John B. Mallard didn’t know if his wife Susan was getting the letters he sent her. He mailed one out about every five days, but there was no response.
“I took a nap of sleep this evening, & dreamed that I was with my family, that you were holding my head in your lap & that little Nancy came up and kissed me & played with my hair,” he wrote to Susan in one of the letters housed in the Austin History Center. “You can’t imagine how happy I thought myself to be.”
It was 1853, and Mallard was smitten with his family back in Palestine, TX. But he was also keen on the state’s new capital, Austin.
He was part of the Fifth Texas Legislature that was poised to move into the new Capitol building.
“It is [a] fine house made of white stone, beautifully polished, has cost one hundred & twenty five thousand dollars,” he wrote.
Less than 30 years later, that capitol burned down after a state employee requested a wood burning stove in his office to stave off chilly weather and a faulty flue set the walls ablaze.
Austin is a city of changes. Booms and busts punctuate the many chapters of its history.
But Austin has always seemed to stand out from other cities. At the Austin History Center downtown, file boxes full of archived letters, brochures and newspaper articles tell the city’s story in broad strokes.
“When the capital city of the Republic of Texas held its first sale of lots in 1839, prices averaged $500 per lot,” according to a 1976 city bicentennial article by Cathryn Seymour Dorsey. “Initial business development was to be along Congress Ave — and the major road into town, Pecan (now Sixth) Street, so Alexander Russell felt his choice lot on the southwest corner of Congress and Pecan was well worth his record bid of $2,800. On this lot he built Austin’s first dry goods store. Directly north of Russell’s was Bullock’s Hotel, a popular meeting place and refuge during Indian attacks.”
When the Dam Burst
Image credit: texashistory.unt.edu
After a slow start disrupted by Indian and Mexican attacks in the 1840s, Austin embarked on the first of many rapid growth spurts. From 1850 to 1860, the population boomed by 450 percent.
The 1890s were full of excitement and change. Hyde Park had a dance pavilion, race track and two lakes, all accessible by streetcars that linked the city together from 1891 to 1940.
One of Austin’s earliest victories was the construction of a dam across the Colorado River, which provided power for a growing city.
In a booklet entitled The Industrial Advantages of Austin, Texas, the Austin Board of Trade (forerunner of the Chamber of Commerce) modestly stated that, “Austin, a great emporium of trade and traffic boasts the greatest water power in the South or West for turning machinery,” Dorsey wrote in her bicentennial piece.
But, like the first capitol building, converting water power into electricity would take a couple tries to get it right. In 1900, the dam burst and washed away the power plant.
“Many maintained that Austin would never recover,” Dorsey wrote.
Of course, it bounced back in big ways.
By the 1940s, Austin’s reputation had grown. National media began to proclaim it one of the country’s great cities.
“With all the assets of the Mexican “mañana” atmosphere and none of the evils, yet retaining the Texian personality, Austin has also acquired a status with such “different” cities as New Orleans, San Francisco and Santa Fe,” Floy Robinson wrote in a 1940 article about Austin tourism.
And in 1946, the Austin American-Statesman declared that “Austin is in the midst of its greatest period of building and expansion in decades.”
It was the type of bold recognition that has put Austin in the national spotlight time and time again as new technologies and rugged individualism and creativity helped make Austin what it is today.
Check back to read Part 2 of this series, which delves into the tech boom of the 1980s as the city struggled to manage its rapid growth and maintain its unique identity.