Some of the most rewarding summer activities available to residents and tourists alike in the Llano Uplift Region of Central Texas depend heavily on the recreational outlets made available through the Highland Lakes formed from the Colorado River. The first and largest lake in this chain is Lake Buchanan, which begins in the upper northeastern corner of Llano County and the northwestern corner of Burnet County, and today serves as a large portion of the boundary for both counties. Buchanan Dam was the first dam built across the mighty Colorado River, beginning in 1931 during the Great Depression. Entrance to the dam itself is entirely in Llano County, and although the dam connects to the Burnet side, there is no legitimate public accessibility to the structure from the Burnet shoreline. From the time of the dam’s completion in 1937 as part of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal Plan, the dam’s governing agency, the Lower Colorado River Authority, welcomed visitors to the facility. A grand entrance to the dam, aptly named the Adam R. Rankin Parkway after the man who first envisioned building a dam across the Colorado, was built off Highway 29. It included two divided lanes enhanced by attractively kept yucca plants and shrubs lining the road that led to and from a public walkway that went across the top of the dam. To further encourage visitation, a large building, referred to as the Observation Building, was constructed near the entrance to the walkway that included a nice restaurant with stairs leading to a large flat roof top surrounded by metal railing. The public could look out over the beautiful lake either with the naked eye or by telescope. Those of us growing up in Llano County considered a trip to the Observation Building as a special treat any time of the year, but it was especially enjoyable in the hot summer months of the 1950’s when the temperatures soared way above the one-hundred degree mark.
It was also possible for the public to take the winding road that circled east of the dam all the way to the backside of the dam at the L.C.R.A. power plant. Although visitors were not allowed inside the plant, the public could fish behind the dam in that part of the lake known as the “tail race,” where the flow of water from the lake going downstream was completely controlled by the power plant. At varying times each day, generators were switched on, causing the water to flow and electricity to be generated. The “tail race” was a favorite fishing spot for many who wanted to wet a hook, but fishermen who preferred to fish by boat had to be very cautious. Swimming was not encouraged, and boats in the water when the generators were turning took a great risk of being caught up in the turbulent eddy formed by the swirling waters and drowning. As long as caution prevailed, however, the water behind the dam was a great place to fish. My family also chose this site to take large dip nets and scoop up scores of small fish, called shad, which were used as fishing bait. This could only be done when the generators were churning the water.
Unfortunately, in the present global situation, access to anything near the dam at Lake Buchanan is now off limits to the public. In fact, except for turn-around room at the top of the hill at the entrance to the dam off Highway 29, the area is completely barricaded off with high iron fences and locked gates. This means the Observation Building is no longer accessible, and people can no longer walk on top of the dam, much less go behind it. Growing up around here, it was common to walk on the top of the dam at least far enough to see fish swimming in the lake below and perhaps sprinkle a few bread crumbs on the water’s surface. It was never possible to walk the entire two-plus miles of the dam due to how the dam was constructed. Local Cub Scout troops used the steep hills leading down to the power plant at the lower base of the dam for their annual derby racing contests, using soap-boxes the boys had designed and constructed with the help of their fathers. The dam walkway was accessible day or night, as it was well illuminated, making it a good place for a romantic stroll.
The potential disaster a terrorist attack could have on the thousands of Texans who live between Lake Buchanan and the Gulf of Mexico should such a massive structure like Buchanan Dam be targeted is frightening. It’s a shame America has had to resort to such heightened security measures to curtail the likelihood of a terrorist strike, because the dam site was a fun place for the entire family to visit. Children loved going out on the dam to see the fish, or climbing the outside stairs to the top of the Observation Building to use the telescopes that looked over the water. Adults enjoyed the food served in the Observation Café, as well as the beautiful view of the lake along the building’s west side. The painted wall murals inside the café telling the story of the dams in the Highland Lakes chain were not only of historical interest, they also added to the atmosphere and décor of the entire restaurant.
