’s construction.

Lake Travis: Then and Now

In the early 1900s, the Lake Travis area was largely undeveloped, consisting mostly of farms. The urbanization seen across many parts of the nation had yet to reach Central Texas. However, as the promise of hydroelectric power materialized, the time to build the dams that would control the raging floodwaters and power the city had arrived.

Today, Lake Travis is a bustling hub of development, business, and community. As Austin grows, so do the towns surrounding it, such as Lakeway, Bee Cave, and Spicewood. The lake is a popular spot for recreational activities like sailing, wakeboarding, scuba diving, and fishing. Many businesses, resorts, marinas, wedding venues, and tourist spots call Lake Travis home.

The Future of Lake Travis

The future of Lake Travis is promising, with new businesses springing up and many families relocating to the area. However, the challenges of drought and water management are significant. Non-profit organizations like the Central Texas Water Coalition are working to address these issues and advocate for the preservation and conservation of the Highland Lakes’ water supply and water levels.

Mansfield Dam: A Monument of Resilience

Standing 26 stories tall and spanning 7,098 feet long, Mansfield Dam is a testament to human resilience and ingenuity. It can store up to 256 billion gallons of floodwater, a crucial feature given the history of flooding in the area. The dam, which cost $28.7 million to build, is operated by the Corp of Engineers.

The story of Mansfield Dam and Lake Travis is a reminder of our ability to shape our environment to meet our needs. It stands as a symbol of progress, a testament to the power of human ingenuity, and a beacon of hope for a sustainable future.

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