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the story of lake sam rayburn is a reminder that america used to build real, meaningful, big infrastructure projects that brought human flourishing to entire regions. what happened?
SAN FRANCISCO READERS: Solana and the Pirate Wires crew invite you to drink with us at Zeitgeist on Thursday, October 12 at 5:30 PM. Be there (or die).
Note: the first time we sent an email with this event invite, we said it was happening on Friday. That was wrong. It’s happening on Thursday.
When I was 15 my grandfather took us to see a ghost town jutting out of the mud. There had been a bad drought, and it was the first time in years you could walk among the remains of Concord, a little community that had disappeared under the lake. My grandfather pointed to a set of concrete steps and told us they had once led to a school. We stared at them. There wasn’t much else to stare at, apart from the shallow, muddy waves that stretched out to the horizon, waiting to take them back.
In 1959, in Southeast Angelina County, a remote corner of East Texas, my grandfather watched men pile rough wooden coffins outside the back of the convenience store where his family lived and worked. The government had decided to build a lake, one that would control flooding along the local rivers, provide thousands with electricity, and store water to irrigate the thirsty rice fields down south in Beaumont. Nothing and no one could stop the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from carrying out this monumental project: not the little town of Concord, and not my grandpa’s uncle Angus, who pulled a gun on a Federal Marshal and took the government to court. Not even the local timber barons, long accustomed to getting whatever they wanted in the area, could prevent their lucrative softwood plantations from becoming the homesteads of catfish and white perch, at least for the most part.1 But my grandfather said that most people didn’t object. Others even embraced it, anticipating the new, out-of-town money that would come to their shop from campers and fishermen. What the dead thought was anyone’s guess. Little by little the coffins disappeared from the back of the store as the area's pioneer ancestors — mostly poor Scotch-Irish stock who’d come from equally hardscrabble parts of the Southeast to first become Mexicans, then citizens of the Republic of Texas, then Americans, then Confederates (against their best wishes2), then Americans once again — were dug up from various cemeteries across the lake's sprawling path and reburied in a single one, ironically named Concord.
First approved in 1945 by the Federal Rivers and Harbors Act, the lake was originally called “McGee Bend Dam and Reservoir” after a local family. Congress intervened two years before its completion to rename it Sam Rayburn Reservoir (known locally as Lake Sam Rayburn), after the one-time Speaker of the House. The project officially began with the construction of a smaller, adjoining reservoir in 1947, and after that was completed in 1953, construction on Sam Rayburn proper began in 1956, and was completed by 1965. Since then, the lake’s flood pool has retained incoming waters during heavy rains for flood control, and the reservoir has supplied water for the region’s agricultural, municipal, and industrial clients. As water passes through its two dams, it pushes turbines which generate an average of 118 million kilowatts of power annually, enough to power over 11,000 homes per year in East Texas and Western Louisiana.3 And Rayburn remains a recreation spot, hosting over 300 fishing tournaments every year.
The sprawling reservoir covers five counties and a surface area of about 114,500 acres, roughly 180 square miles. Its construction completely transformed the local landscape and culture. The area where the lake stands was once the domain of free-range cattle and hogs that were intermittently rounded up and sorted by the brands seared into their flanks, and driven to market. “Before the lake came in, it was common for people to build fences to keep the cows out, rather than in,” my grandfather tells me. The big blue dot that appeared on the maps his family sold at their store had conquered both nature and the past, bringing modernity and money to the area in the process. Tourists came to camp, ski, boat, and especially fish — minnows were the family’s most profitable product, according to my grandfather. Seizing on the new lakefront property, land speculators came too, building summer houses for rich people out of Houston and quiet subdivisions for retirees. The economic boom eventually puttered out, but the water remains. There’s a boat in nearly every yard. Whether it's sitting in front of a McMansion or a trailer house is largely irrelevant. We’re lake people now.
