A book about the past, present and future of the creek grew from a newspaper column.
It all started with the column published in the “Austin American-Statesman” by Michael Barnes. His recent review is reproduced in part below:
Barnes writes, “A walking survey of Waller Creek from its headwaters in the Highland neighborhood to its silty mouth on Lady Bird Lake included some excerpts from Joseph Jones’ meditative “Life on Waller Creek.”
Walter Wilkie, a recent transplant from New York, read that column. Intrigued, he ordered a copy of the out-of-print 1982 book by the late University of Texas professor.
Wilkie soon discovered what this columnist had not bothered to mention: Jones could have used a forceful editor. A man of independent means, Wilkie tried to obtain rights to Jones’ book in order to publish a trimmed edition about the urban creek that runs below his downtown high-rise.
After failing to land the rights, Wilkie, with the help of some literary heavyweights, instead backed “Austin’s Waller Creek: Promise for Tomorrow.”
The recently released picture book, edited by Phillip Fry and Carolyn H. Wright and published by Loflin & Associates, calls upon the expertise of geographers, scientists, engineers, designers and activists. It also supports the efforts of the Waller Creek Conservancy, a nonprofit seeking to transform the sometimes sketchy lower mile of the creek.
Like the result of any group effort, the book’s content is inconsistent. Yet it is unfailingly lovely from beginning to end.
The reader views the creek in its semi-natural state and then reviews its past as well as multiple efforts to revive its shores, including the current Waller Creek Tunnel under construction and a series of proposed parks that would stretch from the UT campus — where the stream is well-tended — to its mouth, where it is not.
Why a big runoff tunnel? The book’s historical sections make it clear: Waller Creek flooded badly in 1836, 1843, 1852, 1866, 1869, 1900, 1909, 1915, 1935, 1936 and 1981. Two of the worst, 1869 and 1915, were particularly destructive. During the 1915 storm, the detritus from Waller and Shoal creeks converged on the Colorado River.
From the city’s inception in 1839, people have lived right next to the creek. Although some prosperous neighborhoods grew up there — and the upper creek still cuts through the leafy Hyde Park area — those living closest to the water were generally impoverished. The arrival of a noisy, smelly train line across the creek in 1876 pretty much drove out all residents except those who had few options.
Kevin M. Anderson contributes a helpful natural history of the riparian system, making sure to include references to the great naturalist Roy Bedichek, who lived on the creek’s banks near the UT campus. He also nods to UT’s Joseph Jones, who packed his lunch to Waller Creek for more than 40 years and meticulously recorded his observations, including lists of mundane objects fished out of the valley.
Oliver Franklin informs the reader about the stretch of the creek domesticated by sculptor Elizabeth Ney, including her controversial Lake Ney, which the city ordered her to drain in 1898.
Joe Nick Patoski adds a short chapter on the history of music-making near the creek — an essential part of its cultural legacy, since the Conservancy’s plans include preservation of the Red River Street entertainment district. (One revealing photo shows the 1879 Saengerrunde Halle clad in wood planks, not brick.)
Dramatic pictures of the tunnel will make readers want to tour the underground course before it opens later this year or early next. A particularly instructive set of schematics shows how three inlets allow water to flow downhill to an outlet that actually starts below the level of Lady Bird Lake. A pond in Waterloo Park and a lagoon at the lake exit will contribute to the ongoing improvements.
Conservancy leaders such as Tom Meredith, Melanie Barnes and Melba Whatley write about their areas of interest, while Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole relates the city’s role in the process. The book gives over plenty of space to images from the MVVA design team, chosen in a Conservancy competition to create the vision for the lower creek. Their delicate, aerial traceries sometimes look like something out of the film “Avatar.”
One historical note: The book generally follows the accepted notion that Edwin Waller, the city’s first mayor and Texas President Mirabeau B. Lamar’s agent during the capital city’s founding, designed the grid plan that set Austin between Waller and Shoal creeks on high banks above the Colorado River. It also reproduces W.H. Sandusky’s weirdly truncated version of that grid from 1839.
L.J. Pilie, the man who actually surveyed the land and drew the famous “Plan of the City of Austin,” is credited with the drawing only. Waller, a man without any known background in surveying or city planning, continues to be honored for laying out the city in such a rational and beautiful manner. ”
This substantial full-color, coffee-table volume measures 9 x 12 inches and is 240 pages in length. The book designed by Brian Loflin has 312 photographs, diagrams and illustrations, some dating from as early as 1838-39 and others as of 2014.