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Austin Beginnings

An Exhibit of Memorable Austin Firsts

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First Year Firsts : 1839

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  • The first bicycle arrived in Austin in 1869, but it was not until the 1890s that its popularity greatly increased with the general public. The Austin Bicycle Club, formed in 1891, sponsored numerous parades, tournaments, races, and moonlight parties. One of the more popular events was the lantern parade, during which bicycles were decorated with Chinese lanterns. Women, as well as men, seemed to enjoy the sport. In 1895 the Statesman reported a "goodly number of Austin ladies have taken to wheeling and all of them speak highly of the healthful exercise�"

    "The Austin velocipede has arrived. The strange animule may be seen without danger at the store of Saunders and Washington. Which of our daring young horsebreakers will mount and curb the untamed steed?" Austin Republican, October 16, 1869

  • Although it was possible to ford the Colorado River at some low-water locations, crossing the flood-prone river proved to be a constant challenge for early Austin settlers. In January 1846, Sam Stone opened the first ferry "about one mile below Austin" and promised travelers that "�by crossing at this ferry, considerable distance is saved between Austin and San Antonio, and travellers will at the same time always be sure of a safe passage across." Three other ferries, such as the one pictured, opened shortly after Stone's. By 1862, however, Captain James G. Swisher's ferry, at the foot of East Avenue, remained the only one still in service.

  • After the Civil War, discontent over the undependable service provided by Swisher's ferry strengthened the demand for a permanent structure to span the Colorado River. In November 1869, the first bridge--known as the pontoon bridge--was completed at the foot of Brazos Street. The local newspapers described the accomplishment in glowing terms, but less than a year later the press reported that, after 36 hours of continuous rainfall, the pontoon bridge went "glimmering to the Gulf."
    "No obstacles present themselves which have not been surmounted, and you now find the bank graded, and the pontoon bridge afloat, squarely anchored to two heavy English chains of superior workmanship and finish, stretched from shore to shore. The bridge itself is composed of 21 boats, at regular distance from each other, overlaid with heavy solid oak flooring, sawed expressly for that purpose, and securely laid, forming a tract of 10 feet in the clear; a pier of solid cottonwood stocks, notched and heavily bolted at the corners, stands on the opposite bank of the river, and filled in with rock to the height of some 12 or 14 feet, and seems as solid as the everlasting hills." Daily Austin Republican, November 29, 1869.

    "The work has been consummated, and the Colorado can now be crossed on the pontoon. The city owes the projectors of this pioneer bridge a debt of lasting gratitude. To view it from the high bluff next to the city, it presents a novel and picturesque appearance.

    The bright and sparkling waters of the Colorado, as they go gliding along its banks, laughing in the sunshine seem to say; 'All hail to the invention of man, I will bear you upon my bosom for his joy, and accommodation. Oh! beautiful City, at whose base my waters have played in the days of your infancy and quietude, I will now support the wealth of golden grain, and the products of other lands, that shall flow into thy lap. And when thou art decked with the splendor of coming years, I will murmur low and sing the requiem of the past.'" Austin Record, November 26, 1869.

  • Some eventful firsts are hard to pin down. With no official record of the momentous occasion, the historian is sometimes left only with conflicting newspaper accounts, or hazy recollections, told years later by the surviving witnesses. The first automobile, which probably appeared in Austin around 1902, is a good example of this. Among the earliest owners were W.G. Bell, Pierre Bremond, Ewell Nalle, and Reinhold Haschke. Several of the Haschke family's early outings, such as this 1904 drive to Mount Bonnell, were recorded with photographs.

  • Mass transit first came to Austin in 1875 in the form of mule-drawn streetcars. The cheerful striped canvas awnings protected passengers from the elements while standing at 3rd and Congress. Inauspiciously, when the company's directors were taking an inaugural inspection tour and rounding the corner of Congress and 11th in front of the Capitol, the car left its tracks and turned over. Working with gravity, dignity took ten days to restore. There was a report on the Austin City Railroad after the first two days in operation.

    "The receipts of the Austin City Railroad on Saturday and Sunday amounted to $116 - $43 on Saturday and $73 on Sunday. We understand that $20 a day pays all the incidental expenses of the road, so the flattering receipts of the first two business days of the road indicate that the enterprise will prove a paying investment�We look upon the Austin Street Railway as a great stimulator to the growth and prosperity of the city." Daily Democratic Statesman, January 19, 1875.

  • Austin's first Municipal Airport was dedicated on October 14, 1930. The selection of the site for the facility was a much simpler process in the 1920s than it is today. After searching all of Travis County, the site selection committee, composed of Chamber of Commerce Manager Walter Long and civic leaders Max Bickler and Julian Baldwin, settled on a 190-acre cotton field. Its major attraction was proximity to the already established Austin Air Service. After receiving federal approval, City Council voted to purchase the recommended site. Council sentiment, however, favored the purchase of only 80 of the 190 available acres. Councilmember Dave Reed, perhaps more enthusiastic about the future of aviation than his colleagues, persuaded the Council to approve purchase of the entire 190 acres. An additional 150 acres on which the City held an option was included later.

    "At that time the field had gravel runways and was equipped with a gasoline pump and a small office building on the northeast side. The agreement called for twenty-four hour service on the field. The major employee was Reagan B. Dickard, who was a pilot. Burck Smith was the other employee�The salaries ran on a monthly basis. The only profit was an occasional sale of a tank of gasoline. After a year's time and a $2,000 loss I resigned as manager." John D. Miller, First Airport Manager, quoted in Wings Over Austin