Proportionally, Austin has never seen another party like it.
Sure, hundreds of thousands of guests attend the city’s annual cultural festivals and sporting events. And at least once, Austin partied like it was 1999.
On Dec. 31, 1999, an estimated 260,000 people converged near the intersection of Congress Avenue and Sixth Street to toast “A2K.” After midnight, they also cheered because the dreaded “Y2K” tech bug did not deflate the world economy.
Consider, however, that on May 16, 1888, as many as 20,000 out-of-towners witnessed the dedication of the new State Capitol. Then ponder the fact that something like 14,000 people lived in the area 125 years ago.
Given today’s metropolitan population of 1.8 million, to match that kind of visitor-to-resident ratio, we’d have to find hotel rooms for 2.5 million guests.
With few established inns — the fancy new Driskill Hotel offered only 60 rooms — where did all those 20,000 guests stay? Many erected tents at Camp Ross, likely named for the sitting governor and head of the Texas military forces, Gov. Lawrence Sullivan “Sul” Ross.
Newspapers reported that columns of uniformed soldiers marched out from Camp Ross, down First Street (Water Street) and past the assembled throngs along Congress Avenue to the Capitol.
But just where was this encampment? Hard to say. Not at Austin’s three Civil War-era forts, located either in the wrong direction or too far away.
“If you look at maps of the time, First Street ended at Lavaca Street on the west, and if you keep heading west, you hit the ‘Sandy Beach Reserve’ at what is now the Seaholm area,” points out Austin History Center manager Mike Miller. “To the east, First ends at what is now Chicon Street. If I had to venture a guess, I would say it was east of the city limits, based on the parade route, which would have been difficult from the west.”
Photographs of Congress Avenue and the Capitol grounds show folks dressed in their finest on horseback, in carriages and on foot. The enormous pink granite building — which echoes St. Peter’s Basilica and the Palace of Versailles — dwarfs the sapling elms and people pushing up its stone steps.
The party actually lasted a full week and included cattle roping, baseball games and German choral singing. Souvenir programs and invitations proliferated. Samples of granite were given out, and excursions were made to “Granite Mountain” in Burnet County. Copies of “The State Capitol Waltz” sold for 60 cents.
A grand Dedication Ball followed on May 18. The Senate and House of Representative chambers served as ballrooms. The state’s first lady wore “a handsome black lace dress over moire antique, with jet trimming, natural flowers and ruby ornaments.”
Reporters struggled to find a balance between fact-finding and outright hyperbole.
“The flowers of the military of the great state of Texas were there,” the Austin Statesman reported the next day. “These, with their fair partners, beautiful faces that rival the chosen ones 0f the world; costumes rich and elegant, marvels of art and loveliness, all mingling in one grand assemblage within the walls of the building which, of its kind, in grandeur and magnificence of ornamentation, stands alone, presented a scene that language fails to adequately describe.”
Especially noted in several articles were the emissaries from Mexico. The Statesman conjectured: “This week should date the beginning of an era of new feeling towards Mexico.” More than 100 Texas editors arrived by train, and special editions of the state’s newspapers went out.
Why all the ruckus?
“It was the biggest building by far in this part of the world,” says Kyle Schlafer, program supervisor at the Texas Capitol Visitors Center, which is celebrating the building’s 125th anniversary. “By several orders of magnitude.”
For decades, newspapers and magazines recalled the glories of May 1888. One of the best articles appeared in the August 1964 issue of the Texas Public Employee magazine.
It recalled the words of state Sen. Temple Houston, son of Republic of Texas President Sam Houston, who accepted the Capitol in the name of the state’s people: “This building fires the heart and excites reflections in the minds of all.”
Not to be outdone, the Statesman concluded after a week of exhaustive reporting: “Gracious, whence did they all come? Never in the history of the city, in the history of the state, was there another such day.”
Michael Barnes writes about Austin’s people, places, culture and history.