The entire Sam Rayburn project cost approximately $66 million, about $640 million in today’s dollars — still nothing compared to the cost of similar, but smaller, infrastructure projects today. Over five decades after Lake Sam Rayburn was completed, Sam Rayburn’s home county of Fannin finally got its own reservoir, the first in Texas in over 30 years. The Bois d’Arc Creek Reservoir, which began impounding water in 2021, covers 16,641 acres and cost $1.8 billion to build. Somehow, a reservoir less than 15 percent the size of Lake Sam Rayburn cost well over double the price to build, even after adjusting for inflation. Also, unlike Sam Rayburn, the Bois d’Arc Creek reservoir will only be used for water storage, not for producing hydroelectricity.
Our infrastructure projects have gotten smaller and more expensive, and the Bois d’Arc Creek symbolizes that as well as anything. However, to North Texas Municipal Water District’s credit, they did actually build the thing, more or less on time and on budget. It’s a sad state of affairs that simply completing a public infrastructure project as planned is something to be remarked upon, but it’s the state we find ourselves in. When originally pitched to voters in 2008, the California high speed rail line connecting San Francisco to Los Angeles was supposed to be complete by 2020 and cost $33 billion. The project is still not finished and the estimated cost continues to grow. The possibility of connecting LA and San Francisco is now so remote that the rail authority has stopped bothering to speculate when it will be finished. We could go through and debate the litany of reasons as to why this is, but others already have done so and frankly, I don’t see the value in it any longer. At this point, there is no excuse.
When it comes to renewable energy infrastructure, Lake Sam Rayburn and other hydroelectric projects — the vast majority of which were built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in the 20th century — show what the state can do when it is both ambitious and competent. Unfortunately, hydroelectricity has its shortcomings, as droughts can slow down or even stop energy production, so other methods of producing renewable energy are needed. The government has placed its bets on solar and wind power, but in terms of reliability, both methods are at the mercy of nature — the sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow.
If dreams of a carbon-neutral future are to be truly realized, we can’t leave our grids subject to the whims of the weather. Another green energy source is needed. The most obvious answer, of course, is nuclear4. But the grit and ambition which built Lake Sam Rayburn is gone from the public sector, and when it comes to nuclear, the state has worked to quash the ambition of the private sector. While the current administration’s Department of Energy has recently begun signaling enthusiasm for nuclear, it doesn’t change the fact that there are no new reactors currently under construction — the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) has effectively shut down the growth of nuclear power in the US. Applications for new reactors can languish for years. But even when the permits are issued and the reactors are built, the ongoing regulatory burden is enormous, estimated to be around $60 million per plant annually in 2017, including $22 million in regulatory fees paid directly to the NRC. If the state thinks it knows how to build and nuclear power safely, as it presumably does, perhaps it should take the reins: turn on the same money machine and dot the landscape with large, state of the art nuclear facilities that will propel the country into a new age of cheap, carbon-free electricity. If not, streamline the regulations and get the state out of the way so at least someone can build something real, meaningful and big in America again.
I asked my mom for the pictures we took in the drought, next to the old Concord schoolhouse steps. She couldn’t find them, but her friend sent her pictures she’d taken recently from her boat. There’s been another drought this summer, albeit a smaller one, and the water is low enough that you can see the steps just below the surface. They don’t lead to anyplace anymore, not a real one anyway, just deeper into the water, and deeper into the the past, and second-hand memories of a different America, one which drew a big blue dot on a map and then cut it out of the forest.
Of course, you can walk up the stairs too. You just have to jump out of the boat and swim.
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My grandfather tells me that rumor always had it that one local timber magnate, whose name would be recognizable to nearly everyone in Angelina County and nearly no one outside of it, got the map changed to spare some of his land.
The clay soil was as poor as the people were and big cash crops like cotton didn’t grow there. There were relatively few slaves in the area and thus Angelina was the only county in East Texas which voted against secession.
Opponents of nuclear power point to safety issues, as well as often high and unpredictable startup costs, as reasons to avoid investing in this carbon neutral and abundant form of energy. But they’re simply wrong on the safety of nuclear power (it’s caused fewer deaths than any other method of electricity production except solar), and perhaps the costs of building nuclear power are unpredictable because reactors are so rarely built — just one in the last seven years.