(10+/- Miles Northeast of Denton)
|Conservation Pool Elevation|
|Flood Pool Elevation|
|Overflow Spillway Elevation|
(260,277,085,830 and 1/2 Gallons in Denton Speak)
Lake Ray Roberts is a big 'ol 29,350-acre (119 km2) reservoir located 10 (give or take) miles northeast of Denton between Pilot Point and Sanger on the Elm Fork of the Trinity River. It was built by the US Army Corps of Engineers in the 1980's and remains a key resource used in support of the area's long term plan for both flood control and clean water.
History of the Area
This part of North Texas was frequented by multiple Indian Tribes, such as Comanches, Kiowas, and Tonkawas. When settlers began to move into the area by the 1840's, the region became one of the main flash-points between the two groups when they crossed paths on the frontier.
By 1860, the area was moderately settled, but the outbreak of the Civil War caused the abandonment (temporarily or otherwise) of many settlements. Once the War ended, the region was settled again under protection of Army Units at Forts Richardson and Sill (near Jacksboro, Texas and Lawton, Oklahoma respectively).
Several recorded State Archeological Landmarks exist around the Lake. These landmarks consist mostly of 19th and early 20th century farm sites found within what is now Ray Roberts State Park.
Deciding a Lake was Needed
Prior to the creation of the area Trinity River Basin lakes, residents routinely saw water feasts or famines.
Summers were typically oh so long and dry. Water often became scarce. And what was available was not nearly enough to accommodate the needs of farmers and other area residents.
All of the rain came in the Springtime. And with nothing to hold back the water, it routinely just flowed away, jumping the river and creek banks sweeping away anything in it's path on it's way out of town. One of most damaging Trinity River floods on record occurred just downstream in Dallas, killing 11 people, leaving 4,000 homeless, and causing $5 million dollars of damage in 1908. When adjusted for inflation, this would be $119.7 million in 2010 dollars.
But this ongoing problem was also not unique to North Texas. Once leaving Denton, Trinity River flood waters must flow another 691+/- winding miles through central Texas before reaching a wide open Gulf of Mexico. As such, it was quickly determined any solution would require both long term planning and incur significant cost to complete. The end result was a decision to build a complex system of man-made lakes along the Trinity River and it's tributaries. These lakes would be designed for two key purposes: flood control and long term water sources.
By 1927, Lake Dallas (since expanded into Lake Lewisville) was built southeast of Denton. During the 1940s and 1950s, several other Trinity Basin reservoirs (such as Lakes Lavon and Grapevine) were also in various stages of planning and construction. This necessitated the creation of the Trinity River Authority in 1955 by the 54th Texas Legislature to manage (in addition to a failed vision for a system of Trinity River canals) the regional water flood and conservation plan.
The US Congress eventually approved the creation of the Aubrey Reservoir by passing the River and Harbors Act of 1965 into law. The Reservoir was later renamed Lake Ray Roberts in 1980 for US Congressman Herbert Ray Roberts, who represented the Texas 4th congressional district from 1962-1981 and actively fought for water conservation throughout his career. Coincidentally, he also helped secure the money needed for the Lake's construction (which probably also had something to do with the renaming)
Construction of the Reservoir
Plans for the Lake were drawn up throughout the 1970's, but the actual construction of the Lake did not start until 1981. Sadly, it was not as simple as just building a big mound of dirt to hold back the water. Oh if it was only just that simple.
Residents of two small historic communities and various farms were directly displaced by the Reservoir construction.
Sullivan Settlement was a small colony founded on Big Elm Creek twelve miles north of Denton, near the northern county line. It generally extended down the creek to the mouth of Clear Creek and west of Isle du Bois Creek. Originally settled in 1847 by Daniel and John Strickland, Charles and Elizabeth Sullivan (and their family) arrived years later in 1856. The community was eventually named after the latter as the Sullivans outnumbered the non-Sullivans. (welcome to Texas) Like many others of the day, time moved on as people moved away, and the town was removed from local highway maps after the 1930's. The northern waters of Lake Ray Roberts now covers most of the settlement.
Green Valley was a working community established in the valley between the Elm Fork and Clear Creek. It was originally named Toll Town, likely because it was at the crossroads of two separate stage lines serving Sherman to Fort Worth and McKinney to Fort Richardson. The town name was changed in the 1870's at the suggestion of Henry Clay Wilmoth, a teacher at the first subscription school. The town began to decline in 1881 after the railroad bypassed the town (now along US380 and US377). By 1900, many businesses had moved to Aubrey to stay afloat. Denton ISD later annexed their school district in 1919. Southern sections of Lake Ray Roberts cover the northern half of what was Green Valley, with the remainder generally extending south from the Ray Roberts Dam down FM2153 to FM428.
