Western Trips

Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Texas Capitol / The National Historic Landmark a Ranch Built

When on a trip to Austin during your next vacation or weekend road trip, a visit to the beautiful Texas State Capitol building is a terrific side trip. Austin, at the edge of the famed Texas Hill Country, is a popular place for tourists. Great scenery, excellent dining and plenty of historic sites make Austin a must stop for any Texas vacation. When you visit the state of Texas capitol building you will walk along unique pathways, past a beautiful manicured lawn and historic statues such as the Volunteer Fireman Memorial shown at the bottom of this page. This is truly a fun and historic side trip while on your trip to Austin.

texas state capitol building
State Capitol Building, Austin Texas
The Texas state capitol building in Austin claims one of the more colorful stories of Texas history. Texas became a republic in 1836 after breaking free from Mexico. Settlers poured into Texas, which of course at that time was a separate country from the U.S., and it's history is one of trial, conquest and ruggedness. Austin was made the capitol of Texas in 1840. The first state capitol building, erected in 1850, was small, however, still cost $100,000 at the time. It was at the same site as the current one but burned down in 1881. Even at the time of the fire, plans were being worked on for a new structure. The current building was built between the years 1882-1888 with the dedication taking place in may of 1888. While the construction was going on, the new magnificent Driskill Hotel, several blocks south of the Austin capitol, was used at various times as the substitute meeting place for the legislature.

During the Civil War, Texas was aligned with the Confederacy. Many battles were fought and the U.S. army posts that had been established during the 1850's were abandoned by the Union and taken over by the South. In fact, during the Civil War years Texas was sort of the gateway to the west for Confederate troops to infiltrate into the southern part of what was then New Mexico Territory. Many battles were fought there as well including the westernmost battle of the Civil War at Picacho Pass Arizona in April 1862. After the war's end, the western forts were occupied again by the U.S. Army. The southern pass through El Paso was reached by traveling through Texas and the state remained strategically important to traveling settlers. There's quite a bit of history of the "buffalo soldiers" who were garrisoned at many of the Texas forts after the Civil War trying to keep the trails safe from Comanche and Apache attacks.

The ranching business has always been important for Texas and in the latter part of the 1800'sit was huge. The two largest ranches during this time were the King Ranch just south of Corpus Christie and the XIT Ranch in the Texas Panhandle. The King Ranch was the oldest having begun prior to the American Civil War. It's interesting just how far apart geographically these two ranches were. The King Ranch was in the extreme southeast part of Texas and the XIT Ranch in the far northwestern corner.

The state of Texas was growing by leaps and bounds and it was apparent that a new Capitol would have to be built. That's why planning was already underway at the time of the 1879 fire at the old TX Capitol.

texas capitol rotunda
Capitol rotunda
The story about the larger and current state Capitol of Texas building has all to do with the XIT. In fact, it was the forming of the XIT and the selling of the public land for it's creation that funded the building of the state capitol. The amount of land in 1879 which the state of Texas set aside for sale in that portion of the Panhandle totaled over 3 million acres.The deal was essentially three million acres of the Texas Panhandle in exchange for constructing a Capitol. Through a lengthy process, the land was sold to the Farwell brothers, Charles and John, of Chicago Illinois who had along with them a group of British investors. The XIT would eventually cover portions of ten counties and be considered the largest cattle ranch in the world. The XIT was a famous brand.

The Texas State Capitol building is just a few blocks south of the University of Texas campus and is comprised of twenty-two acres of grounds. The capitol building is mostly built from materials found in abundance in the nearby Texas Hill Country. The original plans were for the building to be constructed of limestone from a site just to the southwest of Austin. The limestone was found to have a high iron content and was discolored. The builders of the capitol then came across an offer from the owners of a Marble Falls Texas operation. Marble Falls is west of Austin in the Texas Hill Country. The owners of Granite Mountain offered to supply all the pink granite needed for the capitol building at no charge. Oak Hill limestone was used in the foundation and behind walls covered by the pink granite. Most of the buildings woodwork is oak and pine. The capitol building was constructed at a cost of $3.7 million. Labor consisted mostly of convicted prisoners and migrant workers.

texas state capitol dome
Dome interior
History books report that as many as a thousand at a time were working on it's construction. When you tour Austin you might notice that many of the state buildings are constructed with pink granite. Many people when they first view the Texas Capitol say it resembles the U.S. Capitol building in Washington D.C. The main difference of course is the pink granite used in Austin. The Texas Capitol building was made a National Historic Landmark in 1986 and is considered an impressive example of late 19th century public architecture in America.

You may want to begin your tour of the capitol building at the Capitol Visitors Center located on the southeast corner of the capitol grounds. The address of the visitor's center is 112 East 11th Street. The Capitol Visitor Center exhibits many displays including a 15 minute video presentation concerning how the capitol was build from the sale of land to the XIT Ranch investors. Also included at the visitors center is a complete history of the Texas Governors Mansion. The capitol Visitor center is a great place for all information concerning Texas state history. History minded travelers will enjoy the visit.

Since Texas at one time was a republic, there is quite a lot of exhibits and information about the revolution that broke it free from Mexican rule. As an example, people helping Texas with their struggle against Mexico in 1836 received free land grants. Make sure to visit the largest display area on the second floor of the visitor center. There are six computers in a unique star-shaped kiosk that explores a time line of six distinct eras of Texas history. This includes both Texas Republic and Texas State history.

volunteer fireman memorial
Volunteer Fireman Memorial, erected 1896.
After years of construction, the walls were up and the dome began to take shape by mid 1887. An impressive achievement occurred in February 1888 when the Goddess of Liberty statue was placed on the dome. At completion, the Capitol building measured over 310 feet in height, had 392 rooms, 924 windows and 404 doors. Pictures of the State of Texas Capitol are impressive.  The fact that it took some 1,000 workers over seven years to build makes this historic structure quite unique.

To learn more about Texas, it's time line in history from a Spanish and Mexican possession to an independent republic and then onto statehood, a side trip to the Texas State Capitol Building is a fun and educational visit. Austin Texas is about 200 miles southwest of Dallas and about 80 miles northeast of San Antonio.

(Photos from author's private collection).