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The dark history of Meriwether’s millrace

By Myra Lee Adams Goff

What I knew about William Hunter Meriwether could be summed up as “That American from Virginia who had slaves dig the canal next to Landa Park Drive.” That’s changing, thanks to Joy Alexander who has been doing an extensive study of Meriwether.

Alexander first became interested in Meriwether when she and Laris Priesmeyer in 1976 bought the little house at 133 Landa that had been part of Meriwether’s property. They restored the house and opened a German import store called Das Spielhaus (play house).

One of my first questions about Meriwether was: “How did he even know about New Braunfels or the Comal Springs?” He was from an old Virginia family and had been in the mill business before coming to Texas. In Virginia in 1829, he purchased the right to build a dam across the Rivanna River. In 1846, the year he came to New Braunfels, he sold 150 acres and his interest in a dam and a toll bridge there. He definitely had experience and money.

The middle of the 1800s time period fits the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution. Perhaps through his connections with mill owners, he heard of this area and its springs. Regardless, Meriwether purchased a total of 680 acres from Rafael and Maria Garza and also from the German Emigration Co. in 1847.

On the 1850 Slave Schedule Census, Meriwether is listed as having 30 slaves. The slaves dug the canal so that he would have water power to run his sawmill, gristmill, and gin. He dammed the geyser springs locally called Los Fontanas to create a millrace (canal). The Comal Springs began above the Landa Estates, originally flowed through the lake area and made a turn going through the spring-fed pool, then under the Elizabeth Street Bridge, going through Schlitterbahn, and dumping into the Comal Creek (River). Landa Park Lake was a side product of digging the canal.

The canal was dug from the spring-fed pool end of the lake and then parallels Landa Park Drive going under the bridge into the mill pond, and out over the falls into the river.

Now the question of digging that canal. The majority of Germans were against slavery, but Meriwether was an American and used slave labor. It’s hard to imagine anyone digging the canal, but remember that Meriwether had done this before and he must have had some sort of implement to dig. How about a “buck scraper”, the forerunner of the Fresno? The buck scraper was a crude wooden tool pulled by mules. He was, after all, quite an inventor. He patented the fence wire. Local old-timers said that a fresno-like implement was used by the slaves to dig the canal.

In 1859, Meriwether sold his holdings in the Comal Springs Tract for $14,000 to Joseph Landa, as you might say, “lock, stock, and barrel.” Harry Landa, Joseph’s son, in his book “As I Remember,” wrote that Meriwether was a very old man (65) with a very young wife (22) and as he wished to comply with the desire of his wife, she wanted to return to their home in Tennessee and to her Mint Julips. They did leave and he died the next year in Tennessee.

Meriwether and his canal changed the scene in New Braunfels, as it opened up the area for industry. Those slaves about whom we have so little information, made a significant contribution to the town. Digging a canal of the magnitude of the millrace and then operating the mills required a large labor force.

The Landa family utilized the canal and mill pond to develop Landa Industries. Other industries developed like the Comal Power Plant. After changing owners and finally being bought by the City of New Braunfels, much of Meriwether’s original property including the canal and millpond has become the beautiful Landa Park.

The Meriwether Mill House at 133 Landa St., the only original Meriwether structure standing, continues to be preserved by owner, Joy Alexander.

Meriwether's millrace — A 1920s view of the bridge over the millrace and millpond.

Meriwether's millrace — A 1920s view of the bridge over the millrace and millpond. (Source: Sophienburg Archives)