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Austin Beginnings

An Exhibit of Memorable Austin Firsts

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First Year Firsts : 1839

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  • Until the 1860s, Austinites had their photographs taken by itinerant photographers who set up shop for a few weeks and then moved on to another frontier town. Documents at the Austin History Center do not pin down the first permanent photography studio; it probably belonged to either H.B. Hillyer or William J. Oliphant. Both photographers were in the business by 1868.
  • Austin's first "industrial suburb" developed in the mid-1870s around Peter Taylor's two "Patent Perpetual Lime Kilns" just west of Austin. Taylor fashioned "patent combination braces" to help stabilize the limestone walls of the kilns; he built his 50,000-barrel-a-year business to the point where his four telephones made him the town's largest telephone subscriber. The company town included various manufacturing shops and a grocery, as well as accommodations for employees. One of the kilns is now preserved in Reed Park.
  • Austin's first platted subdivision south of the river was the 1877 Swisher Addition, one mile south of the Colorado River along Congress Avenue. Corner lots were offered at $150. The streets were named after various members of the Swisher family who first settled in the area in the 1840s and operated the Swisher ferry across the river.

    "Deeds to purchasers will contain a proviso prohibiting the erection or keeping of dram shops, bawdy houses, gambling houses or slaughter pens on premises sold, permitting, however, the sale of vinous and malt liquors. This is deemed necessary in order to prevent disreputable persons from locating on the tract so close to the city, thereby avoiding the payment of city license and the surveillance of the city police."

  • Electric lights were first introduced to Austin in 1887 by the Edison Light Company of Austin. Among the first buildings to use the new lights were the U.S. Courthouse, the Post Office, the Statesman office, and the Western Union office. The first electric lights along Congress Avenue were erected in the same year by another company, the Austin Light and Power and Water Company. Their "Westinghouse System" also provided the lights for the first "electrified" private residence, the Michael Butler house, and for the newly built 1888 Capitol.

    "The street lamps, which are put up merely to demonstrate the superness of the electric lights, throw a flood of brilliant rays over the city, while the incandescent lights give the fullest degree of satisfaction." Austin Daily Statesman, November 16, 1887.

  • In a town where the Capitol building had dominated the skyline for miles around since 1888, the skeleton of the first multi-story office building demonstrates how it really did "scrape" the sky. The eight-story Scarbrough Building was built at Sixth and Congress next to the Scarbrough and Hicks department store. In 1912, Colonel Littlefield erected his challenging building on the opposite corner of the intersection.

  • The first all-night restaurant was the Night Hawk #1, started by Harry Akin in 1932. He got the idea in California, where he had worked as an actor before returning to Austin during the Depression. Akin said, "In California there was a difference in the restaurant business. There were night places that gave people something to do besides go to bed with the chickens. I thought there was a need for such a place in Austin. Hence the name Night Hawk for night people." The restaurant was inundated by the 1935 flood, but quickly was back in business.

  • Horse-drawn hearses from funeral homes, such as this one belonging to the Turlow Weed funeral home, served as early ambulances. With the coming of the automobile, the body of this vehicle was motorized, thereby becoming Austin's first real ambulance.

  • The beginning of Austin's reputation as a national high-technology center has its roots in World War II. In 1946 the University of Texas converted the wartime magnesium plant outside northwest Austin into the Balcones Research Center. One of several departments, the Defense Research Lab used University of Texas faculty members and graduate students to help investigate scientific and engineering projects. Among the lab staff in this group photo was Frank McBee, who went on to help found and build Tracor, Inc., Austin's first homegrown Fortune 500 firm

  • The Norwood Building incorporated two firsts when the 14-story structure was completed in 1929. It was the first air-conditioned office building in town and it had the first self-parking ramped auto garage, the "Motoramp." Earlier parking garages moved the cars up and down using large elevators

  • The fertile soil in Central Texas has ensured that agriculture would be a significant part of the Austin business picture. Cotton has been a major cash crop since our earliest days, and the coming of the railroad to Austin ensured a growing market. The first bale of cotton shipped out by rail left on January 2, 1872, a week after the first train arrived in Austin, and before the new freight office was even ready to receive it.