Shoal Creek, which serves as the natural eastern boundary of the Pemberton Heights neighborhood, served as the original western border of the City of Austin at its founding in 1839. Ever since then, Austinites have been enjoying and using and creating history along Shoal Creek even though most of the area to the west of the creek remained undeveloped until the 1910s and 1920s.
Formal preservation of the creek began in 1875, when Governor and Mrs. Pease gave 23 acres along the creek and north of 15th Street to be preserved as Pease Park. In 1929, the City of Austin bought land to extend the park north to 24th Street, Goodall Wooten and others donated additional land that extended the green space to 29th Street. Today, the “official” Pease Park extends to 24th Street, while the stretch between 24th and 29th is called the Shoal Creek Greenbelt.
When he was stationed in Austin during the winter of I865-66 to command a troop of Union volunteers, GeneraL George A. Custer used the level banks of the creek to serve as a campground for his soldiers. A tent city flourished along the creek even though some soldiers ended up buried there after succumbing to cholera.
“Buried treasure fever” hit Austin in the 1890s with numerous mysterious holes and piles of dirt showing up in likely areas along the creek, O. Henry even set his short story “Bexar Script No. 2692″ along the creek, capturing a local legend of buried treasure, complete with an evil land shark, a defenseless widow, and a buried skeleton.
In today’s intermittent water flow, it’s not always easy to imagine that the creek sheltered several popular swimming holes that are featured in the reminiscences of “oId-timers” in the Austin History Center collections. Split Rock Hole, just south of 29th Street, was a popular spot and can still be conjured up occasionally when crossing the creek at the low water crossing. But for most of us, Blue Hole and Cat Hole exist in name only. Could the remnants of several darns in the creek bed offer any clue as to their former locations?
The Shoal Creek bridge that opened up Pemberton Heights to development was the 24th Street bridge, built in 1928. A few years later, the bridge at 29th Street was added. Probably not many folks remember that another bridge across the creek was planned during the mid 1950s, intended to extend 19th Street west to Rainbow Bend. Fortunately, the neighboring landowners were able to find convincing legal barriers to that idea.
The recent collapse of the southernmost bridge in the Shoal Creek Greenbelt (at roughly the equivalent of 26th Street) during one of the August 2001 floods, is a reminder of the immense power that water can have in our creek. Thirteen people died during the 1981 Memorial Day floods and six of those drowned in Shoal Creek. So far, no record has been found yet of when that bridge was built – something that the City needs to know before work can begin on replacing or repairing it.
The hike and bike trail that is today possibly the most-used amenity of Shoal Creek has the distinction of being the city’s first in its network of trails. Funded by Pembertonites Janet and Russell Fish and built by volunteers in the early 1960s, the trail generally followed the path of the bridle path built by the Works Progress Administration workers in the 1930s.
So the creek and its surrounding park space has served an abundance of purposes over the years a place to jog and ride in varied natural surroundings, a place to let the dog run leash-free, a channel for a sewer pipe, a field trip destination for science classes, a channel for floodwaters rushing toward Town Lake, and a campground for a changing cast of homeless residents. But there probably isn’t too much competition for the oldest “resident” – the fossilized skeleton of a 14 to 18 foot long Plesiosaur discovered in the creek bed in 1990. The remains of the giant swimming reptile had been resting in the creek bed for about 90 million years.
Article by Pemberton resident Biruta Celmins Kearl is the Archivist/Administrator at the Austin History Center, the local history research collection of the Austin Public Library
Want to help Shoal Creek? Learn about the Shoal Creek Conservancy!
USGS Water Flow Data > Shoal Creek: Current waterflow at 12th Street
For further historic detail see “THE HISTORY OF SHOAL CREEK” by Leila Downs Clark, May 1954