Creek renamed in Burroughs’ honor

Longtime Burroughs friend and estate executor James Grauerholz sits in front of the newly named Burroughs Creek. Burroughs' former home is in the background.

To some it’s a ditch, a tributary or a concrete tunnel.

But the East Lawrence stream officially is now Burroughs Creek, in honor of famed Beat author William S. Burroughs, who once lived nearby.

The U.S. Geological Survey Board on Geographic Names has approved, 7-0, the proposed name change submitted last fall by the Lawrence City Commission on behalf of the Brook Creek Neighborhood Assn.

Formerly named the Atchison Topeka and Santa Fe Tributary, the new Burroughs Creek will appear on the USGS National Map within a couple of weeks.

Roger Payne, executive secretary for the USGS Board on Geographic Names, said the unanimous approval came after “surprisingly little” debate.

“I suspect that because of the nature of Mr. Burroughs and the high-profile nature of the case, the board members probably had thought about it many times well before the meeting,” Payne said.

The request received special attention, he said, because of Burroughs’ controversial reputation. In addition to his literary accomplishments, Burroughs was a drug addict, a bisexual, and in his younger years shot and killed his wife during a party stunt.

The name change had some opposition in Lawrence, most notably from Douglas County Commissioner Jere McElhaney, who said Burroughs promoted a “revolutionary lifestyle.” McElhaney contacted Payne prior to the board’s vote.

Burroughs “had a certain group of followers … which is fine; that’s their choice,” McElhaney said. “But not everybody liked his books and not everybody liked his writing and not everybody liked his lifestyle. To me, somebody’s trying to put Burroughs up on a pedestal that he should not be on.”

Such views failed to sway the board.

“Apparently there was no need to have much in the way of discussion regarding his character,” Payne said.

Honoring the writer

The vote marked a victory for the Brook Creek Neighborhood Assn., which had been pushing the name change in conjunction with a $3.9 million city project to rebuild the stream to alleviate flooding problems. That stretch of creek is being converted from drainage pipe to a natural open stream in a project scheduled to be complete by January.

Though the name change drew support from the Lawrence City Commission and Lawrence Parks and Recreation Department, the Douglas County Commission did not endorse the proposal, instead choosing to remain silent on the matter.

For longtime Burroughs friend and estate executor James Grauerholz, the re-naming of the creek was not so much about celebrating Burroughs’ lifestyle as it was about his literary contributions and importance to Lawrence’s history.

“This doesn’t mean like, ‘The victory of the hippies’ or something,” said Grauerholz, who wrote a letter to the City Commission in support of the proposal. “Burroughs is not actually famous for accidentally killing his wife or being a narcotics addict or being homosexual … he’s famous for being a great writer, and because of that we know about these other things.”

Kirsten Roussel, former president of the Brook Creek Neighborhood Assn., has been following the proposal’s progress from its inception two years ago.

“I’m very glad,” she said. “I do recognize that Mr. Burroughs was a colorful character, to say the least, but he is part of the history of Lawrence, and this seemed a fitting way to memorialize that.”

Burroughs, author of “Naked Lunch,” lived out his last years in Lawrence. Other cities he called home included New York, New Orleans, Morocco and Mexico.

He died in Lawrence of a heart attack on Aug. 2, 1997. He was 83.