A vast territory that rejected foreign rule to become an independent nation, Texas has always played a starring role in the romance of the American West. So it’s only fitting that Texas’ capital should spring, full-blown, from the imagination of a man on a buffalo hunt.
A Capital Dilemma
The man was Mirabeau Buonaparte Lamar, who earned a reputation for bravery in Texas’ struggle for independence from Mexico. In 1838, Lamar was vice president of the 2-year-old Republic of Texas, under president Sam Houston, the even more renowned hero of the Battle of San Jacinto. Both were strong-willed, but they had very different ideas about the future of the republic. Houston tended to look eastward, toward union with the United States, while Lamar saw independence as the first step to establishing a Texas empire that would stretch to the Pacific.
That year, an adventurer named Jacob Harrell set up a camp called Waterloo at the western edge of the frontier, on the northern banks of Texas’ Colorado River (not to be confused with the larger waterway up north). Some 100 years earlier, the Franciscans had established a temporary mission here, nestled against the same gentle hills; Stephen F. Austin,
Texas’s earliest and greatest land developer, had had the area surveyed in the 1820s, for the smaller of two colonies he was to establish on Mexican territory. But otherwise the place had seen few Anglos before Harrell arrived. Natural springs in the area had attracted various Native American tribes, including the Comanche, Lipan Apaches, and Tonkawas, but none settled there. In the autumn of 1838, when Harrell invited his friend Mirabeau Lamar on a buffalo hunting expedition, Lamar gazed at the pristine rolling woodlands surrounding Waterloo and thought it was an ideal place to settle.
In December of the same year, Lamar succeeded Houston as president of the Texas Republic. He promptly ordered the congressional commission charged with selecting a site for a permanent capital to check out Waterloo. This news was not well received by Houston residents, who hoped their city would remain the republic’s capital. They argued that Waterloo was a dangerous and inconvenient outpost, unsuitable as a capital. The commission, however, was made up of those who favored Texas’ westward expansion, and they believed moving the capital to the west would help this endeavor. Lamar’s pet site won their recommendation.
Most Austinites are aware that their city was originally called Waterloo—Waterloo Records, Waterloo Park, and other local sites all attest to that fact—-but nobody really knows why. When a reader posed the question to the Austin-American Statesman, the newspaper asked several local historians, and came up empty. The only point of consensus was why Lamar was eager to change the city’s original appellation: After all, his middle name was Buonaparte.
In early 1839, Lamar’s friend Edwin Waller was dispatched to lay out a new Texas capital, to be named in honor of Stephen F. Austin (besides Washington, D.C, Austin is the only U.S. city originally designed as an independent nation’s capital). The first public lots went on sale on August 1, 1839, and by November of that year, Austin was ready to host its first session of Congress.
Austin’s position as capital was far from entrenched, however. Attacks on the republic by Mexico in 1842 gave Sam Houston, now president again, sufficient excuse to order the national archives relocated out of remote Austin. When 26 armed men came to repossess the historic papers, resistant Austinites greeted them with a cannon. After a struggle, the men returned empty-handed, and Houston abandoned his plan, thus ceding to Austin the victory in what came to be called the Archive War.
Although Austin won this skirmish, it was losing a larger battle. President Houston refused to convene the Congress in Austin, and by 1843, Austin’s population had dropped down to 200, and its buildings lay in disrepair. Help came in the person of Anson Jones, who succeeded to the presidency in 1844. The constitutional convention he called in 1845 not only approved Texas’s annexation to the United States, but also named Austin the capital until 1850, when voters of what was now the state of Texas could choose their governmental seat for the next 20 years. In 1850, Austin campaigned hard for the position and won by a landslide.
A Capital Solution
Austin thrived under the protection of the U.S. Army. During the 1850s construction boom that followed statehood, the city’s first permanent buildings included an impressive limestone capitol. It no longer exists, but two of the buildings in its complex, the General Land Office and the Governor’s Mansion, still stand today.
The boom was short-lived, however. In 1861, although Austin’s Travis County voted against secession, Texas decided to join the Confederacy. By 1865, Union army units—including one led by General George Armstrong Custer—were sent to restore order in a defeated and looted Austin. But once again Austin rebounded. With the arrival of the railroad in 1871, the city’s recovery was secured. The following year Austin re-won election as state capital.
