Austin - Texas - History


IMAGE:Texas State CapitolConsider that downtown is still located on and betwixt shimmering waterways, and it is still surrounded by a circle of low hills which, when seen from a distance by early city dwellers, inspired the picturesque nickname "City of the Violet Crown." Those hills may seem less purple today, since Austin has grown over and beyond them, but they're still there and the old, original city now abustle with business and cultural life is just as nestled inside them as when it was laid out in 1839.

Joggers and strollers on the beautiful Town Lake Hike and Bike Trail, just at the foot of Congress Avenue, trod across the same soil that once supported the small settlement of Waterloo, founded by Jacob Harrell in 1835. And they generally circle past the mouths of Waller, Shoal and Barton Creeks as those rivulets drain into the Colorado River.

William Barton gave his name to this last creek when he settled on its banks in 1837, and he gained an additional bit of immortality when the springs, which still feed it, became known as Barton's Springs. The springs are among Austin's greatest treasures and the enormously popular Barton Springs Pool, only several hundred yards up creek from the Colorado, is commonly regarded as the "soul of the city."

But long before the Bartons and the Harrells settled here even, in fact, before Stephen F. Austin sited his "Little Colony" in this territory Comanches and Tonkawas rode across the limestone hills and bathed in the crystalline waters.

And yet, for all the allure of its Native American past, the official, recorded history of the city begins with the visit of Mirabeau B. Lamar to his friend, Jacob Harrell in the fall of 1838. Lamar, then Vice-President of the Republic of Texas, was here to hunt buffalo, but while camping along the banks of the Colorado River, something fateful happened: he fell in love with the beauty of his surroundings.

When he became president the following year (succeeding Sam Houston), Lamar sent his agent, Edwin Waller, to build a new capital city to be named for Stephen F. Austin, the father of the Republic. It was a dangerous assignment, and Waller was to lose at least one party of surveyors to hostile Indians. But within three months the surveying and, what's more, the designing of Austin had been accomplished.

Waller gave Austin a classic grid plan, but he allowed himself to be influenced by its topography. The city would face the Colorado River, which formed its southern border, became East Avenue and West Avenue. A wide grand avenue (Congress) would rise upward from the banks of the Colorado northward to the highest hill where Waller envisioned the future capitol. All streets running north/south were named for Texas rivers, and those running east/west, which are now numbered, formerly bore the names of Texas trees.

In the shade of live oaks on one of the blocks Waller designated as a public square (now Republic Square), the first 306 lots were sold on August 1, 1839. With the proceeds from the auction, Waller began building the city, which had acquired its first crude plank houses and governmental buildings by the time Lamar and his entourage arrived in October.

As the fledging Austin grew more stable, its future as a "permanent" capital grew shakier. In 1842, Mexican troops invaded San Antonio and took the city. Fearing Austin might be next, President Sam Houston (back for a second term of office) moved the Republic's government first to Houston and then to Washington-on-the-Brazos.

Nervous Austinites watched these proceedings with growing suspicion that Houston's ultimate goal was to move the capital to the city that bore his name. When they resolved to thwart any attempt to seize the governmental documents still housed in Austin, the scene was set for what's known as The Archives War.

At first, Houston misjudged the gravity of the situation, but when the two men he sent to retrieve the archives returned empty-handed with their horses' manes and tails shaved off, he quickly got the picture. On December 29, 1842, he sent an armed force of between 20 and 30 men to Austin. Apparently, they had almost completed the loading of their wagon when they were espied by Angelina Eberly, a local hotel keeper.

As the story goes, she fired a cannon (that just so happened to be nearby) at them, damaging the land office, but failing to arrest their progress. Nevertheless, the blast aroused her fellow citizens who went after Houston's men and overtook them near Brushy Creek, just outside of Austin. No one was hurt, and the archives came back to Austin to be held in a safer place Mrs. Eberly's hotel.

When Texas joined the United States on July 4, 1845, Austin was reaffirmed as the temporary capital. It would have to pass two more state-wide voter referendums, one in 1850 and another in 1872, before the issue was finally settled. Meanwhile, the city flourished, growing from a population of 629 in 1850 to 3,494 in 1860. This decade saw the construction of a limestone capitol (1853), and the Governor's Mansion (1856) and the state's oldest surviving office building, the Old General Land Office, ca. 1857.

The first railroad train arrived in Austin in late December of 1871, and it provided a needed economic boost to the city's post-Civil War doldrums. So great was the revival that Austin's principal commercial streets, Congress Avenue and East Sixth Street, became lined with elegant business houses.

In 1888, after a fire gutted the old Capitol, a new building of Hill Country red granite was completed. The staggering proportions of the building were so dramatized by the elevated site, that visiting Texans had the feeling that their Capitol was not only capable of dominating Austin, but the whole, so-called "Texas Empire."

The final decades of the nineteenth century ushered in the Modern Age with its emphasis on industrialization. Beginning in 1893 a succession of dams kept the city in electricity. It was not, however, until 1938 that the Lower Colorado River Authority would begin building the series of dams that gave the Austin area its beautiful Highland Lakes. Just as these lakes established the region as a center for water recreation, it can also be said from an historical point of view that they became the jewels in Austin's "Violet Crown."

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