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Austin: A History of the Capital City

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State capital and home of the University of Texas, Austin is the one city that belongs to all Texans. This finely written book, illustrated with historic photographs, tells the story of Austin’s transformation from an “Indian haunted” frontier village into a residential mecca and high-tech hot spot.

Called by Sam Houston at its founding the “most unfortunate site upon earth for the seat of government,” the infant community struggled for three decades against political enemies and competing towns before winning recognition as the permanent capital. The founding of the University of Texas turned the seat of politics into the seat of education, but Austin’s nineteenth-century dreams of becoming a river port and a factory town came to naught.

A slave city in a slave state, Austin cast its lot with the Confederacy. Retaining a frontier flavor into the 1890s, post–Civil War Austin became the headquarters of the Texas gambling fraternity and a magnet for cowmen seeking “booze and women of the night.”

Turning the nineteenth-century frontier town into an appealing twentieth-century residential community taxed the energies of civic leaders for several decades. Virtually parkless and with no paved streets in 1900, Austin by the 1940s boasted tree-lined boulevards, a cornucopia of parks and pools, and a leisurely lifestyle. But for African American residents these were years of oppressive segregation. Mexicans encountered similar treatment as Austin became a tri-ethnic community during the 1920s and 1930s.

Segregation gradually gave way in a divisive but nonviolent struggle. While adjusting to this, Austin experienced eye-popping expansion. Fearful that Austin would become “another Houston,” residents sought to preserve the lifestyle that had made the capital city such an attractive place to live.

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1. Embattled Capital and Frontier Town

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1.

EMBATTLED CAPITAL AND FRONTIER TOWN

ON A JANUARY DAY IN 1840, Alphonse Dubois de Saligny of France and several well-armed escorts set out on horseback from Houston for the frontier village of Austin. For five days they struggled along roads made nearly impassable by the rain. One of Saligny’s horses died of exhaustion, and another drowned while crossing the Brazos River. On the third day a sizable band of Indians threatened his party. Finally France’s first chargé d’affaires to the fledgling nation of Texas reached the frontier capital that Sam Houston considered “the most unfortunate site upon earth for the Seat of Government.” 1

Founded on the very edge of settlement in 1839 to serve as permanent capital of Texas, Austin fought for thirty-three years to retain that role—against political opponents like Sam Houston, armed enemies on the frontier, and competing Texas towns. Not until 1872 was the issue resolved for good in Austin’s favor, vindicating a decision in 1839 that the undaunted Saligny called “as wise and farsighted as it was bold and daring” but that critics thought “ridiculous and absurd.” 2

 

2. Confederate Community

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2.

CONFEDERATE COMMUNITY

ON JULY 18, 1861, 104 MEMBERS of the Tom Green Rifles, their “flag to the breeze,” paraded down Congress Avenue and headed east across the Texas prairie for Virginia—the first company of volunteers from Austin and Travis County to join the fight against the Yankees. Not until September 12, almost two months later, did they reach the Confederate capital at Richmond, their journey marked by a 100-mile trek to the nearest railhead at Brenham, a grueling twelve-day march across swampy west Louisiana, and endless days riding and waiting for trains. If the capital city was distant from many settled parts of Texas, it was far more remote from the military struggle that consumed the nation for four years.26

Situated on the periphery of the Confederacy, beyond the reach of railroad or telegraph, 1,400 miles from Richmond, and remote even from the war in the West, Austin residents found it impossible to keep abreast of the unfolding conflict. “Its events become history with you before rumors of them reach us,” lamented one resident to a friend in Arkansas. The flow of rumors that did reach the capital city—sometimes wildly erroneous reports disguised as reliable news—made an accurate picture of the fighting all the more elusive. In late July 1863, three weeks after the Confederate debacle at Gettysburg, Austin’s newspaper was still reassuring its readers that Gen. Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North had produced stupendously successful results, highlighted by the capture of Washington, D.C., and 60,000 Union soldiers. Yet distance from the Civil War and an unremitting flow of muddy and conflicting reports hardly meant that Austinites were disengaged from the conflict. They were absorbed by it, feeling quite rightly that its course and its outcome had profound implications for them.

 

3. The Quest for “Permanent Prosperity”

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3.

THE QUEST FOR “PERMANENT PROSPERITY”

AT PRECISELY 10:45 A.M. ON CHRISTMAS day, 1871, the sound of a train whistle pierced the crisp morning air as the first locomotive ever to enter Austin crossed the city limits. Eager crowds lining the track cheered lustily, exhilarated that the capital city was connected by rail to Houston and Galveston.40 At long last it seemed that Austin was about to become the commercial center anticipated by its founders.

