day trips

Buchanan Dam is one of the marvels of human ingenuity not only for its engineering beauty, but also for the visionaries who saw the potential advantages it could bring to Central Texas. Sixty years old this year, the dam created Lake Buchanan, the largest and northernmost of the chain of six lakes called the Highland Lakes. At more than two miles long, Buchanan Dam is considered to be the longest multiple-arch dam in the U.S. One of the most amazing views in the Hill Country is from the walkway along the top of the dam 145.5 feet above the churning Colorado River on one side and the lake on the other.

The local Chamber of Commerce operates a visitors center and gift shop at the dam on TX29 between Burnet and Llano. The Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA) has a museum documenting the history of the area and the building of the six dams between Buchanan and Austin. There is even a post office at the dam that marks mail with their own postmark.

Designated areas at the dam include a beach and a fishing pier. There also is an observation deck to give visitors a better view of the lake and the surrounding area.

For much of the 20th century, Texans have been trying to control and take advantage of the Colorado River. During extreme drought conditions, the river would run at a trickle that could easily be stepped over. During the rainy seasons the river would flood to monstrous proportions that would devastate the farms and settlements along its banks.

As early as 1854, pioneers had seen the potential for harnessing the flow of the Colorado River north of Burnet. Plans for the dam got underway as early as 1926, but construction did not begin until 1931. It was the height of the Depression and the 1,500 construction jobs were a welcome relief to unemployed Texans. Unfortunately, the project lasted less than a year before the company managing the construction went bankrupt.

The partially built dam and related assets were then obtained by Alvin Wirtz, a former state senator and lobbyist. With the help of Congressman J.P. Buchanan of Brenham, Wirtz convinced President Roosevelt and the Public Works Administration to loan the Texans $4.5 million to build four dams along the Colorado River for water storage, irrigation, flood control, and hydroelectric power.

The federal money came with the requirement that construction and ownership of the dams be placed in the hands of a public agency. It took Wirtz et al., three legislative sessions to get approval to create the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA). Some of the strongest opposition came from Dallas legislators representing private utility companies. Dallas got the 1936 Centennial celebration Fair Park, and Central Texas received the Highland Lakes in the deal.

At a time when wages were between 40cents-$1, the multiple-arch construction was labor-intensive, but used fewer building materials than other designs. The 37 arches of the dam were completed in 1937 and the powerhouse was generating electricity by 1938.

Lake Buchanan is the largest of the Highland Lakes, covering 23,060 acres and measuring more than 30 miles in length. The rugged north shore is home to bald eagles who winter at the lake from November to March. There are numerous lodges and resorts along the shore; for a list of accommodations, contact the Chamber of Commerce at 512/793-2803.

The river channel creates the boundary between Llano and Burnet counties. On the Llano County side, Black Rock Park on FM261 is a popular camping and swimming park with restrooms and a boat ramp. Further north on FM261, Cedar Point Park is the largest public park on the lake. It covers three miles of shoreline but offers no facilities. Fall Creek Vineyards is a little further north of the park on FM2241 (512/476-4477).

On the Burnet County side of the lake, FM2341 takes you to Vanishing Texas River Cruises (512/756-6986). Burnet County Park past White Bluff is a small park with campsites and a boat ramp. Closer to the dam and off FM690, Burnet Park has a boat ramp. Canyon of the Eagles Park will open in 1998 on the northern end of the lake.

The LCRA publishes several guides to the Highland Lakes and the Colorado River including the Lake Buchanan Recreation Map, Highland Lakes Camping and Boating Guide, and Explorer's Guide. For more information or to order a publication, call the LCRA, at 473-4036 (800/776-5272 outside of Austin) or visit http://www.lcra.org. Buchanan and Wirtz dams are currently closed to tours, but to schedule a tour of Mansfield Dam, call 473-3270.

Coming up this weekend...

Kerrville Folk Festival brings 18 days of music to the Quiet Valley Ranch south of town on TX16, May 22-June 8. 210/257-3600.

Memorialfest `97 brings a free jazz concert to Marble Falls' Johnson Park beginning at 8pm, May 23. 210/693-8459.

Trinkets & Treasures sale at the San Antonio Museum of Art, 315 W. Jones, offers a collection of bargain-basement items on sale to benefit the museum, 10am-4pm, May 24. 210/829-7262.

Coming up...

Texas Fiddlers' Contest and Reunion in Athens has been happening since the 1930s, May 30. 903/675-1859.

National Polka Festival offers lots of dancing, arts & crafts, and Czech food in Ennis, May 30- June 1. 888/366-4748.

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