An Exhibit of Memorable Austin Firsts
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- The 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 first 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 one.
- In the earliest years of our history, county legal business was conducted in a miscellany of available space around the city. The first 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.
Until 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.
The 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.
Austin's first 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.
The beginning 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 acres.
The first 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. Johnson.
Austin 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.
Austin's first 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
The first 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."
Wooldridge Park, Austin's 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.