One Hundred Years of the Cisco Dam

Author: Melinda Luna PE

June 2023

Title: High diving at Lake Cisco, Texas, July 4th 1929
Creator: Clemons, Basil, 1887-1964 (Photographer)
Description: The picture shows people is doing high diving at Lake Cisco, Texas, on July 4th, 1929.
Date Created: 1929-07-04
The University of Texas Arlington Libraries

The Corsicana Daily Sun, in its publication of April 13, 1921, published an article titled “Cisco will have a Great Lake Soon.” The report stated that the excavation work was over half done on the million-dollar dam. It described the dam’s construction as being poured from two great towers. The height of the dam was 152 feet and it took more than 4,000 carloads of material, including 2 million pounds of reinforcing steel and 65,000 barrels of cement to finish. The dam would provide a reservoir with an average depth of 30 feet up to 85 feet at its deepest point. The dam is 1,060 feet long and has a spillway that measures 270 feet. The dam is an Ambursen-type slab buttress dam, a thin slab dam that minimizes the need for material. The Missouri-Kansas-Texas system built a railroad line to supply the construction site with equipment and items. The dam designers noted that the data collected was incomplete and unreliable. They thought that the dam was located so far inland that the dam would be able to withstand the most significant flood. 

The dam would provide the then-growing City of Cisco, with a population of 6,000, with a reliable water supply.  Cisco also boasted the first Hilton hotel. The city advertised itself as a “City of Progress” and the “Gate City of the West.”

Published in the Engineering News-Record 1923

The newspaper also stated that the dam was supposed to be complete within 1921 and the lake to fill shortly afterward. Other construction included building a Country Club, golf course, and summer homes for businessmen from Dallas, Houston, and Cisco. Frank W. Chappell of Elrod Engineering Company of Dallas, Chief Design Engineer, and E.M Urban, superintendent of construction for F. Friesdtedt Company Contractors of Chicago, wrote an article published in Engineering News-Record on November 1, 1923. Elrod Engineering company was the City of Cisco engineer and prepared the dam’s plans. The main issue for the dam’s construction was building a four-mile railway because there needed to be a way to transport materials to the dam site. The railway crossed three streams, so wooden bridges were built over them to finish the path to the dam site. Buildings for a headquarters, cottages for the foreman with families, a mess hall, and bunk houses to accommodate 200 workers were also built. The accommodations did have water, electricity, and showers.   

Published in the Engineering News-Record 1923

However, as in some construction projects, the schedule was optimistic; the dam was not completed until 1923. The dam was dedicated on July 4, 1925.  A gala was held with an estimated 10,000 visitors. The dam was hailed as the largest concrete structure of its kind. The first-speed boat races ever held in West Texas were part of the celebration. With a more reliable water supply, the city built the largest concrete swimming pool in the world. The pool provided a shallow and deep end where diving could be done. The pool had a slide, walkway and was quite extravagant for the time. The pool was located downstream of the dam, so the water was provided easily, and fish were allowed into the pool so swimmers could experience a more natural environment. The dam was also open, providing public tours of the hollow dam. A road, Country Club Road, also called CR 561, on top of the dam provided a way to cross Sandy Creek. Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad obtained a court injunction to reduce the functional lake level due to the backwater from the lake damaging its roadbed soon after the lake began to operate.  The dam was so much part of the community that the High School team was nicked named the “Big Dam Lobos.”  With the costs of all the building and the economy (1929 crash), the City of Cisco struggled.  Today Cisco Dam is 100 years old and known as Williamson Dam.  The lake provides 25,895 acre-feet of storage and recreational opportunities to the area.  The remnants of the pool and cottages can be seen today on both areal images and on the ground.  Cisco dam has survived several floods and still is in operation, providing the area with a water supply.

Aerial of Lake Cisco and dam, 09/12/1941. The University of Texas Arlington Libraries