In 1905, 110 years ago this week, the City of Austin began paving the city’s main street: Congress Avenue. The paving was meted out in segments – the stretch of Sixth Street to what’s now Cesar Chavez getting the rollout first.
While the pavement signaled a new era in Austin, it also meant the beginning of the end for Austin’s streetcar system, Austin Electric Railway – the latest corporate iteration in a revolving door of companies with Congress Avenue right-of-way – which had been operating at a loss since 1891 and, at the city’s insistence, had to pay for and implement a good portion of the buildout.
But before the electric streetcars, believe it or not, there were mules. Austin’s first public transit system relied on a stable of mule-powered streetcars. Like their electric-powered successors, the streetcars operated on rails.
After four years of planning, the system started running in January 1875, and the city granted the Austin City Railroad Company right-of-way to build rails on any street in Austin. The cars had a maximum passenger allowance of 12 people, and men were prohibited from smoking if a woman got on board. The system flourished until 1889, when then-owner William H. Tobin sold the company to investors from Chicago and Boston, one of whom was M.M. Shipe.
Shipe and the Austin Rapid Transit Company rolled out the electric cars on Congress Avenue on Feb. 26, 1891, with rail lines adjacent to those of their mule-drawn predecessors, and expanded lines up to Hyde Park. Three months later, the depot that housed the Austin City Railroad Company's mules and streetcars burned down, killing more than 30 mules and scorching 16 of the 19 cars. The two companies merged later that year, and in 1893 a dam was built to power the electric streetcars.
In 1900, that dam broke, crippling electric car lines and the already-fledgling Rapid Transit Railway Company. The gap in service allowed mule-drawn cars to make a comeback, albeit briefly, but the company was sold in 1902 and renamed the Austin Electric Railway Company.
As Austin prepared to pave Congress Avenue in 1905, it also eyed Austin Electric Railway to shoulder the brunt of the costs, as the company still owned the right-of-way from the original charter from Austin City Railroad Company. The city's legal department filed suit to disenfranchise Austin Electric on Jan. 2 to speed up the paving process. The city also required Austin Electric to pave between and on either side of the Congress Avenue rails, as well as intersections.
The cost hit Austin Electric hard, but it boosted ridership. However, the company changed hands again in 1911 and was renamed the Austin Street Railway Company. In 1918 the company operated with just a 3 percent return. After 45 years, the rail line raised its fare for the first time ever in 1920. During the Great Depression the company operated at a consistent loss. The company changed hands yet again in 1922, and its tracks shrunk from 23 miles to 17 miles through the 1930s.
In 1940 the city transitioned to buses, holding a February funeral of sorts for the streetcars on Congress Avenue. By 1942 all of the rails had been removed as a part of scrap metal collection for the war effort.