Shoal Creek’s Storied Past: From Fossils to Flood Control

Much of north Austin has Shoal Creek to thank for quickly draining heavy rains out of residential areas and sending it rushing toward Lady Bird Lake.

Though it was once nearly always full of water, the rugged waterway now can go from bone dry to deep, surging water in a matter of hours, and then it can slow to a trickle just hours later.

The roughly 9-mile creek has played many roles. It was the western boundary of the original city more than a century ago. Now, it cuts through several attractive neighborhoods, including Allandale, Rosedale, Belmont, Pemberton Heights and downtown.

In 2013, less than one percent of Austin’s residents were Native American, according to Census figures. But when Austin’s first white settlers arrived, it was entirely Native American.

The Pease Park Conservancy notes that archeologists figure Native Americans likely lived near the creek as far back as 11,400 years ago when glaciers receded back into Canada and bison were still in Central Texas grazing on lush fields.

Prior to that, about 100 million years ago, Texas was mostly covered by a relatively shallow sea. Take a stroll through Pease Park and the Shoal Creek greenbelt today, and you may encounter fossils. They’re so common that the city has set up organized fossil hunting programs.

The city, in partnership with the Junior League of Austin, has posted signs along Shoal Creek that tell its history. The signs add to the experience of hiking along the rugged creek. (You can view copies of the signs here.)

According to the historical markers, it wasn’t until the early 1800s that white settlers began to assert ownership of the land around Shoal Creek. Clashes between whites and Native Americans occurred frequently throughout Central Texas. By 1850, all Native Americans had left the area as white settlers populated the growing city.

Urban Legends and Custer’s Camp

In the 1890s, local folklore held that Mexicans had buried treasure along the creek. And signs posted along the creek say it was common to see lanterns illuminating the ground at night as treasure hunters looked for riches. Large holes would be found in the morning, exposing where they had dug.

No treasure was ever found.

From Nov. 3, 1865, to Feb. 4, 1866, George Custer and his troops camped along the creek as they tried to control the “rough elements” of the wild, post-war era in Central Texas.

Cholera swept through the camp, killing 35 to 40 men, who were buried along the west side of present day Pease Park. All but seven bodies were soon moved to a proper cemetery. And, later, a flood exposed the others, who were also given proper burials.

Flooding along the creek is largely under control these days, but floods in the early 1900s caused major damage and deaths. In recent years, major flood control projects, including drainage ponds, have helped limit damage even during massive rainfalls.