Just what you’ve been waiting for, the nation as it was, direct from the archives of the highly reputable U.S. Geological Service.
Here’s my brother’s neighborhood in East Austin, 55 years before he bought his house and started dismantling and reconstructing it piece by piece. Now, he’s creating his own topography on a domestic scale: a bigger bathroom to hold a clawfoot tub, stained concrete floors, rough plastered walls like in the country, a garden instead of a driveway.
That house didn’t exist when this map was made back in 1954, but what would eventually be neighboring houses had started cropping up. The railroad ran close by, paralleling Boggy Creek, and the Colorado River flowed to the south. Development was a mix of the 19th-century pastoral and haphazard newer development: cemeteries and a tuberculosis sanatorium were sited to the north, while gasoline tank storage, gravel pits, sewage disposal, and a drive-in theater lay to the south. And there were houses: nothing fancy, but a distinct residential community called Webberville. That’s a story for another time.
In many regards, the neighborhood is still on the edge of things today; the heat from Austin’s real estate market hasn’t reached here yet. The road that leads from major thoroughfares into the little net of streets dead-ends abruptly: 2 wide lanes, then nothing. Houses have been built and added onto in a way that doesn’t feel wholly planned, and there’s a lot more space between them than in dense central neighborhoods. As best as I can tell from Google Maps, all the cemeteries remain. Gasoline tank sites are still undeveloped. The TB sanatorium building is now a Salvation Army shelter in the middle of a big wooded parcel. It doesn’t look like the drive-in to the south is driveable anymore, but its driveway is still in use, and newer buildings ring a big field where someone has mowed or sculpted ONWARD in big letters.
Downs Field, where the Texas Negro League’s Austin Senators ran the bases, wasn’t far away. Current maps have it to the west, near Huston-Tillotson College, and that seems the likely site of baseball history. The topo maps show a Downs Field around 12th and Springdale, where an elementary school, a church, and the Yellow Bike Project now rub elbows. In either case, it was close enough – and sufficiently important enough – to claim in local history. My brother’s almost-namesake Satchel Paige played there, and the great Willie Mays too.
So: topo maps! Go on, give ’em a spin. What did your place look like? What’s changed? Where are the obvious stories, and where do you have to dig? What stories do you find?
More on maps, Austin, and our favorite rhyming cousin Boston at Lay of the Land [part 1].