According to reliable if shady sources, Austin’s Depression-era dams are haunted as hell.
AUSTIN — There is a grand history to Austin’s lakes which traces back to the late 1930’s, when a nation and state struggling to pull itself out of the Great Depression enacted public infrastructure construction programs to build dams and extend electricity to rural areas. In 1936, the U.S. Department of the Interior authorized the establishment of the Lower Colorado River Authority.
On that shiny necklace called the Colorado River, several dams were built by the LCRA, which in addition to providing flood control from those periodic and devastating Hill Country flash floods, also provided hydroelectric power to a burgeoning Austin. And the crown jewel on that necklace is Mansfield Dam, named for then Austin Congressman J. J. Mansfield.
Construction on the dam started in 1937 (with a little help from Lyndon Johnson and Brown and Root, but that is a different story) and was completed in 1941 at the site of the old Marshall Ford crossing of the Colorado River. Some folks still call it the Marshall Ford Dam.
Prominently standing over 270 feet high and about a mile and a half long, it is an imposing and impressive modern wonder of the world. Some readers probably remember when you had to tuck in your side-view mirrors driving over it, to avoid hitting the mirrors of oncoming traffic.
The dam’s interior design hosts Gothic arches in an Art Deco splendor.
The dam’s interior design hosts Gothic arches in an Art Deco splendor, a narrow gauge railway, and miles of internal tunnels that descend deep into the bowels of this concrete structure. The lighting is dim, a dimness compounded by a dense humidity which constantly affects the rows of fluorescents. Weep holes throughout the structure provide sounds of dripping water, and the slightest noises echo creepily. Strange shadows seem to appear out of the corner of one’s eye only to disappear when one turns one’s head to look. It is downright spooky.
In fact, many of the LCRA employees that work at Mansfield will testify that it is downright haunted. Construction of the dam had its cost: One amateur LCRA historian mentioned to me that there were over 21 deaths during the construction of Mansfield Dam, but I’ve only documented 13. That of the hapless Asa Leonard Grumbles of the Teck Community is probably the best known.
One of the many hungry and unemployed masses seeking work during the Depression, Grumbles was a carpenter working on the installation of the concrete forms on the dam. One of the LCRA hands told me that Asa Grumbles had once played bass guitar with Ernest Tubbs before Ernest Tubbs became famous. But late on December 26, 1939, the day after Christmas on the night shift, 32-year-old Asa Grumbles was killed when a cable snapped and a load of wet cement opened above his head and submerged him in a concrete pour.
Rumors persist to this day that they did not get all of Asa Grumbles out of the dam.
They got Asa out of the concrete — witnesses do tell of seeing him lying in state and he is buried in the Fitzhugh cemetery — but rumors persist to this day that they did not get all of Asa Grumbles out of the dam. There are stories about a hand and a ring on that hand that did not make it out of the concrete. Grumbles left a young wife and two children.
The mechanics, operators, and electricians at Mansfield will tell strange and creepy stories of a knocking on doors in the power-house when no one was there and of noises in the tunnels they cannot explain. Maybe Asa is trying to find his arm.
I will again personally testify that the place is just plain spooky. I cannot claim to have seen a ghost at Mansfield Dam, but I will definitely say that one will get the heebie-jeebies when walking around in the deep and dark tunnels, especially when walking alone.
My experiences with ghosts were more pronounced at the Tom Miller Dam, off of Lake Austin Boulevard. Named after the Austin mayor at the time, it was constructed from 1938 to 1940 and acts to maintain constant water levels for Lady Bird Lake. It is the last in a long line of dams built at that location. Previous dams simply could not withstand the rushing volumes of flash-flood water from a cascading Colorado. If one views the dam upstream from Red Bud Trail, one will still see the massive granite boulders which were washed away from one of the Tom Miller Dam’s ancestors in 1900.
The twin Johnson brothers, Walter and Alfred, were still locked in each other’s arms.
The April 1900 flood that snapped the old 1892 dam and killed 20 Austin citizens caused millions of dollars in property damage. Eight of those killed were mechanics and electricians of the powerhouse who had maintained their posts during the flood. They were found after the flood waters receded, floating in the soggy remains of the powerhouse; the twin Johnson brothers, Walter and Alfred, were still locked in each other’s arms.
