in northern Travis County or southern Williamson County is the site
of a long dead dream, a "delightful" community that never was.
Anyone who keeps up with the news knows Austin is a tough town for
developers. Building a box store or a new subdivision is not guaranteed
in a city where the popular slogan on T-shirts and gimme caps is "Keep
Austin Weird," especially if the populace perceives a proposed project
as a threat to the environment.
But back in the 19th century, residents of the Capital City stood
four square in favor of development. Even then, however, translating
a concept into reality could be tricky.
In his classic book, "The Texan Santa Fe Expedition," journalist
George Wilkins Kendall tells a short but interesting story
of a world-class Texas city that never was. Kendall's book is about
the ill-conceived 1841 Texas venture to New Mexico, an attempt by
Republic of Texas President Mirabeau B. Lamar to establish trade with
Santa Fe, which had an overland link to St. Louis in the United States.
Mexico still considered New Mexico its territory, so the Texans ended
up in a dank Mexican prison. The story of the expedition is an epic
folly, but Kendall seems not to have been able to resist any story
he came across.
By all rights, his telling of the short-but-intriguing story of a
ghost town that never had a ghost of a chance in the first place should
have been cut by some space-minded editor. Fortunately for history,
the three paragraphs Kendall devoted to the tale survived, which is
a lot more than can be said of a city envisioned as the educational
center of Texas.
expedition left Austin in mid-June 1841. The men traveled from the
capital city to a camp on Brushy Creek in present Williamson County,
a distance of about 20 miles.
Along the way, Kendall passed the site of a paper ghost town, though
it is not clear whether he heard the story in 1841 or at some point
prior to his book's publication some years later.
Kendall's description of the town's location, at least to a 21st century
reader, is equally vague: "To the left of the road, at the distance
of some mile and a half or two miles, is a high and delightful situation...."
The road he referred to probably lies beneath the asphalt of North
Lamar Boulevard in Austin, a piece of paving that roughly follows
the route of the old military road to North Texas. Kendall's reference
to a "high and delightful situation" must refer to the hills of the
Balcones Escarpment, which are about that distance from modern Lamar
Boulevard. He never said how far out of Austin the "delightful situation"
has been the case with many a development since then, "highly-coloured
plans were got out, and on paper, at least, a more flourishing place
never existed." The drawing depicted "colleges and squares, city halls
and penitentiaries, public walks and public houses."
His future city clearly intended as a cultural center, the unnamed
developer did not waste time on originality in coming up with a name.
His coming oasis of learning would be Athens.
To look at the engraving of Athens, Texas, Kendall went on, "a man
could almost imagine he heard the carriages rattling over the pavements,
and the busy hum which denotes the large and thriving city."
The would-be developer built a house for himself on the property,
and "made some other and expensive improvements on the premises."
what went wrong? For one thing, as Kendall wrote, Athens lacked "only
all the essentials to support a large population." For another, the
developer apparently did not realize he did not have 100 percent local
support for his project.
One day, digging what would be Athens' first well, the developer and
several of his slaves found themselves surrounded by Comanches.
The Indians drove them away, the landowner "narrowly escaping with
his life." The man gave up his house, his uncompleted well, the other
improvements he had made and, most important, his dream. According
to Kendall, the man never returned.
The large and thriving city the developer had envisioned would come,
but its name would be Austin, not Athens.
© Mike Cox