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By Any Other Name

The Names of Austin's Cherished Landmarks Are Half History, Half Serendipity

By Any Other Name

So who's the more important figure in Austin history: Tom Miller or Robert Mueller?

Any reasonable reading would point to Tom Miller, who was mayor of Austin for 22 years (from 1933 to 1949, and again from 1955 to 1961; he died in 1962), during which the capital city first grew into a modern town of note. Robert Mueller, one of four Mueller brothers who each left their mark on 20th-century Austin, was a City Council member (or, back then, a city commissioner) for only a few months in 1926.

Mueller died in office after falling gravely ill while debating the city budget -- of "blood poisoning brought on by hay fever": Allergy sufferers take note. Friends and colleagues, sobered by the knowledge (now sadly forgotten) that long City Council meetings could indeed be fatal, wanted to commemorate his sacrifice. Three years later, they had their chance when Austin's tiny airport opened on the northeast edge of town.

But the importance of Miller and Mueller (whose names, by the way, are properly pronounced identically) is reversed in the modern Austin landscape, since most of us had a far more robust relationship with Robert Mueller Municipal Airport than we did, or do, with Tom Miller Dam, which impounds Lake Austin. As time goes on, we may need to ask who was more important, Robert Mueller or John August Earl Bergstrom? (Mueller takes that one. Bergstrom, scion of an important family in Austin's substantial Swedish community, was the first Austinite killed in World War II, which led to the old Del Valle Army Air Field being rechristened in his honor.)

That's the funny thing about how Austin's streets and landmarks got their names. Geography rewrites history. Spontaneous gestures and whims have become, generations later, the bones of the Austin canon. And the historically minded have to explain that, for example, no, Stephen F. Austin did not found, or even visit, the capital city. (The Father of Austin was, of course, the Trotsky of the Texas Revolution, Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar, who at least has a major street in his portfolio.)

Or that Doris Miller, like Bergstrom a hero of the Good War and of East Austin, was a person of the male gender. Or that Tom Miller was not some early leader of the Lower Colorado River Authority. (That was Walter E. Long, who has both a dam and a lake.) Or that Robert Mueller was not the mayor of Austin, or the owner of the land where the airport was built, or the person who led the campaign to build an airport. (Similar myths now surround Bergstrom.) He was just a nice guy who died young and whose friends thought he deserved to be honored. These names are still with us, but the people behind them have been both lost and reinvented in the mists of time.

Austin Mayor Tom Miller, at a 1940 ceremony, dumps the last  batch of concrete for the dam that now bears his name and forms Lake Austin. Miller was mayor for a whopping 22 years -- from 1933 to 1949 and again from  1955 to 1961.  
<p>(Austin History Center, Austin Public Library PicA18039)
Austin Mayor Tom Miller, at a 1940 ceremony, dumps the last batch of concrete for the dam that now bears his name and forms Lake Austin. Miller was mayor for a whopping 22 years -- from 1933 to 1949 and again from 1955 to 1961.

(Austin History Center, Austin Public Library PicA18039)

In Paris, the street signs tell you who the roads and squares are named for, a worthy practice that should be adopted broadly. (Admittedly, they are larger signs.) A perambulation through Paris tells you a lot about martyrdom, between the saints and the Communards and the Resistance fighters, and also tips you to who, for example, first put gaslights on the streets. (That would be M. Rambuteau, on whose rue sits the Centre Pompidou.)

But over and over, one sees the names of anciens proprieteurs -- that is, the developers who built the streets. Likewise in Austin, where not only our early land barons but their entire families got their names slapped onto our map. Luckily, they had large families, so that J.M. Swisher could borrow monikers from his kin Milton, James, Gibson, Newton, Nickerson, Monroe, Annie, Mary, Nellie, Elizabeth, and Johanna for his subdivision, which was bisected by a road that was not yet South Congress Avenue. (Historians aren't sure, though, about Eva.)

And if that well ran dry, you could start tapping both first and last names, as did Will and Harwood Stacy, the developers of Travis Heights. Or, for that matter, Gen. George Williamson, who lent his last name to the county and his first name to the county seat. Then you could move to Plan C, naming streets after distant favored uncles and such. Mrs. John LaPrelle, whose husband built the old LaPrelle Place neighborhood just south of the Swisher Addition, christened the new lane serving the tract after a relation with the curious name of Oltorf.

Then as now, successful real estate types inevitably became "community leaders" with many entrées into the name game. Were you teleported into prewar Austin, you couldn't throw a rock without hitting a Caswell, just as a generation earlier you'd have to duck to avoid being hit by a Bremond. Then these folks intermarried, which meant not only their names but their love lives got writ in bricks and asphalt.

