A New Capital for Texas

“Austin has a fine situation upon the left bank of the Colorado. It reminds one somewhat of Washington; Washington en petit, seen through a reversed glass…”

Frederick Law Olmsted, A Journey Through Texas (1855).

AustinPlan3In 1838, the Texas Congress designated a stretch of shoreline along the Colorado River about 150 miles inland to be the next national capital. Home at that time to four families and a stockade, the Congressional Commission called the future town Waterloo, a name quickly changed to Austin, in honor of Stephen F. Austin’s legacy as the “Father of Texas.” Congress intentionally moved the capital to the edge of the frontier, hoping to secure the eastern portions of the nation from attacks from Mexican bandits and hostile Native Americans.

The population of Austin swelled to several hundred quickly and in 1840 the Texas census recorded 856 souls, 145 of whom were slaves. Only ten months passed between the Commission’s selection in January, 1839 and the opening of the new congressional session in November. Edwin Waller oversaw a surveying and plotting of the new city in the spring of 1839, and held the first land auction in August of that year. Wooden structures, thought to be temporary, quickly emerged along Congress Avenue.

In 1842, construction ground to a halt. In January of that year, Mexican General Mariano Arista put in motion a spring assault on south and central Texas. On March 5, Mexican troops under Rafael Vásquez captured San Antonio, holding the city for four days. Though a volunteer force of Texans repulsed the Mexican force, they returned in September and held San Antonio for another six days. The effect on Austin was devastating. President Sam Houston, who had opposed the relocation of the capital from the first, insisted on its removal first to Houston and then to Washington-on-the-Brazos. Though the capital returned to Austin in 1845, the city’s future remained uncertain through the hostilities of the Mexican-American War until a voter referendum in 1850 effectively settled the question of the roving capital’s location.

Growth in the 1850s

A decade of explosive growth began in the wake of voters’ decision to retain Austin as the state capital. The 1850s finally saw the replacement of the original wooden dwellings with more dramatic and permanent structures of brick and limestone, though some of the older buildings remained. Landscape Architect Frederick Law Olmsted wrote after his visit to Austin in 1854 that this created an unusual combination of “various materials and styles, from quarried stone to the logs of the first settlers.” And although Congress Avenue was populated, “[o]ff the avenue, are scattered cottages and one or two pretty dwellings. They are altogether smaller in number and meaner in appearance than a stranger would anticipate.”

The primary drivers behind the 1850s development boom were the new stability of the capital’s location, which resulted in an influx of wealthy Texans eager to take part in the government who built permanent residences, and an increase in governmental spending on municipal buildings and humanitarian agendas. The decade saw the erection of a limestone Capitol, Treasury, and General Land Office as well as a dozen elegant brick and limestone private residences, including the Neill-Cochran House on the outskirts of Austin. The 1860 U. S. Census recorded a population of 3,494, including 977 slaves and 12 free African-Americans.

Downturn and Resurgence: The Civil War to the 1880s

After a decade of rapid growth, all building activity came to a halt again in 1860 with the Civil War looming. The War would disrupt the entire decade, and only in the 1870s did the city begin to rebound. At the end of 1871, the first railroad came to Austin. The city was at the line’s end and became a trading hub for the surrounding communities. The central city was illuminated by gas lights in 1874, the first streetcar line began operation in 1875, and the first elevated bridge over Congress Avenue opened in 1876. In 1881, voters selected Austin as the home of the future University of Texas, which opened its doors in 1883. The establishment of the University encouraged development north and west of the Capitol area and coincided with the growth of the neighborhood around the Neill-Cochran House, finally bringing the house into the city around 1900.