Trees Before Numbers

Trees Before Digits, 1839

Last time, we learned the origins of Austin’s north-south street names. Here’s a narrative of the grid’s other half, the numbered east-west streets.

When Edwin Waller and his merry crew began to build the Texas Republic’s new capital in 1839, the Colorado River was lined with an almost impenetrable thicket. Spanish explorers had avoided this scary area in their explorations 100-plus years earlier. For Waller, however, the trees presented an abundant resource almost as valuable as the river’s water and the ground’s rocks: lumber.

Again, as in other cities, streets got the names of important trees. North Avenue (an exception, 15th Street) was at the top. Then came Walnut (14th), a tree that yields some of the prettiest furniture material anywhere. The stout bottomland hardwood also gives nuts.

Peach (13th) isn’t, strictly speaking, a Texas native: it was carried from Persia to Europe by the Romans. The ornamental cherry laurel is sometimes called a wild peach, but the two aren’t related. Settlers would bring peach trees with them to plant in their gardens.

College Avenue (12th) is another exception to the naming convention. Austin was to host an institution of higher education, but the early plans placed the campus west of Capitol Square. Later, the university was moved north of the old city, but UT still owns properties to the west.

Mesquit (spelled without the ending e on the map, 11th) is a thorny legume that grows extensively on the Texas plains. It can be a nuisance, but the bean pods are edible, and the trunks make fair fence posts. Nothing beats mesquite blossom honey in the spring, and many barbecue cooks swear by it for smoking meats.

The Mulberry (10th) grows in wet and dry areas, and its fruit becomes a tasty jam. Ash (9th), another bottomland hardwood, is prized for making baseball bats. Hickory (8th), cousin to walnut and pecan, makes a stout tool handle.

Bois d’Arc (7th), also in the mulberry family, is known as Osage orange for its bark’s color and horse-apple for the globular fruit that’s supposed to repel roaches. Does a great job on elephants, too. Wonderfully durable, its name refers to the making of bows for arrows.

Pecan is the State Tree of Texas, a marvelous shade tree for our lawns and an important agricultural crop. In wet years, the nuts come due in mid-November, just in time for the pies and pralines of the festive season. Even before Austin’s second building boom of the 1870s and 80s, Pecan Street (6th), standing as it does above the high-water mark of the Colorado River and a straight-shot in from civilization, became the main commercial strip. Today, the seven blocks of historic structures between Congress and the former East Avenue (now IH-35) serve as Party Central for the Live Music Capital.

The Pine (5th) grows in East Texas, formerly near Bastrop, and in the mountainous Trans-Pecos. Its workable wood goes into flooring, furniture, and framing. Cedar (4th) is what many locals call native juniper. True cedars exist only in the Middle East and Western Himalayas. Both the red juniper (east) and Ashe juniper (west) logs make excellent fence posts, and the resin repels moths. Juniper berries (their cones) flavor gin and add spice to venison and pheasant.

Cypress (3rd) loves to hug the water’s edge. Its lumber is soft like pine but with a tan color. These trees, like their redwood and sequoia cousins, can live immensely long lives—almost 2,000 years. They drop their needles in winter, which is unusual for conifers.

The stately Live Oak (2nd) differs from most of its deciduous relatives in that it stays green throughout winter. It sheds its leaves in the spring just before blooming and sprouting new foliage. Also blessed with long life, at least three Texas specimens are more than a millennium in age.

Our final exception, Water Avenue (César Chávez) referred to its paralleling the Texas Colorado, the longest river entirely inside the state.

In about 1890, the tree streets were changed to numbered ones. This was to facilitate navigation and postal delivery. One can see the former botanical designations on historic signs along Congress Avenue and East Sixth. Honoring the original titles, Austinites enjoy the Old Pecan Street Festival spring and fall, look at glass art in Pine Street Station, and enjoy cocktails at Cedar Street Courtyard.

6th at Neches

6th at Neches