Whitney Dam Construction

Whitney Dam construction

In the early 1900's, Texas experienced a number of devastating floods resulting in deaths and destruction due to rivers overflowing from heavy rainfalls.  Because of this, the United States government began funding the building of dams along Texas rivers in the 1930's. 

The original plan called for more than ten dams to be built on the Brazos and its tributaries, but only three were constructed. Ever since S. C. Dyer built the first dam on the Brazos in 1853, the section near Towash / Whitney had been considered the best location for a dam on the entire river. 

After a record-setting flood in 1936 left more than 2,000 people homeless in Waco, funding for Whitney Lake (commonly known as Lake Whitney) was authorized in 1941.  Its purpose was primarily flood control for downstream towns, but also water conservation and hydroelectric power generation. However, when the U.S. became involved in World War II, the funding was taken away because all resources were needed for the war effort.

Following the end of the war, construction on the dam began in May 1947.  Governor Beauford Jester arrived for the official ground-breaking ceremony.

The land that was to be flooded held a number of historic cemeteries containing over 2400 gravesites. Whitney Memorial Park was opened and six of these cemeteries were moved to it. They contained gravesites dating back to 1857, including men who had served in the Battle of San Jacinto and the Civil War.

Whitney Dam souvenir
Whitney Dam souvenir  

Tons of ice were used daily in the concrete mix during the summers, to keep it from setting too soon. The railroad transported most of the supplies needed for construction. The town of Whitney boomed - street lights were installed and eight blocks in the business district were paved.

Opening Day ceremonies for the newly rerouted State Highway 22 over the dam in March of 1951 drew a crowd of 25,000, including dignitaries, press, and local residents gathered to hear the speeches over loud speakers and to watch the boat races. The first official vehicle over Whitney Dam was driven by Everett Jones, who had been the first person to cross the Hill-Bosque County Bridge thirty-six years earlier.

When finally completed in December 1951, the spillway section of the dam was 159 feet above the old riverbed and 1,680 feet long. Over 500,000 cubic yards of concrete and almost 5,000,000 pounds of reinforcing steel had been used in the construction. Including the earthen embankment which is protected from wave action by a two foot thick layer of stone, the entire length of the dam is over three miles.

Whitney Dam Powerhouse Startup
  Project engineer's twin daughters pull switch to startup Whitney Dam powerhouse

Construction of the powerhouse began in April 1951 and was completed in June 1953. The powerhouse is about 12 stories high. On the lowest level 92 feet below the lake's normal level, two penstocks (tubes for conducting water), each 16 feet in diameter, carry the water stored in Whitney Lake to two hydraulic turbines which are connected to two generators.  At the time of completion, the two generators, rotating at 128.6 revolutions per minute, were capable of generating 30,000 kilowatt-hours – roughly equal to the domestic requirements of Waco at the time.

1957 Lake Whitney flood
Standing on a roof of a restroom in Solder's Bluff Park during the 1957 flood  

In 1957, the dam served the purpose for which it was built.  When the rains began in April of that year, the water level stood at 512 feet.  By the end of May, it had reached 570 feet. Flood waters closed FM 933 between Whitney and Blum, and the Kimball Bridge was underwater.  But the dam had protected Waco and its residents from severe flood damage, just as designed.

True Texas Tales of the People, Places, and Events of Hill County, Texas