Photos of Austin’s Great Flood of 1935

Austin is certainly not short on hot days, but it is also a center for occasional earth-altering flash floods. According to FloodSafety, a non-profit interactive media and activism group on floods, Austin is considered “one of the most flood-prone regions in North America.”

For lack of sufficient historical weather data, we can’t definitively say that 1935 was the wettest year; however, the spring of 1935 was a wet one for Central Texas, featuring frequent showers that drenched the center of the state. Neighboring cities of Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio didn’t fare much better. And one relatively normal day in June of that year made it one for the history books when by the end, much of South Austin was underwater.

By 1935, routine high waters were something of which the people of Austin had become accustomed. They had already replaced a dam swept away by floodwaters in 1900, and 35 people died in a flash flood near Austin in 1915.

Granite Dam
A photograph of the final piece being laid into the original “Granite Dam,” which was gone by 1900. A replacement dam, referred to as the “Austin Dam,” existed during the flood of 1935. (Source: LCRA Corporate Archives, ID: W00198)
Flooding in Austin
Power Station Crew for the replacement dam which was breached in 1935.         (Source: LCRA Corporate Archives, ID: W00043)

In 1935, the United States was knee-deep in the Great Depression, and Austin was every bit a victim as other American cities. But, in its own undying entrepreneurial way, Texas’ Capitol City had already begun to pull itself up by the bootstraps. The Capitol building was far and away from the most robust structure in the entire city and dominated virtually the whole cityscape. From nearly all vantage points within view of downtown, the Capitol lurks in the background. Because of its huge presence, we are able to gain some perspective of exactly how much of Austin a) did not yet exist in 1935, but more importantly, b) was destroyed as a result of the rising waters.

Congress Flood Austin
The slight incline north on Congress created an uphill climb for invading flood waters, but by midday of June 15, 1935, the water had trickled to the Capitol’s doorsteps.
congress ave 1935 flood
Waters having already receded north, the Congress bridge was at one point completely submerged
Large chunks of road flooding
Large chunks of road had simply washed away with the fading flood

But in weird-Austin fashion, the flood of ’35 became sort of a twisted spectator sport. Not only did people rush to the chaos on Congress to snap personal photography, but reports had also come in that all sorts of random crap was just stone cold falling off the Austin Dam, and that the Dam was not in great shape itself. The Dam thus commanded a crowd of spectators, eager for the excitement. They would not be disappointed.

Austin Dam flooding
Austin onlookers practicing their onlooking as the Austin Dam boringly does its job

By the end of the evening, more than 22 inches of rain had poured down on Austin, nonstop, in less than four hours’ time. About 3,000 Austinites (roughly 16% of Austin’s 1935 population) were displaced from their homes as a result of the flood. Although many lost their homes, the reported death count was only 13 — relatively low for such a terrible tragedy.

austin dam flooding

Less than three years later, construction began on the Tom Miller Dam and Mansfield Dam, both of which still exist today.

 

Featured image credit: [Colorado River Flood], photograph, June 15, 1935; (https://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth124019/m1/1/), University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, https://texashistory.unt.edu; crediting Austin History Center, Austin Public Library

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