More battles for status followed. Back in 1839, the Republic of Texas had declared its intention to build a “university of the first class,” and in 1876, a new state constitution mandated its establishment. It took another bout of heavy electioneering for Austin to win the right to have the flagship of Texas’s higher educational system on its soil. In 1883, classrooms not yet completed, the first 221 students met the eight instructors of the University of Texas, which nowadays boasts a student body of more than 50,000.
Like the ancient city of Rome, Austin is built upon seven hills, and it is impossible to conceive of a more beautiful and lovely situation.
—George W. Bonnell, Commissioner of Indian Affairs of the Republic of Texas, 1840
The university wasn’t the only Austin institution without permanent quarters that year. The old limestone capitol had burned in 1881, and a new, much larger home for the legislature was being built. In 1888, after a series of mishaps, the current capitol was completed. The grand red-granite edifice towering above the city symbolized Austin’s arrival.
Dams, Oil & Microchips
The new capitol notwithstanding, the city was once again in a slump. Although some believed that quality of life would be sacrificed to growth—a view still widely held today—most townspeople embraced the idea of harnessing the fast-flowing waters of the Colorado River as the solution to Austin’s economic woes. A dam, they thought, would provide a cheap source of electricity for residents, and also supply power for irrigation and new factories. Dedicated in 1893, the Austin Dam did indeed fulfill these goals—but only temporarily. The energy source proved to be limited, and when torrential rains pelted the city in April 1900, Austin’s dreams came crashing down with its dam.
Another dam, attempted in 1915, was never finished. It wasn’t until the late 1930s that a permanent solution to the water power problem was found. A young Lyndon Johnson, the newly elected representative from Austin’s 10th Congressional District, made a successful plea to President Roosevelt for federal funds to construct six dams along the lower Colorado River. These dams not only afforded Austin and central Texas all the hydroelectric power and drinking water they needed, they also created the seven Highland Lakes—aesthetically appealing and a great source of recreational revenue.
Still, Austin might have remained a backwater capital abutting a beautiful lake had it not been for the discovery of oil on University of Texas (UT) land in 1923. Huge amounts of money subsequently flowed into the Permanent University Fund—worth some $20 billion today—enabling Austin’s campus to become truly first class. During the Depression, while most of the country was cutting back, UT went on a building binge and began hiring a faculty as impressive as the new halls in which they were to hold forth.
The indirect effects of the oil bonus reached far beyond College Hill. In 1955, UT scientists and engineers founded Tracor, the first of Austin’s more than 250 high-tech companies. Lured by the city’s natural attractions and its access to a growing bank of young brainpower, many outside companies soon arrived: IBM (1967), Texas Instruments (1968), and Motorola’s Semiconductor Products Section (1974). In the 1980s, two huge computer consortiums, MCC and SEMATECH, opted to make Austin their home. Wunderkind Michael Dell, who started out selling computers from his dorm room at UT in 1984, became the CEO of the hugely successful Austin-based Dell Technologies, and spawned a generation of local “Dellionaires” by rewarding his employees with company stock. Not until 2018, when Apple announced that it was expanding its presence in Austin, did the possibility exist of Dell being surpassed as the city’s #1 tech employer.
During the 1990s, Austin’s population increased by 41 percent (from 465,600 to 656,600). Many of the new residents moved to the suburban west and northwest, but the economic expansion also fueled a resurgence in the older central city. Projects in the last decade of the 20th century and the first of the 21st included the restoration of the Capitol and its grounds; the refurbishing of the State Theatre; and the renovation of the Driskill Hotel and the reopening of the Stephen F. Austin Hotel, two grand historic properties. The convention center doubled in size. The University of Texas created what’s called the “cultural campus,” adding to its visitor attractions the Bob Bullock Texas History Center and the Blanton Museum of Art.
Willie Nelson’s return to Austin from Nashville in 1972 didn’t have quite as profound an effect on the economy as the tech boom, but it certainly had one on the city’s live-music scene. For the first time, hippies and country music fans found common ground at the many clubs that began to sprout up along downtown’s Sixth Street, which had largely been abandoned. These music venues, combined with the construction that followed in the wake of the city’s high-tech success, helped spur downtown’s resurgence—and, eventually, helped price out living quarters for many of the artists who helped created that revitalization.
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