The Battle of Waller Creek
The Felling on the Erwin Drum
PHIT website has a section called Movement Folk Tales that recounts the stories in Austin during the 1960s and 70s. As part of our RAG underground newspaper trilogy, we collected a lot more stories than we could tell in a short documentary. We are telling them here.
Frank Erwin currently has a huge basketball and performing artist stadium named in his honor— The Frank Erwin Center. The University of Texas is going to blow it up in 2024.
Some older political activists are gleeful. They might even go down to the Texas State Cemetery and have a seance over his grave. They may even dance a jig of victory.
In the Movement Folk Tales, Frank Erwin plays the role of the evil stepmother, the wicked witch, the troll under the bridge. Rather than having a stadium named after him, some might say that a more appropriate statue of him would be a troll under the Waller Street Bridge. Since the stadium it is going to be blown up, and Waller Creek has been cleaned up, maybe there still is hope for the Erwin troll statue.
Frank Erwin sat on the Board of Regents of the University of Texas from 1963 to 1975 and chair from 1966 to 1971. Those were years of anti-war activism and civil rights protest. Frank Erwin was a great friend of Lyndon Johnson. Frank Erwin was not a great friend of the student rebels.
In the RAG documentary, Erwin’s name comes up often. He tried to keep the RAG off campus. He expelled a number of students who worked on the RAG. And he was personally involved in some of the confrontations on the campus.
One of those confrontations was the Waller Creek Massacre, sometimes known as the Battle of Waller Creek. Waller Creek is a delightful little body of water that wanders through the University of Texas, Austin campus. J Frank Dobie wrote most of his iconic tall tales of Texas in a “house on Waller Creek.” Lately, the creek has been beautified and cleaned up and turned into a wondrous walking trail.
The Waller Creek confrontation took place in 1969. UT wanted to build a new structure to be called Belmont Hall to house the physical education department as well as provide support for a new upper deck of the football stadium. The upper deck would allow 14,000 students to watch the 5-6 football games played in a year.
39 live oak trees would have to be taken down. Students liked the trees. Today, city permits would be needed to cut those trees down, although I am not sure how much city authority extends to state property. However, the University itself has regulations on tree removal.
This event occurred before the emergence of the major environmental movement. This is still a couple of years away from the passage of the Environmental Protection Agency. Students, especially architecture students, were upset. Alan Tanaguchi, who was Dean of the Architecture School advocated preserving the natural state of the steam and the students demonstrated against the plan. Members of Students for a Democratic Society were also involved.
Students climbed into the trees to prevent the bulldozers from destroying the live oaks. Austin City Police were called in by Erwin and the police climbed ladders to haul them down. One of those hauled down and arrested was Nancy Folbre, who later went on to get a PhD in economics, become a highly respected feminist economist, and be awarded the MacArthur genius award.
While the tree-hugging was going on, the architecture students were able to get an injunction against the bulldozers.
Frank Erwin was personally present at the site, directing activity. When told that the injunction was on its way, he quickly told the bulldozers to hurry up.
Erwin was successful. The live oaks were bulldozed away, and the deed was done
According to the UT History Corner, The “Battle of Waller Creek” was front page news across the state, covered from Los Angeles to New York, and compelling images of students being dragged from trees were published in newspapers as far away as Paris, France. The RAG also covered the story.
“Two weeks ago, 26 students put their fair bodies in the trees to defend out environment. They are honest to god flaming martyrs.” (The Rag. 11/3/69).
Doyle Neimann, who worked with the RAG, was at the demonstration and in an interview for the Rag documentary, recalled the incident.
“I remember the tree demonstration. The university wanted to tear down all these trees. We had actually gone to court and got court injunction to stop them. But between the time a court injunction was issued, and when we could get it served, the University had called the contractors and cut the trees down. So we organized it and had a spontaneous demonstration where we lifted up the tree limbs and branches and marched across campus to the front of the tower to have a spontaneous demonstration. That was kind of the way things would happen. Very spontaneous”
The dragging of the tree limbs to cover up the entrance to the UT Tower reprised the Macbeth witch’s prophecy that “King Ersatz, Frank C. Ego, Frank Irksome” would rule “until Birnam Wood comes to Dunsinane.”
Witches curses sometimes take a long time to fulfill themselves.
It took a few decades, but the Drum is coming down.
From the Rag on 11/10/69, “We’ve got damn little power. The bulldozers on Waller Creek proved that. But the destruction of Waller Creek also demonstrated some other problems we face: ecological problems, or, in other words, problems of how we relate to our environment and how it relates to us.”
The article in the Rag goes on to lay out a pretty fair analysis of integrated pest management and the need for ecological sanity. These were the early days of the movement.
It’s a folk tale that deserves to be remembered.