Ghost Town Under Lake Buchanan: Old Bluffton

Is There A Ghost Town Under Lake Buchanan?

Yes, there is a ghost town under Lake Buchanan: the town of Bluffton, Texas.

Lake Buchanan Underwater Town: Where Is Old Bluffton, Texas?

There’s Old Bluffton, Texas, and then there’s New Bluffton, Texas.* It is Old Bluffton that we are interested in now. 

Bluffton was one of the first towns in the famous Texas Hill Country and is now an underwater ghost town which was inundated by Lake Buchanan. The Colorado River feeds Lake Buchanan. A man named Billy Davis from Arkansas Territory settled on the west bank of the river, which became Bluffton, Texas in 1852. Billy’s relative, 17-year-old Isaac. B. Maxwell, soon followed Billy on a mule and named the new settlement for his hometown, Bluffton, Arkansas in 1854. 

It is assumed that Isaac B. Maxwell thought the bluffs on the east bank of the Colorado River looking at his settlement on the west bank resembled his hometown. A saltworks operation owned by Davie Cowan put Bluffton, Texas, on the industrial map. Bluffton was near several crossings on the river between Burnet, Texas, and to other western destinations.

What Brought Old Bluffton, Texas, Back to Life?

The U.S. Postal Service established Bluffton’s post office in 1873 and by 1883, Bluffton was a lively town supporting many businesses with hotels, saloons, and a cotton gin. But there was so much more to Bluffton, Texas. 

The town of Bluffton was forced to shut down and relocate during the Great Depression due to the construction of Lake Buchanan. The residents left so much behind that it is hard to ignore today. During a drought in 2012, Old Bluffton popped up big as life, and local residents around Lake Buchanan took serious notice. 

New Bluffton is located about seven miles west of its original settlement. Construction on Buchanan Dam was completed in 1937. Its construction began in 1931, but was interrupted in 1932 with work resuming in 1935. It was originally known as Hamilton Dam and Reservoir, but the name changed to recognize Texas Congressman James Paul Buchanan after its completion. 

Many residents of Old Bluffton who were hit hard by the Great Depression had to sell their land at rock-bottom prices to the government, and those who would not sell—well, their land was commandeered. Many of the residents who lost everything they owned to the government and the construction of Lake Buchanan went to work to build Lake Buchanan. Its creation was part of President Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. 

The drought of 2012 in Burnet and Llano Counties where Lake Buchanan lays made research into the history of Old Bluffton come alive. Locals took pictures and documented a cemetery of the town’s original site. Fifty families were forced to sell their properties to the Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA). The unveiling of Old Bluffton during the drought compelled the people of the Texas Hill Country to examine a lost way of life. 

Of What Stuff Was Old Bluffton Made?

Agriculturally speaking, Old Bluffton was made of farmers who raised corn, cotton, and grew pecan trees, and ranchers. Culturally speaking, Old Bluffton, which officially established itself in 1873 with its post office, combined a school with a community center. The Davis/Maxwell family served as the backbone of the settlement with another 40 families farming and ranching in the valley nearby. 

Former Old Bluffton resident, Llano County Judge Moore Johanson, memorialized what Lake Buchanan meant to Old Bluffton’s citizens for a Burnet County newspaper:

“We who were raised on the old Colorado River had to sacrifice our homes and land very cheap. It ruined many of us financially, but always someone has to sacrifice to make progress in our nation.”

During the 2012 drought, the baseball field where the Bluffton Eagles played with other baseball teams from Burnet and Llano Counties showed up clearly defined on the lake bottom. Also, you could see the old church, the foundation of the cotton gin, and homes, plus the old cemetery and family grave sites. Gravestones found during the drought with clear markings remained. 

From the Old Bluffton remnants on old Highway 29 during the drought, people found many artifacts including old medicine bottles, parts of a desk from the school, and charcoal filtering systems in cisterns for water. Pecan orchards abounded in the old settlement. Lake Buchanan construction crews chopped down this valuable agricultural product like a well-oiled machine beginning in 1931. 

How Did This Happen to Old Bluffton?

The Colorado River was highly unpredictable and volatile in the region of Llano and Burnet Counties. People who lived there had discussed the flooding problems for decades before Lake Buchanan came into play. While the dam was under construction, the LCRA began acquiring 20,000 acres of upriver land while trying to figure out how to convince landowners to sell to them at little to no cost. 

If the people would not sell their land cheaply, the LCRA simply condemned the valuable properties. A few people moved to New Bluffton, but many left the area for good. A whole camp town sprang up during the construction of Lake Buchanan. The camp town had a hospital, a canteen, and tents for the workers. Lake Buchanan’s existence created over 20,000 jobs during the Great Depression. 

The crews chopped down the pecan orchards so that the trees would not create underwater hazards for future boaters. There were no jobs, and men and women rushed into the lake project to try to dig themselves out of the financial disparity of those times. They removed over 300 graves from the rural cemeteries where people were buried from closely-knit family branches to New Bluffton. However, no one alive could identify 58 graves, but they were re-interred. Some remains were reburied in new coffins. 

Isaac B. Maxwell

Isaac B. Maxwell played a role in organizing Llano County, Texas, and bought the first marriage license in the county. Isaac had 19 children and outlived three wives. Isaac was a very busy man! A 30-foot flatboat took horses and wagons over the river crossing in Bluffton. The fee for a quarter horse and rider was the cheapest. Back in 1852, Indians caused more concern that the volatile Colorado River. 

Indians were stealing every loose horse they found, and Isaac invented a guardian dummy. He stuffed an old coat with grass and put a hat on it next to a stump. Isaac called it a “Scare Indian”. These guardian dummies were so successful that all the Bluffton area livestock owners made them and called them "Maxwell Dummies". The Indians posed no threat by the 1870s. 

Ah, but those wild Texas cowboys… Well, a bunch of them got drunk in 1883 and caused a fire that destroyed the hotel, blacksmith shop, cotton gin, and saloons, or basically the whole town. The citizens rebuilt their Bluffton a half mile away. Bluffton was not on the railroad route by the late 1870s and sadly, although more prosperous than Llano, Texas, the county seat of Llano County, Old Bluffton began to decline into what the LCRA found in the 1930s. 

* For discernment, I am calling the original Bluffton, Texas, location Old Bluffton, and the town of today’s Bluffton, Texas, New Bluffton. 

Photo Credit: Merinda Brayfield

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