The café had a long counter on the east side of the restaurant with chair stools for customers to sit and drink coffee or tea, perhaps order off the menu, especially if they were alone. Customers arriving with other companions usually chose to sit elsewhere. Typical square dining tables were scattered throughout the center of the room. Large vinyl-covered booths, many which were curved in shape, lined much of the room on the west wall. The booths were located next to large sections of plated glass that went all the way to the top of a very high ceiling. Anyone sitting in this area had a picturesque view of Lake Buchanan throughout the meal. The view was especially beautiful in the early evening when the sun started to set along the lake’s western horizon. Even after dark, the many lights and street lamps that dotted the dam and the surrounding area twinkled in the night sky and sparkled on the lake surface. The building also offered a side room near the restaurant’s entrance that was large enough to handle small parties or groups. I once attended a rehearsal dinner there, but the room could be reserved for any special occasion or meeting. Incidentally, did I mention that the food served at the Observation Café was also very good? I don’t recall specifically what I ordered when I ate there, but considering my age at the time and my background, there’s a good chance whatever I had was “chicken fried.” In the 1950’s in Central Texas was there much that could have been any better?
Another interesting feature of the Observation Building was the walking area along the west side of the building. The portico was supported by large columns, but the sides were open air from ground level to roof overlooking the lake. Usually, there was a nice cool breeze that brought with it the proof that something wet and wonderful was nearby should anyone desire to take advantage of the moment. From time to time, wooden barges or floating docks near the building’s entrance allowed visitors to purchase a snack or rent boats or water equipment.
Across the parking lot on the east side of the Observation Building was the L.C.R.A. Administration Building, which was made of rock and granite and sat at the top of the hill closest to the dam’s walkway. The L.C.R.A. annual Christmas party was held here for many years. Although intended to host L.C.R.A. meetings and lengthier conferences, the building could be used by other groups under special circumstances. In the spring of 1958, the Llano High School Junior Class hosted the Junior-Senior Banquet in the facility. More recent policy allows use only by non-profit groups willing to follow set regulations, if there are no planned L.C.R.A. activities.
The Administration Building has two large main rooms, plus a fully equipped kitchen and a separate wing for overnight accommodations that includes three bedrooms with nine beds and three full baths. For many years, ladies at the Llano Church of Christ have reserved the building for an overnight retreat. Women from Burnet also use it for a Saturday only Ladies’ Day event once a year. Reservations to use the building must be made well in advance, but even stricter security measures are making it more difficult to use the building at all. For years ladies staying overnight during the retreat have taken short group walks around the premises. Areas once open for public walking are now off limits. This year, several women were stopped by security when their presence alerted some of the newest surveillance monitoring equipment.
East and northeast of the main building are four or more two-story white structures with red roof tops. These “homes away from home” were built when Buchanan Dam was constructed in the mid 1930’s. Almost all able-bodied men living in the area at that time worked in some capacity building the dam. My grandfather and his brother had learned carpentry skills from their father, so their contribution to Buchanan Dam was to build these houses that are still in use today. As far as I know, the homes were never intended for any other purpose than to serve the needs of the families of L.C.R.A. employees, usually as a weekend get-away or vacation time.
When the fiftieth anniversary celebrating the completion of Buchanan Dam was held in 1987, the restaurant in the Observation Building had long been gone. The building was still accessible, although the walls had been altered to include photos taken during dam construction. The platform for the speakers that day were set up near the near the entrance to the walkway on the dam. Hundreds of people attended this event, including many men who had helped build the dam. My father was one of those men, since he had worked as a large equipment operator on the project. What I enjoyed the most that day was his getting to visit with so many men he had known from that time period. I mostly listened, and learned, as they recalled specific details regarding their work and shared personal experiences common to each other. Not too many years after the fiftieth anniversary, a nice new building was erected in the middle of the old parking lot. It served as a visitor center and museum, providing large photographic displays telling the story of Buchanan Dam. Today, however, enhanced security has forced this building to also be off limits to the public, and the entire area is closed off by tall iron fencing and a locked gate. Hopefully, plans are for the photographs to be displayed elsewhere.
SOURCES:Personal memories of the author; various personal interviews; wikipidia.org; HANDBOOK of TEXAS ONLINE; bing.com/images (Buchanan Dam).