The History of Shoal Creek

The History of Shoal Creek
By Leila Downs Clark, May 1954

Couple walking along Shoal Creek
Couple walking along Shoal Creek (AHC Pica 04926)

In the beginning, recording a history of Shoal Creek seemed an insurmountable task. Very little has been written about it, and what has been written is not indexed in any way. But soon the amateur historian learned the lesson of the working newspaperman: that there is no story which patience and persistence cannot break. Bit by bit the little old stream was forced to give up its secrets of fact and legend.

Many things were brought to light by conversations with long~time Austinians, such as Mr. Niles Graham, Mr. William D. Anderson and Mr. Walter Long. Other enlightening bits appeared in a close perusal of the annals of Travis County and old scrapbooks containing undated articles by unnamed authors stored away in the archives of Texas. Sometime the environs of the creek had to be slightly extended to include same colorful tale, but never have the limits been extended east of Congress Avenue on the southern reaches of the stream and west of Guadalupe Street on its northern reaches.

According to the Handbook of Texas, “Shoal Creek (is) an intermittent stream rising in Central Travis County arid flowing south nine miles to join the Colorado River in the western part of the City of Austin.” Its small tributary, Little Shoal Creek, was covered over by a storm sewer in 1917 so that it is possible to drive by automobile along its former course where Union soldiers watered their horses in post Civil War days. It ran down San Antonio and Nueces Streets, had its head in a spring about Twentieth Street in the alley back of Newman Hall, and joined the mainstream near Fourth and Rio Grande Streets. Along the banks of little Shoal Creek was one of the largest Oak trees in the locality of Austin. This tree was killed in 1865 by soldiers who washed their clothes in the stream and used the tree as a rub board.Shoal Creek was formed when the crust of the earth began to shrink and the area east of the Colorado River dropped below the level of the semi-mountains of West Travis County, leaving a crease down which the rainfall flowed. The creek is fed by deep springs out of sand and gravel from the Colorado River and is now usually dry. Time was when both Shoal and Waller Creeks were deep and never failing streams, but grading of the streets has reduced them to mere wet weather branches.(1) The geological formation is the Buda limestone once called “Shoal Creek limestone” until it was discovered that the name had already been usurped as a technical term. The underlying Shale is the Del Rio Shale or Grayson formation, which is an unstable rock that causes many building problems in this vicinity. Both Buda limestone and Del Rio Shale are well displayed along the banks of the creek.(2)Perhaps it was Edwin Waller who gave the creek its name because of the many shoals in it, for he laid out the town in 1839, and drew a map in which Shoal Creek is shown and named as the western boundary of Waterloo, later Austin. The creek on the eastern boundary received Waller’s own name on the same map. (3) On some of the older maps, Shoal Creek was recorded as Cascade Creek. The earliest patents along the creek, Issued between February and June of 1841 were to Jacob Harrell, James Rogers, George W. Spears and James P. Davis. Karma Powers, George W. Spear and James F. Davis. Of these four men only Harrell seems to have been of sufficient stature to merit mention in the Texas Handbook.(4)Currently the course of Shoal Creek followed beautiful thoroughfares: Lamer Boulevard and Shoal Creek Boulevard. Lamar Boulevard was a W.F.A. project begun in 1938 and finished in 1942. Lamar Boulevard runs parallel to Shoal by two from Twelfth Street to Thirty-first Street, end after a short hiatus, Shoal Creek Boulevard runs parallel to the creek from Forty-sixth Street to Sixty-fifth Street, not too far from the headwaters which are just south of NcNeil which are just in the vicinity of the magnesium plant.

To begin an historical account at the source of Shoal creek is to recount history from “now to then”, for the newest history is at the point most distant form the city. In 1943 the federal Government bought a 400-acre site at this point and constructed a twenty-two million dollar plant for the manufacture of magnesium bombs. In the rapid technical progress of the war effort, magnesium bombs were soon outmoded; and by 1948, the magnificent plant became the property of the University of Texas for use as an off-campus laboratory.

One of the numerous Indian burial mounds along the creek is near the old McCall Spring just west of the street now called Balcones Trail. It is about seven feet high and covered over with rock shale.

Farther down the valley there are great areas of former dairy and ranch lands now being settled up with attractive residences. Among these additions are Highland Park West on the western slope of the valley and Allandale and Shoalmont on the east. A little farther south on the west is the Austin Memorial Park Cemetery.

All this area was once apart of on 10,000 acre estate owned by the Hancock brothers. George Handcock owned the south tract where Rosedale now is. The smoke house of his estate, remodeled into a cunning cottage, still stands just due west of the State Hospital about two blocks west of Lamar. He was an Indian fighter and scout who came to the locality about 1845. He was also a surveyor, the locator of this land. He had a trading post at Sixth and Congress where Scarbrough’s now stands. The other Handcock brother, John, who owned the tract across the creek, built the house known as “the Oaks” about ninety-seven years ago. His granddaughter, Mrs. Cora Handcock Keelin, recalls the days when her grandfather raised and trained race horses for the English tracks, sending them abroad with their tiny mulatto jockey, Charlie Hathaway.

John Handcock was a distinguished member of Congress from Travis County. His Family moved into town after his death and sold the property about 1896. Then the land passed to one Franz Fiset, a long time owner; subsequently, it became a nursing home and currently is occupied by the Brown School for the retarded children. The house still stands among its majestic oaks, although its later uses have changed its appearance almost beyond recognition. Fiset, a German immigrant, built a dam on the creek to irrigate his land. Remnants of the dam even today back up the largest body of water of Shoal Creek. Just northwest of this old home there once stood a cotton gin where the cotton was compressed by an endless screw propelled by a mule on a circular track.