Young Claire Caswell married young Gaston Dismukes; both died tragically, he of tuberculosis, she in a shipwreck with her second husband. When her brother W.T. Caswell built his new neighborhood overlooking Shoal Creek, he honored his sister and her true love at the corner of Claire and Gaston streets. (That's one story. Realtor G.H. Brush, who in the 1930s helped develop Pemberton Heights, adjacent to Caswell's Shoal Terrace, told the daily in the Sixties that Gaston was just "a pleasing name.")

Even when not self-referential, early developers had quirks that now mark our map. From today's perspective, it might be nice if this were still so. Maybe we wouldn't have self-canceling marketing artifacts like Canyon Mesa -- well, which is it? -- or streets with names like West Oak Crest View Trail. Those have, in the past, been among the words on a city-planning hit list of overused names, so some of today's weird names may actually have been suggested by helpful city staff. (They didn't manage to keep Austin from having four Cedars and two Duvals, though.)

The ever-efficient E.M. Shipe, father of Hyde Park (and thus of Shipe Park), saw no reason to give names to the streets that, in his plans, were labeled Avenue A, B, etc. (Again, there are other versions of that story.) Shipe did, however, decide to regrade the street leading from the streetcar barns into the heart of town, making it the best road in town. It quickly got dubbed the Speedway.

After being taken ill at a city budget hearing, City  Councilman Robert Mueller died of blood poisoning brought on by hay fever in January 1927, only a few months into his term. Two years later, Austin's new airport was named to honor Mueller's sacrifice.
<p>(Austin History Center, Austin Public Library, PicB06246)
After being taken ill at a city budget hearing, City Councilman Robert Mueller died of "blood poisoning brought on by hay fever" in January 1927, only a few months into his term. Two years later, Austin's new airport was named to honor Mueller's sacrifice.

(Austin History Center, Austin Public Library, PicB06246)

South of Shipe's streetcar suburb, the streets around campus famously do not connect to their mates across MLK, which used to be 19th Street and before that, Magnolia Street. This is yet another story with several versions, but apparently the developer did not like the names of the existing streets, and city ordinance required that connecting streets share the same name. On the north side of Magnolia, Guadalupe, San Antonio, Nueces, and Rio Grande became West San Marcos (as opposed to the Eastside street by the French Legation), Charles, August, and San Bernard (also an existing Eastside street, but whatever).

To the west, Possum Trot sounds like an artifact of pioneer days -- an informal landmark, like the Round Rock where the Chisholm Trail crossed Cypress Creek -- but it was actually made up by Enfield developer R. Niles Graham. (The possums were, however, real.) Graham also decided that the new road that went west over the hill should logically be called Westover Road. The main road intersecting it, which bore several different names at different times, was the main route to Camp Mabry, which was the site of Austin's early trade shows-cum-flea markets. Hence it became the grandly named Exposition Boulevard.

Graham was the grandson of Governor Elisha Marshall Pease and Lucadia Niles Pease, whose estate Woodlawn, now just a grand house on Niles Road, formerly included most of today's 78703 ZIP code. From it were carved today's Pease Park, as well as Clarksville -- named for ex-slave Charles Clark, who founded the Freedomtown with the Pease family's blessing in 1871.

The adjacent neighborhood started at Shoal Creek and stopped at the utilitarian West Line, which became West Lynn, the story goes, after an early judge's beautiful daughter. The Peases originally hailed from Connecticut, which is why all the streets in Enfield, including Enfield itself, are named after places in the Nutmeg State and why Yankees arriving in Austin are puzzled to encounter Poquonock and Saybrook and Windsor when they venture westward.

With people like the Pease family, the lines between real estate developers and heroes of history start to blur. Will Barton was a pioneer, here before the city was founded, but Andrew Jackson Zilker was an entrepreneur who acquired Barton's spring and its surroundings so he could use the clear, clean water to make ice. But even at the turn of the century, sensitive citizens were complaining about the springs' deteriorating quality.

Zilker then became a civic worthy who served both as alderman from the old Tenth Ward and as president of the school board and who cut a curious deal in which he effectively gave Barton Springs to the school district to sell to the city, which paid for a $100,000 school endowment with the proceeds from the quite popular bathhouse: Hence Zilker Park. In 1950, nearly two decades after Zilker's death, the district opened Zilker Elementary in his honor, but without any reference to its proximity to Zilker Park. So, inevitably, the residential area between the two, which when platted was dubbed Barton Heights, became today's Zilker neighborhood.

