If you’re an Austin old-timer, what we’re about to tell you sounds insultingly simple — but did you know the city’s famously lush Hike-and-Bike Trail wasn’t always so green? If you’re one of the many people that moved here yesterday, you’d have no idea that much of the current tree cover shading many sections of the trail, particularly in the downtown area, is technically artificial in its placement — the majority planted no earlier than the 1970s by the Town Lake Beautification Committee and famously spurred along by Lady Bird Johnson, the namesake of our central lake since 2007.
Any local even slightly plugged into Austin’s history is aware of this in the abstract — the construction of the Tom Miller Dam in 1940 along with other dams further up the Colorado River put an end to its frequent floods, which previously made it difficult for any significant tree growth to take root on the banks near downtown. Prior to the construction of the dam, even the trees that persisted were often removed from the banks in an effort to mitigate the hazard of floods uprooting them and wreaking havoc on unsuspecting buildings and bridges downstream.
The subsequent construction of the Longhorn Dam in 1960 created what we then called Town Lake, and the beautification efforts that started here about a decade later were a response to a barren, unremarkable downtown shoreline. Along with Lady Bird Johnson, local political figures including Ann and Roy Butler — now the namesakes of the trail itself — saw the planting of thousands of trees along the lake as a legacy project that would eventually transform the city’s central waterway, and decades later the trail and its surroundings are almost unrecognizable in photos from this prior era.
Satellite photos of the downtown stretch of Lady Bird Lake, including Butler Shores, Shoal Creek, and the Seaholm Power Plant, from 1964 and 2016. Images: USGS
Two views of the Seaholm Intake on Lady Bird Lake in the 1960s and the present day, one condo tower and one adaptive reuse project later — we’re still waiting on the intake building’s second act. Images: Austin History Center / Google Maps
Views from the trail on the south shore of the lake, showing the rail bridge near Lamar Boulevard, in 1972 and today. Images: Austin History Center / Google Maps
Ironically, the temperament of the Colorado prior to its damming was part of why the greenery along the trail prospered comparatively fast — we’ve heard from local arborists that without the rich soil deposited on the banks by generations of flooding, the flourishing of the trail’s tree cover would have taken a lot longer.
What a delight it is to drive along Town Lake and see all the new trees that have been planted! . . . The Town Lake Beautification Project has seemingly caught on, and eventually our river walks will be shade by giant oaks, vivid crepe myrtles and trees of other varieties.
— Katherine Hart, Austin American-Statesman, August 18, 1973
For longtime Austinites this is all pretty old news, but the extent of the trail’s natural development and its continued stewardship by the Trail Foundation could easily trick one of our city’s assorted newcomers into believing those lovely trees were always there, and that we’ve just done our best to avoid intruding on them as Austin grows — for most of the downtown area, the truth is quite the opposite.