South of the Oaks along the west band of the creek is the Negro Blind and Deaf School.

Shoal Creek meanders on south and easterly to Thirty-forth or State Street, where there are the remains of another old Dam. Seider’ Spring took its name from its enterprising owner who made the place a beauty spot by damming the waters into a quiet lake dotted with white swans and row boats tugging at their moorings. It was a favorite picnic ground for the youth of the eighties and nineties. Seiders leveled off a place out of the clay banks and built in some fifteen or twenty bath tubs. Gideon White lived at Seiders’ Springs in 1842 when he fell victim, within a quarter of a mile of his home, to the preying bands of Indians who were continuously scouring the country around Austin. (5) Indian Tribes active in this area were the Lipans, handsomest of all the tribes, semi-civilized, but uncertain friends; Comanches and Apaches, all “horse Indians”; and the “horseless” Wacoes. All left behind them their flint arrowheads which have been picked up by alert strollers on the creek bank. The original concrete bridge at Thirty-forth Street was built in 1916; the present bridge was built in 1939.

The designers of a city plan adopted in 1927 indicated that both Shoal Creek and Waller Creek should have ample park room as well as boulevards. Bailey Park extends northward from West Thirty-first Street. At Twenty-ninth Street where another bridge was built in 1926, improved and strengthened in 1933 and finally rebuilt in 1938, a new city park has been designated. It is to be called Goodall Wooten Park. Here, too, is the Cerebral Palsy Center. From Twenty-ninth Street west and south along Shoal Creek for a quarter of a mile each way lay a settlement known as ‘Dog Town’, supposedly because of the number of dogs in that neighborhood. Long ago this part of the creek was famed as Blue Hole, the beloved swimming place of several generations of Austin’s school-boys. It is still recalled with nostalgia by the Bickler boys (Messrs. Max and Harry), Murray Graham and Walter Fisher. Cat Hole and Split Rock (commemorated by a street name) just a little farther up the creek were also popular haunts of the hooky players. Split Rock is just at the bend of the creek between Edgemont and Pemberton Heights additions. It derived its name from a huge boulder that had split into two pieces forming a canyon about forty feet deep.

At Twenty-fourth Street is the most travelled bridge across the creek, built in 1928, and widened in 1938. From this point the creek follows the west side of Larmar Boulevard to Twelfth Street. Near the Twenty-fourth Street bridge on the east side of the creek are the Caswell Tennis Courts built in 1948. Controversy raged some ten years ago for zoning change to permit the construction of an apartment hotel on this spot. Commercial interests lost the fight and park lovers prevailed. At one time a small golf course was planned here but this scheme was finally abandoned.

Across Shoal Creek on the west side lies lovely Pease Park, the original twenty-four valuable acres of which were given by Governor E. M. Pease in 1875, the first public park donated in Texas. A few yeas ago an attempt was made to locate a public grade school within its limits but investigation showed that the original deed of gift barred such a use. There are still some evidences of Wheatsville, a small settlement which gave way to progress when Pease Park was enlarged. West of pease Park lies the subdivision of Austin known as Enfield. This was once part of the 200-acre estate which Elisha M. Pease acquired in the fifties. It ran from Twelth to Twenty-fourth Streets approximately up to Windsor Road. He gave the acreage the name of Enfield to commemorate his birthplace at Enfield Connecticut. The beautiful columned red brick manor house, Woodlawn, is to this day cherished and occupied by Governor Pease’s grandson, Mr. R. Niles Graham. Jim Shaw, an ill fated Irishman who was Comptroller of the Texas during Governor Pease’s administration, had the house built for his bride in 1852. The building was done by Abner Cook who also built the Governor’s Mansion. Tragedy stalked Shaw until he left the house in disgust and sold it to Pease in 1859. After a colorful and honored career, Pease died there in 1883. It was an injury received when his horse slipped on the banks of Shoal Creek and threw him to the ground that later caused Governor Pease’s death.

In 1917 Graham began the development of a residential subdivision of the personal property inherited from his grandfather and of subsequently acquired property amounting to three thousand acres. This subdivision is called Enfield and has become one of Austin’s most valuable residential neighborhoods.

Custer had intended to make his headquarters in Woodlawn house in the winter of 1865 and 1866 while his men camped on the banks of Shoal Creek. Governor Pease was in Connecticut at the time and could not protect his property but the people of Austin respected his wishers and prevented Custer from occupying Woodlawn. Custer had been sent to Texas under the Congressional Reconstruction Plan to put down robbery and bloodshed which was brought about not by Yankees or Confederates, but by a rough element which made no contribution to either side. Cholera swept through the camp, killing fifteen or sixteen of the troopers. During the epidemic the Neil house on West Avenue was used as a hospital. The bank of Shoal Creek was their burying ground for many years until about 1891 when the army developed a conscience about such matters and removed the bodies to Arlington.

During the 1890’s buried treasure fever struck Austin inhabitants. Often lights were seen in the dead of night along Shoal Creek in Pease Park and great holes would be found the next morning. Legend had it that Spanish gold was buried here. One Travis County treasurer misused about $4,000.00 of the county’s money digging for theism Spanish gold. For the protection of his descendants living in Austin, this man’s name is not given.

(1) Austin, Texas, Illustrated.

(2) Mineral Resources of Travis County, pp 41-68 and p 396

(3) see map in folder

V. N. Wilbarger, Indian Depredations in Texas, p. 275

Austin, Texas Illustrated, p. 7

A. Wright, Austin Scrap Book, News article from American Statesman written by Eudora Garrett