Austin’s Lakeside Trail Marks 40 Years

KUT/Nathan Bernier on Friday, Jun. 3rd

Visit KUT.org for an audio version of this story.

Saturday is National Trails Day, and this year it comes 40 years after work began to create Austin’s most popular trail: the one around Lady Bird Lake.

The downtown hike-and-bike trail has become one of Austin’s defining features. Some people, like Sam Herrera, use it almost every day.

“I do my daily run and maintain my running,” he said. “You can also run on it without having to stop at traffic lights, […] beats going around an oval track too.”

Forty years ago, there was no hike and bike trail around Lady Bird Lake. So what happened between then and now? To find out, we talked to two people who were intimately involved in its creation. One of them is Anne Butler, wife of former Austin Mayor Roy Butler. The other is former Austin City Council member Les Gage.

Both remember the shores of the Colorado River in Austin back when they were largely neglected.

“It was almost completely barren of trees,” Gage said. “I think the only trees that were on Town Lake were the ones that were in Zilker Park. But no other trees. It was just a river, basically. And it went up and down and was ugly.”

Then, in 1960, the Longhorn Dam opened and it created Town Lake, which is, of course, now called Lady Bird Lake.  “We were looking at it saying, ‘Well, that’s nice, but now what?’,” Gage said.

A decade later – 1971 in London, England – Anne Butler was staying with her husband Roy Butler, then mayor of Austin, at the Savoy Hotel. Her friend Ladybird Johnson was also there, the wife of former president Lyndon Baines Johnson.

“We were having a nice little party, and Ladybird said, ‘Anne, come with me,’ and took my hand and led me out onto the balcony,” Butler said.

This being a fancy hotel, the balcony overlooked the River Thames.

“She said, ‘Isn’t that a beautiful sight?’ And I said, ‘It’s absolutely gorgeous. The green grass, the beautiful trees, the shrubs, and the plants, and this hiking trail,’” said Butler. “And she said, ‘Do you think we could ever make Town Lake look like that?’ I said, ‘Of course we can, and I know just the fella to help us.’”

That fella was her husband, Roy Butler, who committed the city to helping realize Ladybird’s vision, but with one caveat.

“You all have to raise the money. And that was how the whole thing all got started,” Butler said. “When we got home, I put together a committee with Roy’s help.”

That’s where Les Gage came in. He was a member of Austin’s city council at the time. “I was the green guy before green was cool,” Gage said. “I was just absolutely blessed to be a part of that committee.”

Ladybird Johnson offered to have the first fundraiser at the LBJ Ranch, and people came from all over

“She called her friends from around the nation who flew in to support the event and the trail,” Butler said. “We had tables decorated with red check cloths, and center pieces, and wildflowers.”

“It was Darrel Royal that said, ‘I just know somebody who might come and play. He’s just getting started, and he probably would play for nothing,’” Gage said. “And we said, ‘Well, who is that?’ And he said, ‘Well, Willie Nelson, you probably never heard of him.’ And so we said, ‘Well, free is good! Let’s get him signed up.’”

Of course, forty years ago Willie was not as famous as he is today. But that did not hurt the fund raiser. “We raised a lot of money,” Butler said. “I don’t remember how much it was. Nobody on the committee can remember.”

They held more fundraisers, and eventually raised about $300,000, which was “a drop in the bucket,” according to Butler, as far as the overall plan was concerned. “But it was enough to plant those 3,000 trees and get it started,” Gage said.

Anne Butler and Ladybird Johnson also got the garden clubs in town involved.

Butler said they received “a letter signed by Mrs. Johnson and saying, ‘Would you come and do this and this and this?’”

The clubs were responsible for watering the plants. “Sprinkler lines get stopped up occasionally,” Butler said. “They would do that and fertilize the plants and change the plants with the seasons.”

“There was such involvement from all segments of the community,” Butler said. “But I don’t think any of us realized or dreamed that it would become so popular and so heavily used.”

“I think our vision was, you know, there would be this nice strolling along, enjoying a portion of the trail,” Gage said. “People would take their dog down, ride their bicycle, or maybe they would stop and fish someplace.”

Butler said she was “still very pleased” about the trail’s development. “It’s become such an asset to Austin. I have been told by the Chamber of Commerce people and so forth, that it’s a big draw [for] people moving to Austin,” Butler said. “I’m proud of that.”

Former city council member Gage feels the same way. “Of the various things I’ve been involved in the community over the years, this is the one thing I take the most pride in,” Gage said. “It’s amazing what’s happened, because the trail has become the center of Austin.”

The city will break ground this year on completing the 10 mile loop around Lady Bird Lake. A boardwalk will link the south part of the trail underneath I-35. It is scheduled to be completed in 2013.

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