29 Mar The first Hike and Bike: Janet Fish and the Shoal Creek trail
Yesterday, the book signing at Threadgills South gave guests the opportunity to get their own first run hardcover books. We also celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Save Our Springs uprising and heard some of the book that covers that period.
Many people are unaware of the history that preceeds the SOS movement of the 1990s, and that is one reason I wrote this book. A host of people and groups were very active in creating the Environmental City in the "early days" of the late 1960s and 1970s. It was during that time that the ideas about using creeks for greenbelts took shape, and the first hike and bike trails were built. These became the model for what we build today. Below is the story of one such person, Janet Fish, who we have to thank for the Shoal Creek hike and bike trail.
Another person who had a huge influence on the creation of Austin’s landscape was Janet Fish, the daughter of Walter Long, and wife of Russell Fish. Walter Long had come to Austin in the early years of the century and was one of the prime movers in Austin. He served as the Chair of the Chamber of Commerce from 1914 to 1949, actively promoting a vision of a growing Austin all his life. The family home sits on a hill overlooking Shoal Creek. Janet had grown up riding her family horses on an old bridle path along that creek. The path had been built by the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corps) during the Depression, but had fallen into disrepair since the city was not willing to spend money on its upkeep. Janet, along with Dickson and Parks Director Beverly Sheffield, saw the creek as a natural parkway and wanted to restore the old CCC trail. She approached the city about ways that the creek could be cleaned up and the bridle path restored. But the city was not willing to spend the money required.
Janet, on the other hand, had decided that something was going to happen, and she set about making it happen. Since the city would not dedicate the money required, Janet contracted the city to do much of the restoration work, using her own money. Parks Director Sheffield recalls that "one day Janet came down to the office and wrote out a $5,000 check to the city. Later on, her husband Russell joked that check was her new car!" That was a lot of money in the 1950s, but $5,000 did not cover the entire expense to make the trail. So Janet got community organizations such as the Boy Scouts and church groups to donate time and labor to clear and build the trail. In addition, Janet actually made a map of all the houses along the trail for its first section. She went to each household, asking them to take responsibility for a small section of the creek adjacent to their property. Asked if this helped, she laughed, "Sure–then their yard help wouldn’t go over and dump their trash on [it]!" Most residents were enthusiastic, and many who lived along the trail volunteered time to keep it clean. Several households organized their children into "junior deputies" who were told to watch the trail and report anyone dumping trash. Janet actually "deputized" the kids, giving them badges and note pads on which to write the names of transgressors.
Both Fishes, Roberta Dickson, Sheffield, and many others hoped to extend the trail well up the creek, past its present end at 35th Street. But they had trouble with landowners who would not grant easement rights. The land on the creek that presently houses Seton Hospital contains a set of free-flowing springs, named Seiders Springs. The original plan to build Seton would have ruined the spring and used land the Fishes wanted for the Hike and Bike. Russell and the landowner fought at the city council, Russell asking that the landowner not be given the right to build over the spring. "We are friends again now, but we fought bitterly over that land," says Russell. The owner eventually agreed to set the hospital back so as not to destroy the spring, and gave the trail a right-of-way. In 1976 three sisters descended from original settlers, the Seiders, gave a $10,000 donation to restore the park at the springs where they had grown up. This donation allowed the city to create Seiders Park, presently the northern terminus of the trail.
The Seiders sisters gave their money to conserve the land as a public good, but other landowners farther up the creek were not to be moved. As Russell approached them about trail access, some agreed, but many would not hear of it. The reason many gave was that "They didn’t want ‘common people’ wandering along their property."
Janet gave her Shoal Creek trail the name "Hike and Bike Trail," a name that stuck. The trail became a model linear park at both the local and national levels. One of Janet’s friends was Liz Carpenter, assistant to Lady Bird Johnson (wife of President Lyndon Baines Johnson). Janet gave pictures of the Hike and Bike to Carpenter, who showed them to Lady Bird. Lady Bird was so impressed with the trail that she passed out pictures of it in her beautification efforts around the country. As the trail got national acclaim, several national magazines wrote articles on it, and Janet got calls from other cities asking how the project was done. As a form of landscape, the Hike and Bike Trail served as the model for all the future greenbelts in Austin, showing how area creeks could be used for recreation and parks rather than dumping grounds. It also provided a name for an idea used by other cities across the nation, for the first time placing Austin in the forefront of thinking about environmental landforms and city designs.