Brazos River Dam: Shaping Waco's Riverfront

Created on July 02, 2024 at 12:00 PM

Aerial view of the Brazos River and Waco in 1964
Baylor University Texas Collection. 1964.

The Brazos River is the longest river in Texas spanning from New Mexico to the Gulf of Mexico. The river received its name from early Spanish explorers that called it the “Rio de los Brazos de Dios” translated as “The River of the Arms of God.” The Brazos River has a watershed that stretches 1,050 miles and comprises 45,510 square miles. Today, we recognize the river as a source of beauty and recreation. However, this wasn’t always the case. It wasn’t until a small municipal dam created the riverfront we now know today.

An Early Vision of a Low-Water Dam

As early as 1904, engineers like John Maxcy dreamt of a low-water dam to beautify the river and augment the city’s water supply. He estimated that the dam would create a lake stretching about seven miles upstream. Though his initial proposal didn’t come to fruition, the idea persisted through the 1940s when the Waco Advancement Committee championed the dam project.

Creating Lake Brazos

Brazos River Low-Water Dam in the late 1900s.

Waco Library Bill Foster Collection. Late-1900s.

Progress was slow, but interest in a dam on the Brazos continued. In July 1961, the Brazos River Authority agreed to allow its engineering staff to assist City of Waco officials with plans for a proposed dam near the La Salle Avenue bridge. Two years later, the Army Corps of Engineers held a public hearing to explore possibilities for recreation, a water supply, and even river navigation between Waco and the Gulf. While river navigation didn’t quite pan out, the dam did become a reality.

In February 1967, Waco voters approved a $1.5 million bond issue for the construction of a low-water dam below La Salle Avenue to create a bank-level lake through the heart of Waco for recreation and beautification.

The following years saw back-and-forth in the design phase. Dallas-based engineering firm, Forrest & Cotton (later called URS Co.), presented a proposed design for the low-water dam in May 1968. The initial proposal exceeded the budget, so the firm made changes to lower costs, removing one of the three flood gates and using less concrete. The firm also recommended a low-water dam with Bascule gates as opposed to drum gates because drum gates are expensive to maintain and are more prone to mechanical failure. However, a drum gate style dam is designed to sink under the weight of vast amounts of water providing an automatic safety feature in case of heavy rains in Waco.

Despite warnings about maintenance costs and potential failures, Waco City Council opted for the drum gates, accepting the construction bid from H. B. Zachry Co. in January 1969. The groundbreaking was held a month later on February 11.

After more than a year and a half of construction, the dam's automated controls passed their first test, and the official ribbon-cutting ceremony was held in 1970. However, due to other construction projects around the river, the permanent impoundment of the river wasn’t completed until 1973. The permanent impoundment raised the level of the river through the city to form a town lake. This impoundment is locally called Lake Brazos, and over the years has provided opportunities forw a variety of recreational activities and development.

Ongoing Challenges & Lasting Impact

Aerial view of the Brazos Low Water Dam in the 1980s

Waco Library Bill Foster Collection. 1980s.

Unfortunately, the dam was not without problems. After more than 20 years of repairs, modifications, and both scheduled and unscheduled drops in the water level, Waco City Council began to discuss the possible construction of a new dam with a new design. The initial planning phase was started in April 2001, and after approval and construction, the new weir design dam was dedicated in November 2007.

In spite of many challenges throughout its history, the importance and contribution of the Brazos River Dam to our city and its beauty cannot be overstated. It transformed Waco’s riverfront into a landmark. Today, Waco’s riverfront continues on the rise, but it wouldn't have been possible without the dam.


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