UT was nearly the “University by the Lake”
By Dave Garlock
University of Texas officials floated a proposal in late 2011 to move the UT System offices from five downtown-Austin buildings to a spectacular, waterfront site a few miles away, resurfacing the battle between two UT regents who have been dead for decades.
UT leaders have been pondering what to do with the beautiful Colorado River property ever since George Washington Brackenridge (1832-1920) donated the land to UT—in 1910! Today, the 350-acre property is the site of a public golf course, student apartments, and an 82-acre biological field laboratory.
Brackenridge correctly anticipated that UT’s original 40 acres would not be enough to meet future needs. A noted Union sympathizer, he fully expected UT, founded in 1883, to move to the “Brackenridge Tract” and quash the dreams of his rival, Major George Washington Littlefield (1842-1920), a Confederate war hero who wanted the fledgling campus to stay right where it was—facing south.
While the UT–Austin campus offers many reminders of George W. Littlefield’s contributions, fellow UT regent George W. Brackenridge’s legacy is less apparent.
Littlefield played his cards well, even building a Victorian mansion near campus in 1893-94. Today, the home is part of UT and Littlefield’s name appears all over campus, while Brackenridge has a single dormitory in his name, plus the Brackenridge Field Laboratory near the river.
These two powerful UT regents had many things in common: Both were born outside Texas and became ranchers, bankers, and philanthropists. Both made staggering amounts of money—and spent much of it generously on behalf of the University of Texas. UT leaders seemed to enjoy their battle to become the university’s top donor (or “top sugar daddy” as the Texas Observer put it in a 1972 article).
Even though one observer said the two men were virtually indistinguishable from a block away, their dislike for each other was apparent. It was no wonder they clashed: Littlefield was a Confederate officer who led his Terry’s Texas Rangers company through Civil War battles before returning home badly injured. To Littlefield, Brackenridge was a non-combatant, Confederate turncoat. Worse, he was a “Yankee.” Newspaper stories of the day quote Littlefield as saying the Confederates “would have shot [Brackenridge] in five minutes” if they had ever captured him.
Fortunately for Brackenridge, a well-educated man who attended Harvard Law School, the Confederates never came close to nabbing him, probably because family connections allowed him to serve as a U.S. Treasury agent, even as his three brothers fought for the Confederacy. His connections included President Abraham Lincoln, who asked Brackenridge to serve as his personal liaison.
Littlefield made his fortune after the Civil War as a “cowman” before investing wisely in land. In 1871, he was driving cattle along the legendary Chisholm Trail to pay off family debts. Soon after, he amassed a spread of 300,000 acres in the Panhandle, and stocked his Yellow House Ranch with thoroughbred Herefords.
Brackenridge once praised Littlefield as a “strong, if somewhat rough character,” a characterization fellow UT Regent Will Hogg apparently agreed with. In the 1973 book George W. Brackenridge, Maverick Philanthropist, author Marilyn Sibley quotes Hogg as calling Littlefield a “bull-tongued banker in a one-horse town.”
Littlefield also built the nine-story Littlefield Building in Austin, then one of the tallest skyscrapers between New Orleans and San Francisco. By 1918, as founder of the American National Bank in Austin and an admired philanthropist, Littlefield was worth some $5 million.
Brackenridge donated much of his wealth in an equally aggressive way. The six-foot-tall, acerbic banker, with his full beard and intense stare, had been trained as an engineer, surveyor, and lawyer, and had a passion for curling up with “great books” in his library.
And if Littlefield was a Confederacy-loving conservative, Brackenridge was the unrequited Union liberal with interests far beyond UT. He gave millions of dollars to other universities as well, helped San Antonio develop its first public school system, and donated 200 acres to help build Brackenridge Park. He also donated $50,000 to enable women to study medicine at Columbia University in New York and gave a considerable amount of money to help educate black citizens. In 1911, he appointed the first Texas woman to a bank board and spoke out in favor of women’s suffrage and Prohibition.
But it was when Brackenridge donated money for the construction of the first men’s dormitory at UT (later razed) that Littlefield realized his legacy was in danger. He reacted by going on a philanthropic spree that would make him the top donor in the first 50 years of UT history. He eventually donated or be-queathed an estimated $3 million to UT, including $500,000 to help build the UT Tower. He also established a trust for construction of the Littlefield Fountain. Brackenridge countered by donating hundreds of acres of gently rolling, wooded property on the Colorado River.
In truth, Brackenridge was betting that Littlefield, who was ill, would die before he did, allowing UT to move to the riverfront property, with UT President Vinson’s private encouragement. When Littlefield died in November 1920, Brackenridge and Vinson planned their move. But they apparently forgot what Littlefield had once said about himself: “In all my life, [I] have never connected myself with a proposition that failed.”
His carefully orchestrated will had left more than $1.25 million to the University of Texas for current and future projects, with only one string attached: He stipulated that if the campus were ever to move (like to the Brackenridge Tract), the money would be withdrawn.
Brackenridge died little more than a month later, still irked that his rival had bested him one last time.
From the March 2012 issue.