Tom Miller Dam & Austin Dam
The first Austin Dam after being destroyed in a flood in 1900.
Tom Miller Dam today, photo by Larry D. Moore.
Lake Austin and Tom Miller Dam in 1940, photo by Neal Douglass from the Portal to Texas History.
The completed Austin Dam in the late 1890s, photo from the LCRA.
The final granite block being lowered into the Austin Dam, 1892. Photo from LCRA.
Backstory and Context
Along the Colorado River in west Austin is the Tom Miller Dam. It creates Lake Austin and produces hydroelectric power for the City of Austin. Tom Miller Dam stands 100.5 feet tall, and 1,590 feet long.1 It was not the first dam to be constructed on the same location, it was in fact the third.
In 1890, construction began on the Austin Dam. It was to be built on the Colorado River and create an artificial lake. The hope of the people of Austin was that it would help Austin through it’s production of energy and the lake it would create. Austin knew that the artificial lake help make daily life in Austin far more pleasant. When construction was completed in 1893, all their hopes seemed to be realized. People were overjoyed to have such a great achievement of technology in their city. Austin dam represented the hope that people had in the growing city of Austin.2
This hope was soon dashed. It was a doomed project as soon as a site was picked. The site that the Austin dam was built on was far from ideal. The dam was built where the Balcones Fault Zone passes under the river, making the rocks very loose and the ground unstable. On April 7th 1900, a large storm rushed across the dam sending water 11 feet over the top. This storm proved too strong for the Austin dam and with a loud crack it broke. Eight people were killed when to the flood waters hit the power-plant. As soon as the storm passed, people from all around Austin rushed out to see what had become of the once great dam.2
Austin had been very proud of the Austin dam, and they did not want to give up on their great dam. Construction commenced on rebuilding the dam almost immediately. But in 1912, due to disputes with the contractor, the construction was halted. Another flood in 1915 destroyed what work had been done to rebuild Austin dam and put a temporary end to the project.3 The ruins of the two dams lay untouched along the Colorado River for many years.
Taking advantage of the federal government's willingness to fund public works during the New Deal, construction on a dam recommenced in 1938, when the Lower Colorado River Authority took over the project.4 The work was completed very quickly and the new dam was completed in 1940. It was renamed the Tom Miller Dam, after the mayor of Austin at the time. When the dam was completed, several other dams had already been built in the Austin area. Because of this the people of Austin were far less passionate about Tom Miller Dam. This new dam still stands today, incorporating parts of the destroyed Austin dam.
1D., SETH. “LAKE AUSTIN.” The Handbook of Texas Online| Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), Texas State Historical Association, 15 June 2010, tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/rol13.
2“The Failure of the Austin Dam.” Scientific American, vol. 105, no. 16, 1911, pp. 331–336. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/26009533.
3Szilagyi, P. (1990). DAM DEDICATED // Tom Miller Dam holds up under the pressure for 50 years. Austin American Statesman, pp. Austin American Statesman, 1990-04-07.
4Humphrey, David C. Austin: An Illustrated History. Washington, DC. American Historical Press, 2001.
Tom Miller Dam looks scarcely a day over 69. (2010). Austin American Statesman, pp. Austin American Statesman, 2010-04-06.
“BIG LAKE FOR AUSTIN.” New York Times (1857-1922), 1912, p. 20.
Stoneback, Diane W. “Austin Dam Disaster.” McClatchy - Tribune Business News, 2011, pp. McClatchy - Tribune Business News, 2011–09-11.
D., SETH. “LAKE AUSTIN.” The Handbook of Texas Online| Texas State Historical Association (TSHA), TSHA, 15 June 2010, tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/rol13.