Demolition and Relocation
As with all of these large public projects, landowners in the path of the reservoir were bought out and found themselves wrongly displaced or mildly richer, depending on their individual perspectives.
Final acquisition of all property in and around the future Lake was completed by 1984. Any man-made structures were leveled to their foundations and all debris was removed from the construction area. These foundations are sometimes visible in the late summer when the lake is lower and are also an established point of interest for scuba divers during their underwater explorations.
Chapman Road/FM455, originally established between Sanger and Pilot Point, was rerouted south across the Ray Roberts Dam itself. The road now dead-ends on US377 south of Pilot Point, forcing drivers to head north a few miles if they want to connect back up to FM455 for Celina and other points east. The western section of old FM455 has been rebranded FM1190 and now ends at a boatramp in the Sanger Satellite of Ray Roberts State Park. The eastern section is now FM1192 also ends at a boatramp, albeit on the opposite side of the lake at the Jordan Unit of the State Park. The old road alignment and it's bridge supports have become a known fish habitat and are another point of interest for the scuba divers.
The abandoned Jackie Davis Cemetery was located in what is now the flooded section of Green Valley and dated back to 1859. All graves from the abandoned cemetery were respectfully moved to other plots in Denton and Cooke Counties. The majority of which were transferred to Sanger Cemetery and are found on the west side of the grounds.
The Lake and Dam Now
Since opening to the locals in 1986, Lake Ray Roberts easily achieves it's designed functional purpose of flood control and clean water for the masses.
The Dam itself is not as spiffy looking as those installed at other lakes with their large elaborate floodgates to hold the water back. Only a single water discharge tower connected to a portal at the base of the embankment is used at Ray Roberts. The overflow spillway on the west side of the Dam looks more like a dry creek bed than anything else.
But a lack of flare not withstanding, flooding along the Elm Fork of the Trinity River is routinely minimized when the storms come through. The Lake catches and retains overflow water from the floodplain long before it reaches Lake Lewisville and other downstream populated areas. This captured water is either retained long term or released at a later date in a controlled manor.
A water treatment plant was built in 2003 just south of the Dam providing clean water to (and treating sewage for) Denton residents. The City of Dallas also owns a portion of the Ray Roberts Lake water rights. When claimed, the water is simply released through the Dam discharge portal as so it can flow into Lake Lewisville where it can be retrieved and processed through a treatment plant south of that Lake.
Lake Ray Roberts has also been well embraced a place for both recreation and relaxation.
After construction, the US Army Corps of Engineers leased much of the shoreline and greenbelt flood plain areas to the State of Texas for Ray Roberts State Park and Wildlife Management Areas. A separate 2,700+/- section of land adjacent to the greenbelt corridor was also earmarked to the City of Denton for the creation of Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center.
The area around the Lake supports a large variety of plant species, including: oak, cedar, honey locust, mesquite, dogwood, hickory, walnut, red bud, chinaberry elm, pecan, blackberry, wild plum, honey suckle, sunflower, wintergrass, ragweed, bull nettle, and many many others to which people are deeply allergic.
Texans may love their guns, but both Ray Roberts State Park and Clear Creek Natural Heritage Center are established wildlife sanctuaries. Hunting is, however, allowed in certain areas in and around the reservoir outside of these parks in what is considered the Wildlife Management Area. The Park boundaries are not always well marked though, adding an additional challenge for hunters as poaching inside either Park is aggressively prosecuted by the authorities. (If you think nobody heard the sound of your gun, you are wrong or stupid or both.) The State Park Ranger Visitor Centers have further information about where such things are allowed and under what conditions.
Visitors typically see a wide variety of wildlife in and around the lake, including opossums, bats, beavers, gophers, squirrels, rabbits, deer, armadillos, raccoons, minks, skunks, foxes, coyotes, bobcats, turtles, sunfish, largemouth bass, catfish, hawks, ducks, herons, owls, pelicans, and more. The list is rather lengthy. And while rare, Bald Eagles have also occasionally been seen around the lake during the winter.
