Hydroelectricity was a major factor in the economic development of the United States before, during, and after World War I. In the late 1920’s Southwest Texas was experiencing an ever-increasing demand for a steady supply of energy. By the mid-1920’s the Central Power and Light Company began looking to the Lower Pecos River region as an energy source for the state of Texas. The geography of the area made the Devils River the ideal choice because building on the Rio Grande would require international agreements with Mexico, and the high canyon walls of the Pecos River made construction costs prohibitive. The logical choice was the Devils River, it was near existing rail and highway corridors, had a history of steady flow, and topography would keep construction to a minimum. In 1927 Central Power and Light decided to construct three individual power plants along the Devils River: The Devils Lake Hydro Plant, Lake Walk Hydro Plant, and Steam Plant. These facilities would become to major economic engine for regional development of the Southwest region of Texas for decades to come. By 1927 Del Rio, Texas was already the home to one of Central Power and Light’s top rated power plants. However, as the population continued to increase, Central Power and Light made the decision to turn the Devils River into what would become the largest source of energy in Southwest Texas. The company completed their preliminary surveys and acquired the land on which they would build in the last months of 1927. L.E. Myers Construction Company was contracted by Central Power and Light to build the three power plants on the Devils River. The company also established a camp and commissary to accommodate the builders and their families as the construction sites would be miles from Del Rio. Central Power and Light worked with West Texas Utilities to construct over two hundred miles of new transmission lines that would originate at plants along the Devils River, and connect about 70 miles east into existing power grids in Uvalde. The power grids in Uvalde connected to the San Antonio and Winter Garden districts located in Corpus Christi and San Antonio, making Uvalde the hub for the largest electrical loop in Texas.
The Devils River Hydro Plants
The first plant was constructed 16 miles northwest of Del Rio and 10 miles above the confluence of the Devils River and the Rio Grande. Construction began in March of 1928 on the dam that would be 45 feet high and 850 feet long. The dam was constructed from limestone blocks cut from the cliffs of the Devils River and hoisted into place using an overhead crane. The massive limestone blocks had ridges cut into the edges allowing the blocks to lock into each other, increasing structural integrity. As the dam neared completion in December 1928, engineers began testing on the dam’s generators that converted river flow into electricity. The first successful test of these generators occurred on December 9, 1928. Shortly after its completion, Central Power and Light established permanent housing for the plants operators and their families.
During the initial phases of planning and construction, the dam was designated as plant number one, but by October 1928 that name was formally changed to the Devils Lake Hydro Plant. At the same time, Central Power and Light had already begun planning for construction of the second hydro-electric plant. Originally known as plant number nine, the facility was soon renamed the Lake Walk Hydro Plant.
Construction on the Lake Walk Hydro Plant began in December 1928. Lake Walk Hydro Plant was constructed in an entirely different manner from the Devils Lake Hydro Plant. Builders used coffer dams to redirect the flow of water so they could pour concrete molds. Lake Walk dam was 34 feet high and 650 feet long. The Lake Walk Hydro Plant was the smallest and most technologically advanced of the three power plants on the Devils River. It featured the S. Morgan Smith turbine engine, which was the first completely automatic turbine engine used in the United States. This type of turbine proved to be incredibly reliable and was still in use when the plant was shut down in 1965. Another unique feature of the Lake Walk dam was the walkway that went through the length of the dam. Construction on the Lake Walk Hydro Plant was completed in May of 1929. After the construction of Lake Walk, housing was established for Central Power and Light employees on the west bank of the Devils River overlooking the dam.
The third power plant along the Devils River was known simply as Steam Plant. This power plant was located on the East side of the Devils River about 10 miles outside of Del Rio and just west of present day South Winds Marina. CP&L had several contracts with outside companies, such as General Electric, Westinghouse Electric, and Combustion Engineering Corporation in order to construct Steam Plant. Steam Plant provided the largest amount of electricity of the three power plants. On the down side, a March 1931 study showed that the plant was the largest single consumer of gasoline in Del Rio. In May 1930, due to the location of Steam Plant and the amount of man power required to effectively run it, CP&L built 14 houses on the east side of the river overlooking Steam Plant to accommodate its employees and their families. Outfitted with the latest technology, the homes were continuously occupied by CP&L employees until their demolition for Amistad Reservoir in the 1960’s. CP&L was responsible in other ways for the development of the communities surrounding the Devils River Power Plants. The company opened several retail outlets in the area that sold appliances which required electricity. In addition to this, classes were held in the community on cooking and cleaning using the appliances CP&L sold.
During the years following the construction of the power plants, the area saw several major floods. In 1932, shortly after the completion of Steam Plant, a flood occurred during which nine employees were trapped on its roof. Additional major floods to have a serious impact on the community occurred in 1948 and 1954. The 1954 flood inflicted extensive damage on all three of the power plants. Repairs were made over the next several months and the power plants remained operational until 1965. With the construction of Amistad dam and power plant in the 1960’s the three old CP&L plants were no longer needed. In December, 1965 all three CP&L power plants were shut down, beginning with the Devils Lake Hydro Plant, then Steam Plant, and ending with Lake Walk Hydro Plant. The only plant that held a formal closing ceremony was Steam Plant, the crown jewel of the three plant operation. The demolition of the 80+ foot tower, the tallest man-made structure in the region, occurred with much fanfare on August 28, 1967. Although Amistad Dam is more technologically advanced, it produces only a fraction of the energy that the original three CP&L dams were able to produce.
In 1969, Amistad Dam was dedicated by President Richard Nixon and Mexican President Diaz Ordaz and the lake slowly began to fill over the following years. The area known as Lake Walk became completely inundated once the lake reached its operating pool level of 1117 feet above average sea level. In 1998, southwest Texas was in the midst of a serious drought and the elevation of the lake dropped nearly 60 feet below the operating pool level. During that summer, the National Park Service conducted an archeological survey in the vicinity of the old Lake Walk. Prior to field work, old real estate records, maps, and files were reviewed to determine block and lot numbers as well as the names of former land owners at Lake Walk. In most cases, all that remained of the former residences and the first Air Force Marina were concrete slabs and a few patios and sidewalks. The Devils River was the first major power source for southwest Texas. The electricity generated by the three historic plants on the river was the catalyst for decades of regional growth. Much of the development Del Rio and the surrounding communities is owed to the vision and hard work of the engineers and employees of the Central Power and Light Company. Today, all that remains of these historic structures and associated communities lies quietly below the waters of Lake Amistad.
The Flood of 1954
Amistad NRA has recently had the good fortune to acquire the use of home movies of the 1954 flood on the Devils River. Larry Herrington, or Del Rio, Texas, was kind enough to lend the park a VHS tape made from the original 16mm film shot over 50 years ago. We have since converted the Herrington tape into an .mpg movie file that can be viewed and downloaded here.
This roughly four minute file consists of about a dozen individual segments shot over several days both during and after the peak of the flood at Lake Walk Dam. The quality of this footage is uneven as some was shot in bright sunlight while other parts were shot after sunset. Without seeing this film, or having been there yourself, it is impossible to comprehend the sheer magnitude of the 1954 flood as it surged over the Lake Walk Dam on the Devils River.
Here you can view and download PDFs of the newsletter published by CP&L in the late 1920's.
CP&L Newsletter- July 1927
(CP&L Pentagon provided by American Electric Power.)