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Congress Avenue

1839 Plan for the City of Austin In 1839 a plan for the city of Austin was established by Edwin Waller that located a grid of intersecting streets on the north bank of the Colorado River. The streets running north/south were named for the rivers of Texas, with the center north/south avenue named Congress Avenue. The streets running east/west were named for the native trees of the state, but were changed to numbers sometime in 1897 or 1898. Congress Avenue's most recognizable landmark; a four block area known as Capital Square was established at the head of the Avenue. Although the city was meticulously laid out from the it's very inception it took many years for Austin to begin to resemble Wallers plan.

A Capitol building, to become known as the Old Stone Capital, was erected on Capital Square in 1853. The General Land Office Building was built on the Square in 1856 and is the only 1850's structure remaining today. 1874 saw tracks beginning to be laid down the center of Congress Avenue and the first mule drawn street cars were put into operation on January 6, 1875 by the Austin City Railway Company. The first street car, carrying the directors of the company, was upset from the rails and its distinguished passengers were unceremoniously thrown from the car. Despite this rather undignified beginning, by 1880 the mule drawn cars were carrying 20,000 riders a year. Streetcar designs progressed and in 1891 the Austin Street Railway Co. put the first electric streetcar into service on Congress Avenue.

On November 9, 1881 disaster struck Congress Avenue. The Old Stone Capitol caught fire and burned. Almost immediately work began to build a Temporary Capitol across the street from Capital Square on the corner of Mesquite (11th) and Congress. This Temporary Capitol was used between 1883 and 1888 while the New Capitol was being built. The New Capitol was dedicated in May 1888, but necessary repairs and detail work prevented it from being occupied until December of that year. After the new capital was completed the Temporary Capitol served other useful purposes including housing the Texas Business College for a short time, but on September 12, 1899 it also burned.

Our Growing Cities The early 1900's saw Congress Avenue as a wide dirt Avenue traveled by a mix of horse drawn carriages and electric streetcars. Despite the disaster recently visited upon the Capitol buildings Congress Ave prepared. Unfortunately, the hard luck of the late 1800's was to continue into the early 1900's. The flood of 1900 broke through the Great Granite Dam on the Colorado River and washed away the adjacent power plant that generated the electricity for the electric streetcars (among other things). The loss of electricity brought mule drawn street cars back into service on Congress Avenue for a short while.

Thousands of Austin residents turned out in 1901 to watch U.S. President William McKinley in a parade up Congress Avenue to the State Capital. Four months later McKinley would be assassinated.

Congress Avenue was the first street to be paved in Austin. Several blocks were paved with bricks beginning in 1905 to accommodate the growing number of automobiles in Austin.

Our Growing Cities Austin's first two "skyscrapers" built around 1910 were the dominant new features of Austin's skyline. The new 8 story tall "skyscrapers" were built on diagonally opposite corners of 6th and Congress. The Littlefield Building was on the northeast corner and the Scarborough Building was on the southwest corner. The Littlefield Building also featured a rooftop garden deck that provided outstanding scenic viewing of downtown Austin, including Capital Square, and the surrounding countryside. Congress Avenue Congress Avenue still seemed roomy with a mix of horse drawn and mechanical vehicles. 1910 saw the completion of the "New Bridge" over the Colorado River which is still in use today as the current Congress Avenue Bridge. In September 1915 a flood tested this new bridge and the partially rebuilt Austin Dam. The dam was severely damaged and work was soon abandoned, but the new bridge held fast.

Our Growing Cities By the end of the 1920's the motorized vehicle dominated Congress Avenue. It is reported that there would be the occasional horse drawn carriage, mostly on lower Congress Avenue, but motor vehicles thronged upper Congress. The Austin skyline continued its vertical growth with the addition of two new skyscrapers. The third skyscraper added to the skyline was the Stephen F. Austin Hotel followed in 1929 by the Norwood Building.

More information about Congress Avenue will be added to this page in the future. Please check back soon!!!

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