Many species of snakes can also be found around the Lake. Most are harmless to humans. But copperheads and cottonmouths (also known as water moccasins) are not uncommon, and their venomous bites do require immediate medical attention. All snakes should be considered dangerous unless they are positively identified as otherwise. Those wandering around the Lake should avoid being ignorant in areas where snakes are likely, such as (but not limited to) sticking their hands and other appendages in dark holes, walking around barefoot (or with sandals) in areas where the ground can not be seen (like tall grass or in the dark), and/or swimming in murky water in quiet areas undisturbed by other visitors. Do not say the DentonWiki team did not warn you!
Directions from Denton
There are several quick ways to reach Lake Ray Roberts.
Easiest of which is probably to take Locust Street north ten miles (depending on where you start) through the countryside. It is quite scenic. It is also a somewhat daring route due to a healthy mix of Texas country drivers, speeders, hills, a narrow road, and sometimes blind curves. Locust Street becomes FM2165 at the Denton city limits and eventually ends completely at FM455. Turn right when it does and you will see all the water about two miles later on the left. Total trip time should be about 15 minutes.
Another route is via IH-35 north, exiting at Chapman Road/FM455 in Sanger. This route is can be considered favorable as it appears to be somewhat safer (and because it allows for a convenient stop at The Tomato or other local convenience stores). Turn right at the FM455 stoplight and the lake will be seven miles later on the left. Total trip time should be around 20 minutes, longer if you stop for a slice of pizza.
Other routes are available and are easily found through a quick search of Google Maps or whatever the driver's favorite mapping website or phone app might happen to be.
Things to Do at the Lake
- Ray Roberts State Park is a large system of several parks on selected shores shores of the reservoir with basically everything you would expect (or want) from a outdoor park next to a large lake. Here you will find multiple boat ramps, swimming areas, fishing, scuba diving, camp sites, plethora of wildlife watching, and miles of established trails for horseback riding, hiking, mountain biking. and more. The trails also extend south down to the head waters of Lake Lewisville along the Elm Fork of the Trinity River. Park use fees are charged and vary depending on the activity.
- Driving over the Ray Roberts Dam is much more fun than it sounds. On any sunny day, you will likely see water skiers and boaters enjoying the waves. It is also a straight road over the Dam, making it easier not to drive off the side when distracted by the scenery. Stopping to take a photo from the Dam road usually draws the ire of law enforcement and is not recommended.
- At night, the area beneath the Dam is well shielded from most sources of light pollution and is known for being a good place to kick back and stargaze. This area is also part of Ray Roberts State Park and an entrance fee is required for all visitors.
- The southern facing side of the Dam itself is outstanding for sledding on snowy days. However, be wary of wire fences, posts, and rails that may not be as visible when buried under the white stuff. The drive to Lake is also more treacherous than earlier described during these winter weather events. (If you think Texas drivers are eight steps past wonky on sunny days, you have not seen anything yet)
- Islands along the shoreline are sometimes interesting to explore as they are normally untouched by humans. These are always accessible by boat (and sometimes via a just a short walk when the lake is low enough)
- The Dam Store is a small convenience store and bait shop that also has 'all you can eat' catfish every Friday. (Probably just a coincidence, perhaps not.) It is primarily known for both being a hangout for 'rednecks' and for charging higher than average prices due to it's 'convenience' location near the dam. It was closed as of April, 2012 and later purchased and reopened by a very nice brother and sister team, who man the store with their kids and a few Aubrey/Sanger local urchins. The quality of the catfish is high, and no matter what D Magazine says, the Dam Store's spicy jalapeño burger is the for-realest hand-formed patty in four counties.
- The Sam Garrett Memorial Overlook was a small picnic area with a nice view of the Dam and Lake from the eastern shoreline. Some squirly trails also led down from the picnic tables to the lake itself. Unlike the Ray Roberts State park, this Overlook area was maintained by the US Army Corps of Engineers and provided to all visitors free of charge. It was however closed in 2010 for unknown reasons (presumably maintenance cost) and is now fenced off. The area can still be accessed from the lake side though the legality of this back door access is up for debate. Regardless, the view is dandy, particularly for sunsets or when lightning storms are rolling in from the west.
- Texas Handbook Online
- Jackie Davis Cemetery
- Ray Roberts Lake Wildlife Management Area
- Every Trail Guide for Ray Roberts State Park
- History of the Trinity River Authority
- US Army Corps of Engineers Ray Roberts Lake Information
- Texas Parks and Wildlife Ray Roberts State Park History
- Trails of Denton County: Ray Roberts Lake State Park
- Living with the Trinity, A River's Story