Editor's note: This is another in a series of stories looking at the history of LCRA in the Hill Country. This story notes the 60th anniversary of the day LCRA demolished a dam in Marble Falls.
By John Williams
Lower Colorado River Authority
In its early years, LCRA became well known for building dams on the lower Colorado River. So it was extremely unusual when, 60 years ago this summer, LCRA blew one up.
The dam that was damned was in Marble Falls, a Hill Country community on the Colorado River. The Marble Falls Dam had been part of the city’s landscape since the early 20th century, when it was built to provide hydroelectric power to a nearby textile mill. It also supplied power to the construction camp that built Buchanan and Inks dams upstream in the 1930s.
LCRA acquired the dam in the mid-1930s along with the Buchanan and Inks projects and used the dam’s electrical output to supplement generation from its other dams as it launched its public power program in the late 1930s and ’40s.
|The old Marble Falls Dam provided water to a hydroelectric generating station (white trimmed building at right). (LCRA Corporate Archives, W00738) Click for larger image.
But as LCRA completed its chain of Highland Lakes dams in summer 1951, the Marble Falls Dam stood in the way of progress. Actually, it literally stood between the new Granite Shoals Dam upstream, and a new Marble Falls Dam downstream. While the lake between the new dams would swallow the old dam, LCRA engineers worried the structure would interfere with its operation of the new dams and decided that it had to go.
LCRA set the demolition for Monday, July 30, at 10 a.m.
City overwhelmed by onlookers
News of the upcoming blast excited area residents, who descended upon the town of about 2,000 people to view the demolition. Estimates of the crowd of onlookers ranged from 2,500 to 15,000, according to news stories.
The Marble Falls residents took things in stride.
“It was a holiday for the folks in Marble Falls and the surrounding Hill Country,” wrote the Austin American’s Dan Grover the next morning. “They practically shut down this town at 10 a.m. to walk out to the big canyon and watch one of the oldest landmarks disappear to make way for a new lake.” The paper noted that “almost every business in town was closed at blast time.”
|Water from the dam would flow over the granite outcropping downstream, creating the “marble falls” that gave the town its name. (LCRA Corporate Archives, W00739) Click for larger image.
The Marble Falls Rotary Club hosted LCRA General Manager Max Starcke and visiting dignitaries. The state highway patrol blocked traffic from the Highway 281 bridge, located downstream from the dam. Spectators lined the tops of buildings and hills for a view.
The Highway 281 bridge, which provided the best view (and perhaps the greatest exposure to flying debris) was reserved for reporters and photographers from newspapers around the state, a Forth Worth TV station (there were only six in Texas at the time), and Pathé News, a movie-theater newsreel.
Explosion required 1,000 pounds of dynamite
LCRA engineers worked with what the San Antonio Express described as “experts” from DuPont Chemical Corp. to plan the blast. They inserted more than 500 sticks of gelatin dynamite – 1,000 pounds in all – into holes drilled along the top of the 1,600-foot-long dam. The fuses were tied back to an electrical plunger that was activated by LCRA engineer John Olive.
According to LCRA’s employee magazine, spectators “saw the dam crumble, and a split second later heard the thunder-like blast.” Both reporters for the American and the Express wrote that “the noise of the ripping rock” sounded like “a series of thunderclaps” as “a column of smoke and water rose more than a hundred feet in the air, throwing rock fragments into the lake upstream. Immediately, about 5,000 acre-feet of water rushed downstream, creating a long waterfall which settled into a steady roar.”
The LCRA employee magazine’s account was more creative: “Water stored behind the old dam stood still for a moment, seemingly unaware that the old dam wasn’t holding it back any longer – then suddenly it began piling over the marble rocks and on down the river, as if eager to enjoy its new freedom.”
‘Mild’ explosion the only letdown as city celebrated
|An LCRA photographer captured the demolition of the old Marble Falls Dam at the point of detonation July 30, 1951. (LCRA Corporate Archives, W00094) Click for larger image.
The explosion was a letdown for some folks.
“The citizens of this area, long accustomed to dam building and blasting, were slightly disappointed in the mild explosion which some compared to as a big string of firecrackers,” the American reported, quoting one “old-timer” as saying, “It made a lot of noise, but I’ve heard some dynamite blasts that were louder.”
The old Marble Falls dam was not the only landmark that disappeared that day. The rushing waters of the new Lake Marble Falls covered up a marble outcropping that created falls as the water flowed over it, which served as the inspiration for the name of the town and the new lake.
But there was little regret at the dam’s passing, as citizens headed for one of the many barbecues and picnics celebrating the blast.
“Most citizens knew that the dam was in the way of the LCRA’s power producing chain,” wrote the American. “Further, they felt they had gained something else. ‘We lost the dam, but we’ve gained a lake,’ one man said.”
“We hope to make this one of the best recreational spots in Texas,” Marble Falls Mayor R.O. Smith told the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.
LCRA filled the new lake within 48 hours with releases from the Granite Shoals Dam upstream. Starcke warned area fishermen to stay out of the riverbed in the meantime. By the following Monday, the new Marble Falls Dam was ready to generate electricity.
|Detonation of 1,000 pounds of dynamite along the 1,600-foot-long dam collapsed the structure and set off a cloud of debris. (LCRA Corporate Archives, W00096) Click for larger image.
‘New’ dams still standing 60 years later, but with different names
Sixty years later, LCRA’s “new” dams and lakes still exist, though the names have changed for all but one of them. In December 1951 LCRA renamed the Granite Shoals Dam in memory of Alvin Wirtz, the “father of LCRA” who had died two months earlier. In April 1965 LCRA renamed the lake behind it to honor President Lyndon B. Johnson, whom Wirtz had mentored.
In September 1962 LCRA renamed the Marble Falls Dam for Starcke, one of LCRA’s longest-serving general managers. But the lake behind the dam is still called Lake Marble Falls.
The old Marble Falls Dam’s power plant building remains. And the marble falls have not completely disappeared – they’re exposed whenever LCRA draws down the lake, last done in early 2009.