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Texas | Columns | "Letters from Central Texas"

Harvey's Ancestor

by Clay Coppedge
Harvey wasn't the first hurricane to stall over Texas as a tropical storm and dump several feet of rain in a short amount of time. In September of 1921 a hurricane much weaker than Harvey made landfall at Tampico, Mexico, roared through South Texas and stalled in Central Texas. The Williamson County town of Thrall received more than a year's worth of rainfall - 38.21 inches - in 24 hours, a U.S. record that stood for more than 70 years.

More than 200 people in Texas drowned in that 1921 flood, including 92 in Williamson County. Thousands of head of livestock were washed away, along with houses, churches, stores, barns and bridges. The bridges that weren't washed away created impromptu debris dams that accelerated the flooding past what anyone had imagined possible.

Nor was that the first time such a thing had happened. It happened on the San Gabriel River in 1869, 1900 and 1913. But the property damage left behind by the 1921 storm was astounding. The San Gabriel has two main forks, north and south, and people in Williamson County quickly saw damming both of those forks as the only remedy for the San Gabriel's habit of going on a rampage every few decades.
"It was an expression of collective will, cutting across all segments of the population," Linda Scarbrough wrote in her 2005 book "Road, River and Ol' Boy Politics." But no one in eastern Williamson County around Granger imagined the government or anybody else would build a dam in the heart of the Blacklands, the fabled Black Waxy, one of the most productive agricultural regions of the state.
The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, however, was concerned only with flood control and held little sentiment toward the Black Waxy or agriculture in general. The agency decided that a dam at Laneport, about four miles from the Milam County line, was the best solution.

"It was as if a government agency devoted to protecting the nation's oil deposits decided to destroy its most productive oil fields, on the theory that other oil fields might be developed through that destruction," Scarbrough wrote.

The first indication of the Army's plans came in 1948, when the Corps of Engineers held a meeting in Taylor to announce the proposed locations of the long-anticipated dams. At first, many people at the meeting thought the government's plan to put a 20,000 acre lake smack dab in the middle of the county's richest farm land was too weird to be true. For the better part of three decades these people had put their collective will into building two dams on the forks of the San Gabriel to save them from future floods, but now the government had decided to flood their piece of the county permanently. Disbelief turned to outrage, which turned into a political stalemate.

The cussing and discussing continued for the better part of the next decade, escalating into sort of a Williamson County civil war that pitted neighbor against neighbor and brother against brother. Then the whole idea made its way to the back burner where it simmered unattended until the San Gabriel flooded again in 1957 and reignited the discussions.

By this time, Waco Congressman W.R. "Bob" Poage and others supported a "small dams" concept that would dam the streams and branches rather than the river. Poage had noted in a 1952 press release that nearly every gallon of floodwater in the rivers' main stems came from "a fairly tiny branch that any fairly active coon dog could jump across." Keeping the water where it falls, he said, is flood prevention. In 1958, voters approved by a 4-1 margin a $140,000 bond to pay the local share of a $5 million federal "little dams" project.

Just when it looked like the farmers in Williamson County had what they wanted, the Corps took a renewed interest in the dams and in 1960 announced three sites -one on each fork of the San Gabriel and the one at Laneport, only this time the Laneport dam would be about 15 percent bigger than the one they'd originally proposed.

U.S. Congressman J.J. Jake Pickle inherited the issue when he took office in 1964. Interstate Highway 35 would soon cut through Williamson County, and Pickle knew the county would need more water than what it could provide without the dams. Scarbrough said that Pickle basically willed the dams into existence. In 1970, the U.S. House approved $4 million for construction of two dams on the San Gabriel River.
Texas Granger Lake, view from FM971 bridge
Inlet to Granger Lake - View from the FM 971 Bridge
TE Photo , 9-04
See Friendship, Texas & the Flood of 1921

Williamson County has thrived and prospered ever since, but Granger has mostly missed out on the opportunities that IH-35 and the dams helped create. Instead, more than 150 families lost their land to what would become Granger Lake, many of them taking what they considered a pittance for land that had been in their families for generations.

Loretta Mikulencak, quoted in Scarbrough's book, expressed the eventual outcome of the 1921 flood for the people who lost their land, first to the river and then to government.

"The chief damage to Granger was getting those (Czech) families out of there," she said. "They were stable farm families who had inherited their land and they weren't going to leave. They never recovered…They just died, one by one. And the worst of it was it made us bitter - it made us what we weren't. It made us different people."

Here's hoping Harvey doesn't leave the same legacy.

© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas" September 20, 2017 column

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