Changing Austin Landscape

Here's the story behind Central Austin's mysterious cemetery

Here's the story behind Central Austin's mysterious cemetery

Austin State Hospital ASH Cemetery 2017
The gates of the Austin State Hospital Cemetery. Photo by Nicole Raney

Editor's note: This new Austin history column will be published once a month. In addition, we invite readers to weigh in with stories and suggestions for future topics. We start with the history of the Austin State Hospital (ASH) cemetery (the hospital was formerly known as the Texas State Lunatic Asylum), in Central Austin, located on an 11-acre plot at 200 W. 51st St., east of North Loop Boulevard, between Guadalupe Street and Airport Boulevard.

The State Hospital, or the Texas State Lunatic Asylum, began in 1861 as a facility to temporarily, and occasionally permanently, house the mentally ill population. This movement swept across the country and promoted the idea of providing mental as well as physical health for the patient in curing what ails them. It was thought that patients, when exposed to beautiful surroundings, along with a limited amount of stress, might be able to shed their illness on a path to recovery.

The original campus for the asylum was quite large and included a man-made lake, complete with row boats and paddle boats. The grounds were popular for Austin citizens, and many Austinites flocked to the area for recreation on weekends. The original campus extended to include a dairy farm (where the University of Texas Intramural Fields are located today) and a hog farm (where The Triangle development is located).

The Lunatic Asylum was renamed Austin State Hospital in 1925.

Historic cemetery beginnings
Originally when patients died while residing at the state hospital, they were buried near the main building at 41st and Guadalupe streets. However, as facility land became scarce, a new cemetery plot was chosen less than two miles from the hospital campus. Bodies were exhumed from the original site and relocated to the new site, and it is said by some that there are still bones and partial corpses on the ASH grounds today.

Not every patient that dies while they are in care of the facility is buried in the cemetery. Some are claimed by family members and taken to other burial grounds while others are buried in the ASH cemetery.

Not only were patients buried in the cemetery, but also some staff members employed at the hospital were buried in the hospital cemetery. One of the first bodies to be interred and laid to rest in the new cemetery was that of John Neely Bryan, the founder of Dallas.

Bryan came to the Dallas area as a colorful rabble-rouser wanting to promote the Indian outpost on the prairie next to the Trinity River. He saw future potential in the ripe land and sold downtown parcels of land for one dollar each to interested persons. Bryan is known as the founder of Dallas, and there are many Dallas buildings and schools named for him. In fact, his restored cabin is in a prominent place in downtown Dallas and is a popular tourist destination. 

John Neely Bryan apparently had a problem with alcohol, along with an impaired mind, and his family had him committed to the state Lunatic Asylum in the late 1800s. Bryan was admitted to ASH in February 1877 and died at the hospital in September 1877. Although speculation exists as to whether or not John Neely Bryan's great-great-grandson (also named John Neely Bryan) had his relative's body exhumed and buried in downtown Dallas, there is a distinct grave marker at the ASH cemetery reading: John Neely Bryan, 1810-1877, Founder of Dallas, Texas.

Fewer patients are admitted to ASH today, and as a result, fewer patients die at the facility. There are approximately 2,900 graves at the cemetery along with a large portion of unused land in Central Austin. In recent years, unclaimed deceased residents of the Austin State School have been buried at the ASH cemetery. All but 700 of the deceased have been identified and noted in burial records.

In 2002, the cemetery received historical status by the Texas State Historical Commission, and there is an increased awareness of the site, along with an increased interest in learning about this unique part of Austin's history.

The cemetery is open daily from dusk until dawn, however the grounds are locked, so if you would like to schedule a tour, phone the Austin State Hospital's community relations department at 512-419-2330 for information.