The commissioners who selected the site for Austin in 1839 envisioned not just a political city but an “emporium”: an entrepot for the rich agricultural lands of the Colorado and Brazos River valleys and a hub of two great trading routes extending acrossTexas, one running east-west from Santa Fe to Texas’s seaports and another north-south from the Red River valley to Matamoros in Mexico. Austin’s earliest Anglo inhabitants shared the vision. One of their favorite pastimes, recalled an early resident, was “to get together and discuss the possibilities of Austin’s future. The two favored propositions were ‘Opening trade with Santa Fe’ and ‘the navigation of the Colorado.’”41 The dream of wresting the lucrative Santa Fe trade from Missouri-based traders died quickly. With an eye to winning the political allegiance of Mexican Santa Fe as well as its trade, Mirabeau Lamar organized an expedition in 1841 that assembled near present-day Round Rock and headed west into uncharted Comanche country—Austin newspapers had predicted a fairly easy trek along “450 miles of good road” through “rich and well watered country abounding in game and bees!” Three excruciating months later, its health and spirit broken by thirst and hunger, the expedition was captured by Mexican soldiers in eastern New Mexico and marched to Mexico City. Penned a contemporary: “A chase of silly hopes and fears, Begun in folly, closed in tears.” 42

 

4. Last Days of the Frontier Town

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4.

LAST DAYS OF THE FRONTIER TOWN

IN 1878 AUSTIN’S CITY FATHERS, concerned about the large number of people carrying deadly weapons and the “promiscuous firing of guns and pistols” occurring almost nightly, decided it was high time to outlaw the discharge of firearms in the city. And so Austin took another step away from its frontier origins. Yet the capital city retained a frontier flavor into the 1890s. Cowboys were familiar figures, and horses tied to hitching posts lined dusty Congress Avenue (it was not paved until 1905). Along the east side of the Avenue the saloons, cowmen, and gamblers were so thick in the evenings that “ladies” would not think of walking there.57 Gambling was “alarmingly prevalent” according to an 1892 publication of the Chicago-based Anti-Gambling Association, befitting a town that in the 1870s and 1880s became the headquarters of the Texas “sporting” crowd (as the gambling fraternity was known), outshining even Fort Worth and San Antonio. Indeed, thetown that could not attract factories was a magnet to “top-notch night rounders” of all kinds. “Austin was a gay place,” recalled one resident, “filled with cowmen, flush of money, rearing tospend it on gambling, booze, and the women of the night.” 58

 

5. The Divided Community

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5.

THE DIVIDED COMMUNITY

IN DECEMBER 1885 THE WHITE citizens of Austin’s seventh ward organized an “Anti-Colored Movement” to prevent the reelection of Albert Carrington, the black city council member elected to represent the biracial ward two years earlier. A week later the fourth African American to sit on the city council since the Civil War lost his seat—and became the last black council member for eighty-six years, until 1971. “This is white man’s country,” proclaimed the Austin Statesman in 1927, during an era that saw blacks subjected to pervasive discrimination and an increasingly rigid system of segregation. Whites “will tolerate no idea of social equality,” a black audience was warned in 1919 by A. P. Wooldridge, who had just stepped down after ten years as mayor. Similar treatment was extended to Austin’s Mexican immigrants as they transformed the town from a biracial to a tri-ethnic community during the 1920s and the 1930s. Not until mid-century did segregation come under serious attack—and then it took years of struggle to undermine it.64

 

6. Residential Mecca and High-Tech Hot Spot

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6.

RESIDENTIAL MECCA AND HIGH-TECH HOT SPOT

“WE DO NOT CLAIM THE CAPITAL of Texas to be a great commercial center,” Superintendent of Schools Arthur McCallum readily admitted when welcoming visiting groups to the “Athens of the Southwest” during the 1920s and 1930s. “Here in Austin our faith is not altogether in material things. We believe that intelligence is better than industries.” A journalist describing Austin for English readers in 1925 compared the capital of Texas to Washington, D.C. “Both cities have an almost indefinable atmosphere of remoteness from immediate affairs of business.” Austin’s own newspaper characterized the town thus: “center of culture, seat of government and site of the great state university.” 87

Austin during the first half of the twentieth century was by no means oblivious to commerce and manufacturing. Austin jobbers and wholesalers carried on a fairly brisk business in the region, dealing in hardware, dry goods, groceries, and the produce of Austin’s agricultural hinterland, leading the ever-exuberant Chamber of Commerce to boast that Austin was the “largest producing point for spinach in the Southwest!” Small manufacturers turned out products for local consumption, while a few larger firms, like those engaged in food processing and the printing and publishing business, shipped products to fairly distant markets, permitting the Chamber to crow that Austin had the “largest chili canning plant west of the Mississippi.” 88 Calls were sounded periodically for “more smokestacks” but with none of the fervor that characterized the 1890s, and the Chamber was not especially aggressive about attracting manufacturers, declining to offer special incentives. “We’d like new industries, of course,” commented the Chamber’s longtime manager, Walter Long, “but I’m not sure it matters much. We get along pretty well as a residential city.” The consulting firm that developed Austin’s 1928 city plan, which guided city policy for the next two decades, concluded that industrial development would not determine Austin’s future character. Instead, blessed with the state government and UT and the beauty and climate of an “ideal residential city,” Austin would continue “essentially a cultural and educational center.” 89

 

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