Off the Rails



Off the Rails: The Rise and Fall of Austin's Streetcars

December 11, 2018 - 


On February 7, 1940, the intersection of Congress Avenue and 6th Street was closed. A temporary platform was erected, around which crowds gathered to witness ceremonies marking the end of the streetcar era in Austin. The streetcar had been traveling through the very intersection that people were crowded into for 65 years. From 1875 - 1940 the streetcars were fundamental to Austin’s landscape, shaping the city they operated in by driving people’s decisions of where to live and work, serving as a battleground for racial conflict, and influencing city transportation policies.

A ubiquitous feature of the city since the first mules pulled their cargo of passengers past the wagons and trolleys on the dirt lanes of Austin as a frontier town before electricity powered them across a city crowded with automobiles. The streetcars rolled across the city as a symbol of Austin’s growth, bearing more than witness to her development but playing a critical role in it as well. The routes of their tracks drove more than passengers. From Hyde Park to Travis Heights and from Lake Austin to East Austin, residential development across the city can trace its roots to the streetcar lines.

Archival material gathered from the collections of the Austin History Center illustrate this ubiquitous nature. Photographs and documents selected for our latest exhibit “Off the Rails: The Rise and Fall of Austin’s Streetcars” showcase familiar landmarks from across the city. Visitors will discover images of streetcars as they travel back and forth across a growing landscape. The network of rails that crisscrossed the city offer connections to more than just the recognizable buildings and features they traveled among. They also provide a link between the past and present.

Contemporary Austin can discover more than just the design of her development along the rails of the streetcars. Issues that may seem as modern as conflict with rideshare companies, electric light rail, mobility and transportation can find their origins in the story of the streetcars. In some cases they may even discover striking similarities to events that happened nearly 100 years previously, such as when the streetcars went to war with the Jitneys in 1915. The prospect of an electric light rail might seem like a modern concern, but the story of the streetcar proves otherwise. It is a story that demonstrates how such mass transit was once employed in the City and the way that its network integrated it into the fabric of Austin.

Click on the thumbnails below to see some sample images from the exhibit.