The current LCRA carpenter’s shop at the Tom Miller Dam is built atop the old 1900 powerhouse. The LCRA workers will tell you that whenever someone enters the old powerhouse pit under the carpenter shop, something will go wrong inside the dam. In one instance, the wicket gates, those gates which control the flow of water unto the turbines, had flipped 180 degrees. The mechanical engineer allegedly said that this simply was not possible.
The workers tell of seeing people in the dam, shouting at them for their alleged trespass.
The workers at Tom Miller will tell of seeing people in the dam, shouting at them for their alleged trespass, and then discovering that there was no one there. Doors opening by themselves, swivel chairs turning by themselves, lights being on when they had just previously been turned off, and the like. Tom Miller’s new powerhouse is not as spooky as the inner workings of Mansfield Dam; it is bright and airy. But the heebie-jeebies are still there.
I’ll continue to let my own experience serve as my testimony. While I was huddled in the confined midst of a construction task on one of the generator units, a voice behind me asked to borrow my 9/16th wrench. Not able to free myself from my current project to get the wrench for him myself, I replied, “Yeah, sure, it’s in my toolbox,” and resumed my duties. Later when I needed the wrench myself, I attempted to find the borrower. No one in that plant had borrowed it! I suppose that someone could have stolen it or lost it, but this was not that type of crew. And my wrench never did reappear, perhaps lost in some spook’s ectoplasmic gang box.
But that was not the weirdest thing. Before leaving work one evening, I locked my toolbox with my padlock as I always did. The next morning my padlock was unlocked. OK, so maybe it did not latch. I locked it again that evening, giving it a little extra tug to make sure that the padlock had engaged. It was. The next morning my lock was again unlocked. Bear in mind that I had the only key to my personal lock. This was totally bizarre. And this same scenario repeated itself for a good week until I finally said out loud, “Ok, I don’t mess with your tools so leave mine alone.” The mysterious unlocking ended after that.
The impression I received from my ghost was that of a friendly prankster.
I cannot explain this in any rational or scientific manner. I had the only key, there were no other employees who were able to perform this task unless there were unknown master locksmiths in the bunch. And, no, I had not had anything to smoke either! In retrospect, the impression I received from my ghost was that of a friendly prankster.
Lower Colorado River Authority corporate headquarters are also located on Lake Austin Blvd, within walking distance of the Tom Miller Dam. It’s a fairly new building housing the main administrative offices of LCRA. And in this building I heard one of the spookiest ghost stories I have ever heard. The hair still rises on the back of my neck when I think about it.
The tale was told to me second-hand by the person who had heard it from the person who was the security guard in the remarks below:
One evening after work hours when the cleaning crew was tidying up the building for the night, a very upset cleaning lady sought out the security guard in question to report that her young daughter, who was obviously too young to stay at home without a sitter, was missing.
The woman was distraught and the security guard performed his tasks to find the little girl. The building was searched and she was not found. Things were approaching the point of calling in Austin’s Finest.
Suddenly the elevator door dinged and the little daughter of the cleaning woman came running out unto her mother’s arms.
“Mama, Mama, I was lost but the nice lady took me to see you.” OK, OK, I’m improvising on the dialog here, but you get the idea.
The Nice Lady in the elevator
The Nice Lady in the elevator had disappeared.
The Security Guard was perplexed as to who this mysterious nice lady might be. All the cleaning staff were accounted for, there was no one else logged in the building, and no other LCRA employees were deemed to be there.
Using one of those panoramic photographs of all LCRA employees that the Authority takes regularly, he asked the little girl if she could identify the mysterious woman, to see if somehow there was yet a dedicated LCRA employee in the building.
After some looking, the little girl remarked, “It was her!” pointing to the thumbnail photograph of Colleen Reed.
(Colleen Reed, some of you might remember, was the young LCRA employee who was abducted from a West Austin car wash and then murdered by Texas serial killer Kenneth McDuff in 1991. Her body has never been found).
I’m told that on some late nights when no one else is in the building, one can hear the clackety-clack of a computer keyboard coming from where Colleen Reed’s cube used to be.
[Steve Rossignol is a retired member of IBEW Local 520 in Austin. He serves as archivist for the Socialist Party USA.]