Looking at the inner southwest's tangle of Zilker thises and Barton thats, it's not hard to imagine that the two gentlemen were somehow related, or contemporaries, or something other than the real story. But at least Barton and Zilker are both well-documented personages whose lives unfolded in sequence on the same piece of land.

Students in 1947 at the City Negro Recreation Building, renamed Doris Miller Auditorium after the (male) Austinite whose heroics at Pearl Harbor made him the first African-American to earn the Navy Cross, that service's highest honor. Miller was lost at sea in the Pacific near the war's end.
<p>(Austin History Center, Austin Public Library, PicA24773)
Students in 1947 at the City Negro Recreation Building, renamed Doris Miller Auditorium after the (male) Austinite whose heroics at Pearl Harbor made him the first African-American to earn the Navy Cross, that service's highest honor. Miller was lost at sea in the Pacific near the war's end.

(Austin History Center, Austin Public Library, PicA24773)

By contrast, imagine you're heading out to John August Earl Bergstrom's airport, which lies in the middle of the old Santiago Del Valle land grant, named for a hacendado in Coahuila who never crossed the Rio Grande, let alone the Colorado. Unless you take a scenic drive along McKinney Falls Parkway, named for the first homesteader on the southeast side, your route will bear you on the memory of someone whose contribution to history was made somewhere else -- Waterloo settler Gen. Edward Burleson, 19th-century land speculator William Cannon, longtime City Council member Ben White, highway engineer Ed Bluestein, and of course, Cesar Chavez.

Not that the map and landscape have to be effective teaching aids, but as we said, geography rewrites history. And thus lifelong Californian Chavez's heroic name has been attached, via the renaming of its major arterial, to an East Austin neighborhood that was already well established when he was born.

And politics rewrites geography. Nine Austin Public Library locations (including ones under construction) have been named after people, ranging from neighborhood fixtures like Oak Hill's Will Hampton and Tarrytown's Howson family (who donated the land on which that library was built) to citywide luminaries such as Jake Pickle and Ralph Yarborough and John Henry Faulk to national heroes such as George Washington Carver. None was particularly associated with the library; in most cases, it was decided that these people deserved to have something named after them, and a library was the first thing available.

This illustrates how the naming of things is a curious and haphazard process. Criteria are not written down anywhere, although it helps in modern times to be a war hero (Bergstrom, Doris Miller, Col. Banister of WWI, Pvt. Terrazas of Korea), or to die sadly and unexpectedly (Mueller, Robert Martinez, Sandra Muraida, Danny Ruiz), or to be a City Council member of any vintage (Tom Miller, Ben White, Lester Palmer, Louis Hancock, Dick Nichols, E.C. Bartholomew, A.P. Wooldridge, Emma Long, and now Gus Garcia). One can only imagine what sort of landmark would fittingly honor Daryl Slusher or Beverly Griffith.

Since it's obviously unseemly to fight over the legacy of someone, particularly a dead someone, in public, it's been easier than one might suppose to get a city of Austin street or landmark named or renamed on the first attempt. There are, of course, exceptions. Dorothy Turner's sails have yet to be filled by the winds of the zeitgeist, as the City Council has been loath to rename Rosewood Avenue to honor a woman who routinely browbeats them and calls them racists.

And the ordeal over renaming 19th Street to honor Martin Luther King Jr. in 1974-5 is the stuff of civic legend, with lawsuits and mob action and Eastside leader J.J. Seabrook (after whom a street, and neighborhood, are also named) dying of a heart attack at council chambers after making the case for Dr. King's legacy. The resolution to do the actual renaming, interestingly enough, also renamed dozens of other streets, officially giving us Barton Hills Drive, Medical Parkway, Bouldin Avenue, Justin Lane, and Research Boulevard.

These names had been used before the city made them legit, as is often the case here where names are somewhat fluid. People still know where 19th Street is, and where Decker Lake is, decades after it was renamed for Walter Long. In fact, people still know where Pecan Street is, more than a century after Austin's east-west streets were officially numbered -- a move initially backed by developers who, in a less literate age, thought it would be easier for people to find their properties if they only needed to count rather than read. (The tree names originally went as far north as 28th Street, excepting 12th, which was College Avenue, and 15th, which was North Avenue.)

Considering how Austin is supposedly addicted to process, our name game has been anything but systematic, and its quirks and accretions have, in the language of our landscape, been written into a history that diverges from the real one. Or maybe we're living in the alternate universe and our landscape records the real one. After all, you've never seen Tom Miller, Doris Miller, and Robert Mueller in the same room at the same time, have you? n

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