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Austin’s first light rail: Photos of streetcars past

The Austin Rapid Transit Railway Company, started to spur development, became a transportation mainstay for the city from the 1890s through the 1940s

Hyde Park street car
Austin History Center, Austin Public Library

Austin voters who have consistently voted against funding light rail while the city booms around them (the lone CapitalMetro line we have is commuter rail, not light rail) might be surprised to learn that the city’s former light-rail system—in the form of electric trolleys—came about due to a developer’s desire to create a boom.

In an article from website Not Even Past, “Austin’s First Electric Streetcar Era,” historian Bruce Hunt writes that, while Austin’s first street cars were drawn by mules, starting in 1875 and running “mostly along Congress Avenue from the train stations up to the Capitol,” that practice ended when Austin ceased being a railhead and experienced one if its many economic busts.

When city leaders set off a speculative boom in the late 1880s and early 1890s by attempting to mount a huge, doomed dam project, Hyde Park developer William Shipe was one of those drawn to its prospects.

Austin streetcar beginnings
Austin History Center, Austin Public Library

Shipe’s development, now considered to be located quite centrally, was at that time considered a far suburb, if not farmland. To bring in buyers who would otherwise not consider living that far from downtown, in May 1889 he obtained a franchise from the city for the Austin Rapid Transit Railway Company for building an electric streetcar line running from downtown to Hyde Park.

Gated Entrance to Hyde Park, photograph, 189u;
University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.
Hyde Park Street car
Austin History Center, Austin Public Library

For the next 50 years, Hunt writes, Austin had “an extensive network of electric streetcar lines, running from Hyde Park in the north to Travis Heights in the south, and from Lake Austin in the west to the heart of East Austin.”

Congress Avenue with street rail
Photograph, 1913; The Portal to Texas History; crediting Austin History Center, Austin Public Library, Austin, Texas.
East track concreted, photograph, 1890..1899
University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History; crediting Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.


The South Congress area became much more accessible and steadily began to grow following the construction of the 1910 bridge and the extension of the electric trolley line over the river into South Austin in 1911.
Austin History Center, Austin Public Library, C 00621

Though their presence was not unusual in American cities at the time, the streetcars were “central to the lives of many Austinites,” according to Hunt, until at least the 1930s, when their use began petering out, and ending altogether in Austin around 1940.

Streetcars run along Congress Avenue on their “last run” in Austin, February 7, 1940
Ellison Photo Service. Street Railroad Downtown, Photograph, February 7, 1940; University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History; crediting Austin History Center, Austin Public Library, Austin, Texas.
Last streetcar in front of Palm School, Austin, Texas, photograph, February 7, 1940
University of North Texas Libraries, The Portal to Texas History, crediting Austin History Center, Austin Public Library.

Although most of the photos of the streetcars were taken around Congress Avenue or Hyde Park, this 1925 map reveals that their routes stretched fairly far to the east and west as well.

A 1925 map of Austin with the streetcar lines highlighted
Via Not Even Past, courtesy of Perry-Castañeda Library Map Collection