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
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
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.
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
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.
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!!!