intersection of 6th and Congress has been the scene of a number
of firsts over the years. Austin's first
traffic patrolman, Officer Kelley, came from Atlanta,
Georgia in 1913, to help direct the growing number of automobiles
passing through there. As traffic increased, Kelley used our
traffic light--a portable battery-powered light that
he would bring out during rush hours. When the city got nine
of its first
automatic electric traffic signals in 1924, 6th and
Congress was one of the first five intersections to receive
the earliest years of our history, county legal business was
conducted in a miscellany of available space around the city.
county courthouse was constructed in 1856 after the
first county jail, a log structure, burned. For $23,000, a new
stone building combining jail and courthouse functions was built
on the site of the first jail. The site, just south of Republic
Square on West Cedar (4th)--then the remote southwest corner
of the city--was considered to be very inconveniently located,
but it served until 1876 when the second courthouse was completed
at Congress and Mesquite (11th).
"...Every time a lawyer or litigant wants a subpoena issued,
or a deed has to be recorded, or a marriage license obtained
the party has to walk or borrow something to ride--a distance
there and back of near half a mile; and the juror who happens
to be entitled to the promise of a dollar and a half from the
county for services rendered, in which he has probably spent
seventy-five cents worth of shoe leather, had to go out of town
to get the slip of paper containing said promise." The
Southern Intelligencer, November 9, 1865.
city voters approved the first
paid fire department in 1916, fires were fought by
teams of volunteer fire departments. Austin Hook and Ladder
Fire Company No. 1 was the first
volunteer company, organized in 1858. Hand-drawn
fire carts and bucket brigades were used to fight the fires
until horse-drawn wagons were acquired in 1870. After the election
endorsing a municipal force of fire fighters, the volunteer
companies sold their equipment and property to the city. Company
No. 1's Fire Station on Hickory (8th)--on the right, next door
to City Hall--became the city's first
Central station. The first year's operating expenses
of $43,740 was used to maintain a force of 27 firemen, five
motor vehicles, and three horse-drawn vehicles.
building that is now referred to as the "old, old post
office" was the first
permanent home of the Austin Postal service. Until
it was finished in 1880, the post office had offered its services
from a series of rented spaces in office and retail buildings.
This imposing $200,000 structure took ten years to build. The
post office also housed federal courtrooms and the embezzlement
trial of William Sydney Porter was held in one of them. This
is the source of its present name--O. Henry Hall--given by its
current owner, the University of Texas System.
public hospital was built in 1884 on the northeastern-most
lot of the City, an area which had been set aside for a hospital
in the original city plan, probably to isolate sick Austinites
from the healthy. For the city's first 45 years medical care
was given either at home, or in one of a series of short-lived
private infirmaries, or in "pest camps" set aside
for those with contagious diseases. This City/County Hospital,
the first public hospital in the state, was equipped to treat
between 20 and 40 private or charity patients at one time. The
cost of a private room ranged between $1.50 and $2.50 per day.
of Camp Mabry dates back to 1891, when a local citizens'
committee was formed to select a permanent site for the annual
encampments of the Texas Volunteer Guard (now the Texas National
Guard). A 90-acre area three miles northwest of the capitol
was chosen; by the summer of 1892 it was cleared and ready for
use. Every summer thereafter, several thousand troops would
arrive to train at Camp Mabry. The troops also staged sham battles,
such as this one pictured, for the general public. Up to 10,000
visitors a year traveled to Austin to see these battles. Proceeds
from the ticket sales in ensuing years allowed the Camp to acquire
adjacent land which increased the size of the camp to over 400
housing projects in the nation were built in Austin.
In June 1939, the first of 186 families moved into three separate
projects: the Santa Rita apartments (seen here on the left)
for Mexican-Americans; the Rosewood project for Blacks; and
the Chalmers project for whites. Rent and utilities for each
family averaged $12.00 per month. Austin's application to build
the projects was the first to arrive at the desk of the FHA
in part through the influence of then Congressman Lyndon B.
has been a city of readers since its founding; notices of subscription
libraries date back to 1840. In 1894, however, William Sydney
Porter (O. Henry) wrote, "Time hangs heavy on my hands…for
of all the cities I have ever lived in, Austin is the most deficient
in opportunities for enjoying idle hours. There are no parks,
museums, or art galleries--not even a public library."
It was 1926 before Mayor Wooldridge and the Austin Chapter of
the American Association of University Women garnered enough
citizen and city council support to start a public library.
The library's first location was a rented room above 819 Congress
Avenue; it was staffed by volunteers. A temporary wood structure
was soon built on a lot across from Wooldridge Park. In 1929,
the city budgeted $3,000 to operate the library and the voters
approved a $150,000 bond issue to build the first
permanent library building. That 1933 building is
now the Austin History Center; the temporary building was moved
to east Austin and now serves as the Carver Museum.
city-wide street lighting system was inaugurated
in 1895, and was financed by the same bond package that paid
for the Great Granite Dam and its municipal power house. Instead
of installing a system of regular light poles, the city chose
a favorable deal proposed by the Fort Wayne Power Company which
used a system of 31 towers, each 165 feet high. The contract
specified that a person would be able to read a watch within
1,500 feet of a tower. Although some backyard farmers at first
feared the bright lights would keep the chickens up all night,
the moonlight towers quickly became a source of civic pride.
Map of all Moonlight Tower locations
paving of Congress Avenue in 1905 marked the transformation
of "old road and old ideas suited to a provincial village"
to the look of a cosmopolitan city. The first bricks were laid
with "appropriate ceremonies attendant an event which marks
a new epoch in the history of Austin," second in importance
only to the building of the Great Granite Dam. Five months later,
however, readers were cautioned that "drivers who are not
accustomed to paved streets drive their horses too fast and
in sudden turns they almost always fall."
first park in 1909, began the establishment of a
system of parks maintained by the city. It was one of four city
blocks set aside in Edwin Waller's 1839 city plan as public
squares. Original plans by civic groups calling for a terrace
of artificial lakes did not materialize, and the chief improvement
was the bandstand in the center. The topography lent itself
to good acoustics for music, and it was promised that "a
very high class of music is assured for …summer concerts."
"As yet no signs of 'keep off the grass' have been placed,
and no policeman has been assigned to duty there to prevent
spooning and there are fifty great big comfortable seats ready
for occupancy." Austin Statesman, June 16, 1909.