Herman: The great public works project named for a fired city employee

June 09, 2018
Univ. of North Texas Libraries
Austin City Council Member Emma Long and Walter E. Seaholm, for whom the Seaholm Power Plant was named, shake hands in 1951. UNIVERSITY OF NORTH TEXAS LIBRARIES

Sometimes, sadly, the stuff named for people becomes more well-known than the person for whom the stuff was named.

Local case in point: Can you name the great municipal public works project in the news named in honor of a fired city of Austin employee?

My colleague Elizabeth Findell recently told you about the latest ambitious plan to convert the waterfront intake facility at the old Seaholm Plant into a multifunctional meeting space, complete with coffee shop, food trucks, concert space and kayak docking. Looks intriguing. And, Lord knows, the only thing standing between Austin and a designation as one of the world’s great cities is more coffee shops and food trucks.

RELATED: Firm envisions Seaholm as site for concerts, kayaks and more

“The Intake Building was once used to pump water from the lake to cool turbines at the decommissioned power plant, located just north of the site,” said the report filed by a private firm hired to file a report.

(A couple of years ago, I tried to discern the meaning of the word — BERNDRENIK — prominetly graffiti’d on the old Intake Building. Best answer is it was done by a somewhat-well-known graffiti artist named Bernd Renik.)

The Seaholm Plant stopped making power in 1989. The impressively redeveloped area now is known as the Seaholm area. And because you’re an Austinite who loves Austin and everything about it, including its history and the people of the past who helped make Our Town what it is in the present, you know everything there is to know about Seaholm.

Didn’t your mama tell you not to lie?

I figure as long as we’re going to be saying Seaholm a lot again as this project moves forward (or not), we ought to know who he or she was or is. The answer is right there on a plaque on the building that tells us Walter E. Seaholm served our city for three decades in a variety of key positions, beginning with superintendent of the city electric department from 1922 to 1933.

He became director of utilities in 1934, directing the utilities until 1942, when he became acting city manager while then-City Manager Guiton Morgan went off to war. Seaholm stopped acting as city manager in 1945 and went back to directing the utilities until 1950.

That was the year he became city manager and continued managing the city until 1955, which is the year in which the city officially became unmanageable, a condition that continues to this very day. Just kidding. Austin, on some days, now is manageable.

The 1960 plaque placed when the plant was named in Seaholm’s honor is effusive in its praise of his work on behalf of his city and his God:

“A man outstanding in his every endeavor; scholar, engineer, administrator and Christian gentleman, dedicated to the service of his fellow man; In recognition of his courageous devotion to the preservation of this city’s ownership of its electrical system, this steam power plant is dedicated and hereafter named Seaholm Plant.”

People say nice things about you after you die, which Seaholm did in 1956, about a year after he was fired by a city that figured it could do better than “a man outstanding in every endeavor.”

The plant was developed in two phases in 1950 and 1955 and has quite a place in Austin history. The Seaholm Development pays tribute to the plant on its website. Here’s my favorite part: “And you may even smell the faint scent of cherry tobacco from a friendly ghost named Herman, according to a former plant caretaker.”

(Note: There’s a better chance my ghost will be more cranky than friendly.)

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The application for a state historic marker tells a history that sort of seems to repeating itself today, albeit with updated technology and even more impressive growth: “In 1948, when Seaholm was commissioned, Austin was a town of nearly 132,000 people. World War II and post-war shortages meant the city had not upgraded its infrastructure since 1940 when its population was just 87,930. Not only did a larger population mean greater demand for electricity, but so too did lifestyle changes. Many American families had purchased televisions, and although television sets did not draw much electric current, families were sold on electrical amenities advertised on television — such as dishwashers and washing machines — that did. Air conditioning, which also represented a large current draw, was also being widely installed.”

FYI, the facility made it to the National Register of Historic Places in 2013.

The power plant originally bore the very unoriginal and boring name “Power Plant No. 2” and was rechristened in honor of Seaholm in June 1960.

He was born in 1897. Along the way, he picked up an electrical engineering degree from the University of Texas in 1920. The Seaholm Development website refers to him as “gruff-spoken” and recounts how he successfully made the case against Texas Power & Light Company’s 1927 effort to purchase the electric department from the city, which had operated it since 1893.

Seaholm also was instrumental in restoring power after the Colorado River flood of 1935. A headline in this newspaper later said, “Power Man Seaholm Never Blew a Fuse.”

The application for the state historic marker notes that Seaholm (the man, not the plant named for the man) was married, but had no kids.

“Seaholm was extremely active in the community, not only as an appointed city official, but also as the president of the Texas Society of Professional Engineers, Ex-Students Association of UT, Kiwanis Club and Child and Family Services,” says the application.

His city service didn’t end well, but we don’t need to dwell on that. Actually, it ended like it does for many city managers: You’re outtahere.

“His tenure serving the city ended in 1955, not long before his death, when a 3-2 vote in City Council ousted him as city manager,” the application notes. He died on Dec. 22, 1956.

So you’re now an expert and can impress your friends with your knowledge about the fired city employee whose name lives on in the reincarnation of the power plant named for him.

How long until relatively few people know much about the disgraced bike rider for whom a local bike trail is named?