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HomeNL-2011-11 Brazos River Lock and Dam

Brazos River Lock and Dam
Sept. 5, 2011
by
John Rich
In last month's newsletter I wrote a review of the book "Sandbars and Sternwheelers", which covers the history of steamships on the Brazos River.  There was one sentence in that book about a lock and dam built at Hidalgo Falls in 1910, to help steamships navigate over top of the rocky shoals at that location.  A lot of HCC members have played in the rapids at Hidalgo Falls, yet I had never heard of anyone talk about any old ruins of a lock and dam.  So I decided to set out for myself to explore this possibility, and see if there really was any remnants of this lock and dam still there.

I will segregate this trip report into two sections: the first section will be the general river report for canoeing, and the second part will detail the exploration for the lock and dam structure.

The River



 
   Location map
   Put-in
This trip was on the Brazos River, west of Navasota, with access under the Highway 105 bridge.  To get there from Houston, you take Hwy 290 going west, at Hempstead turn north on Hwy 6, and at Navasota turn west on Hwy 105.  Easy!  On Hwy 105 you  will first cross over the Navasota River, before you get to the Brazos River, so don't pull off too soon.  The put-in under the bridge has plentiful parking, and you only have to descend a 50-yard dirt bank to get to the water, where there is a nice sandbar for loading your boat.  You can drive part-way down the dirt bank on a boat-access cut, if you dare. 

The easy way to do this trip would be to start at the Texas River Protection Association (TRPA) park at Hidalgo Falls, and paddle downstream to Hwy 105.  But I did not have access to that private park, so I did it by paddling upstream against both the current and a strong wind, before returning to my starting point.  It was very strenuous this way, and much of my distance going upstream was covered by walking on the sandbars at the edge of the water, pulling the boat along beside me.  Hidalgo Falls is about 4-miles upstream from Hwy 105.

First photo, below: On the river, some sections have high dirt banks and stratified layers of colorful dirt.  If you imagine really hard, it's almost like being in a west Texas desert canyon.  Second photo: Several farmers/ranchers along the river are so desperate for water in the drought, that they've purchased fancy new pumps to suck it out of the river and pump it up the hillside.  Third photo: A car in the river - I'd like to hear the story of how THAT happened!  Fourth: The water level was so low in many places that a cow could walk across the river and barely get his belly wet.


 
 
 
 Dirt banks
  Water pump     Car in river    Cow crossing

After hours of hard work, slogging my way upstream against the elements, I reached my destination: Hidalgo Falls.  There I stopped for a well-deserved lunch break and nap.  My nap took place in the shade of a tree, using my PFD as a cushion, and a tree root as a pillow.  When I peeked through my eyelids during my nap, I was greeted with the beautiful view of the tree, rising into a crystal clear blue sky.  And while laying there, I also observed that there's a funny phenomenon with the sound of water flowing and gurgling over rocks - your mind plays tricks on you and you could swear that you hear a group of people talking.  But look around all you want, and no one is to be found...


 
 
 
 John with boat
at Hidalgo Falls
  The shoals
at Hidalgo Falls
  Nap time
  Nap time view

The Dam


 
  Location map
   Dam & lock ahead!
Working my way upstream, I spied large chunks of concrete ahead - I found the lock and dam!  It was not at Hidalgo Falls as I expected, but actually about a half-mile below Hidalgo Falls, just out of sight around the next bend.  I guess that the construction theory was that by damming the water below the shoals, it would raise the water level enough behind the dam that the steamboats could float right over top of the rocks.  And then a lock was needed to lift the boats across the different water levels from the low side to the high side, and vice-versa. 
The dam still exists on the left, and the lock is on the right. The center of the dam is missing, with some debris from it still in the river. When this operation was shut down, they might have dynamited the center to restore natural flow, or maybe mother nature did it on her own over time.

In the first photo, below, you can see the dam on the left with two tall concrete structures and a low wall running between them. The second photo shows the low wall between the two tall pillars. I figure these iron base plates held some kind of pivoting iron wall that could be raised or lowered to control the water level of the river upstream of the dam. The third photo is a close-up of one of the iron base plates on the dam wall.  The fourth photo on the far right shows an item that each base plate on the downstream side of the wall had a matching one of these on the upstream side of the wall. What is it?

     
Dam
  Low wall base plates
  Base plate close-up
  Whatsit?

First photo, below: On the riverbank end of the dam wall was this big recess - purpose unknown.  I'm standing inside the recess to give an idea of the massive scale of this structure.  Second photo: Towards the center of the river, there were two tall pillars, one of which is now toppled over. The half-circle culverts are spillways where water would pass through a tunnel from the high side to the low side.  Third photo: One of the pillars near the center of the river, with a spillway exit funnel. When the dam was closed and they wanted to let water flow through the dam, they would open a big valve in those pillars and water would rush through and shoot out of that half-circle culvert.  Fourth photo: The upstream side of the pillar had this giant butterfly valve, which they could open or close to let water flow through the dam and shoot out the other side.


 
 
 
 Wall recess
  Pillars
  Spillway
  Spillway valve

Atop the center section of the dam, the four photos below show large steel arms, with pivoting joints on one end. I figure they must have had iron plates covering them like a metal wall, which would be raised or lowered to control the water level. 

And this finishes up my exploration of the remaining section of the dam. I sure would have liked to see it in action!


 
 
 
 Steel arms...
 
 
   

The Lock

Next, I ferried across the river in my canoe and explored the lock on the other side. There are two parallel concrete walls, massively thick, about 40' high, 40 yds wide, and 100 yds long. The steamboats would drive up inside, massive gates would close on each end, and pumps would add or remove water to float the boat up or down to the water level on the other side. The end gates are now missing.

First photo, below: An end view of the lock from the downstream side, showing the massive thickness and size of the walls.  Second photo: Looking down inside, with concrete ribs showing on the bottom.  Third photo: Ladders are recessed into the walls so that they don't interfere with the boats which are inside, and to allow people to get up and down from the boats when they are deep inside the lock.  Fourth photo: Boat tie-down points are recessed in the upper edge of the walls.


 
 
 
 End view
  Inside
  Recessed ladder
   Tie-down

The first photo, below, shows a water level view of Hidalgo Falls - the rocky shoals which were an impediment to steamboat traffic. The dam would have raised the water level enough that once the boats rode the lock to the upper water level, they could pass right over these rocks with room to spare. The flat bottom steamboats typically only drew 2 to 3 feet of water.

The middle photo, below, is a historic photo of this exact same lock and dam, when it was under construction! The view is from the dam-side, looking down the length of the low wall, across the tall pillars with the spillways, and over to the lock on the far riverbank.

And finally, the photo on the right, below, is another historic photo of a different lock and dam on the Brazos, but of identical construction. This one displays a lock and dam in completed form, and it shows how those steel beams hold up a wall of steel plates, to hold back the river. So that's how it worked!


 
 
 Hidalgo Falls
  Lock & Dam #1
  Lock & Dam #8

If you've read this far, thank you for your attention, and I hope you have enjoyed the tour.
 

 
The author, John Rich,
 with his time machine.