2020 NASPA Annual Conference

History of Austin

City Development

Before the city was even thought about, the nomadic tribes of the Comanche, the Lipan Apaches, and the Tonkawa hunted along the Colorado River and creeks throughout the current lands of Austin. The first settlers arrived in the 1830s and called their settlement Waterloo. By 1839, the name Waterloo was changed to Austin and became the capital of the Republic of Texas. The city was named after Stephen F. Austin, “the father of Texas” and the first mayor of the city was Judge Edwin Waller. Judge Waller was charged with developing the street plan which is mostly still in place today.

By 1840, the population was 856 compared to a little under a million in 2019. In 1845, Texas approved the annexation into the United States. In 1861, Travis County, which covers the city of Austin, was one of the few counties in the state to vote against the succession from the Union to join the Confederacy showing Austin has always had a mind of its own. In 1871, the railroad arrived in the city allowing the population to grow. The prominent Driskill Hotel opened in 1886 and is still opened today (check it out at the corner of 6th and Brazos). By 1888, the State Capital Building was constructed and was dubbed the “7th largest building in the world.” It was purposely built to be 10-feet taller than the U.S. Capitol Building. In 1893, the first dam in the area was constructed with many more to follow in the upcoming years because the dams stabilized the river and provided hydraulic power to generate electricity, which in turn attracted manufacturers. The heart of the city, Barton Springs, a natural swimming pool in the center of town, opened in 1918.


In September 1881, the Austin City Public Schools admitted their first class. During the same year, the predecessor to Huston-Tillotson University, Tillotson Collegiate and Normal Institute, serving African Americans, was the first institution of higher education to open in Austin. The University of Texas opened its doors two years later after a debate from parents that warned sending their children to school so close to lawmakers would be a terrible influence on their morals (helicopter parenting of 1883). Shortly after, St. Edward’s University began operation in 1885 which originally started as a high school in 1878. Leading the way for Concordia University to open in 1926, which too, started as a high school. Austin Community College would emerge on the scene in 1973 opening its doors to 1,726 students. Today, ACC serves over 86,000 students on 11 campuses.


A group of leaders established the Austin Area Economic Development Foundation, in the 1950s, to attract specific scientific companies and leading to several research laboratories and think tanks being formed. Tracer, a major defense electronics contractor, began operation in 1962. During the 1960s and 1970s, several major companies moved their headquarters to Austin. IBM arrived in 1967 to produce Selectric typewriters. Texas Instruments arrived in 1969 and Motorola arrived in 1974. 10 years later, Dell would set up its headquarters in Round Rock, Texas. Austin is also home to branches of Apple, Facebook, and Amazon.

Live Music

Austin’s music scene started in the 1860s with the German beer halls. Scholz Garden opened in 1866 and is still going strong today on San Jacinto Blvd. During the 1960s and 1970s several music venues were opened on the up and coming Sixth Street. Janis Joplin got her start at UT and singing at Threadgill’s Tavern. The infamous Armadillo World Headquarters (The ‘Dillo), located on Barton Springs Road was in operation from 1970-1980. Many established and up and coming artists regularly played The ‘Dillo, including Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Jerry Jeff Walker, and Stevie Ray Vaughn. Today, Austin is home to many artists in the national music scene including Asleep at the Wheel, Lucinda Williams, Shawn Colvin, Charlie Sexton, The Fabulous Thunderbirds, Alejandro Escovedo, and Grupo Fantasma amongst many others. Willie Nelson is credited for launching Austin as the “Live Music Capital of the World.”

In 1986, staffers at The Austin Chronicle envisioned a festival to showcase Austin’s musical talents. South by Southwest (also known as SXSW) kicked off in 1987 with 177 artists on 15 stages with 700 attendees. 32 years later, SXSW lasts 10 days each March and includes the SXSW Conference & Music and Film Festivals, SXSW EDU, and SXSW Gaming totaling approximately 417,000 participants!

“Austin City Limits” is the longest-running live music television show in the U.S. It began broadcasting in 1974 with Willie Nelson as a featured performer. As many as 5 million people worldwide view the PBS show each week. The show helped launch the Austin City Limits Music Festival in 2002, going into its 18th year.


In 1985, the City of Austin created the Art in Public Places (AIPP) program which collaborates with local and nationally known artists to include the history and values of the community into landmarks throughout the city. Austin was also the first city in the state to commit to including works of art in construction projects. The city is home to several museums. The LBJ Presidential Library, The Harry Ransom Center, and The Blanton Museum of Art are all situated on The University of Texas at Austin Campus. The Bob Bullock Texas State History Museum (2001) showcases exhibits on the state’s history and is located between the Capitol and the UT campus. The Umlauf Sculpture Garden and Laguna Gloria are hidden gems, tucked away amongst Austin’s enchanted live oak trees. The city supports an array of cultural organizations including the Austin Symphony and Ballet Austin, and a thriving dance scene, including Ballet East, Tapestry Dance, Roy Lozano’s Ballet Folklorico, and the Deborah Hay Dance Company. Austin is also home to Zach Theatre, the oldest continually operating theatre in Texas, and one of the ten oldest theatres in the country, The Long Center for the Performing Arts, The Paramount Theatre, and Bass Concert Hall, the largest of a group of six theatres on The University of Texas at Austin campus, known as Texas Performing Arts. Texas Performing Arts is integral to bringing world-class artists to Central Texas, hosting The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Victor Borge, Nina Simone, Ornette Coleman, the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Van Morrison, Philip Glass, Ella Fitzgerald, and The English National Opera and many others in its thirty years of operation. It is also home to Broadway in Austin, bringing Broadway hits like Hamilton, The Lion King, Cats, The Phantom of the Opera, and Jersey Boys to the city each season.


While the Congress Avenue Bridge doesn't have much importance in Austin history, it claims to be home to the largest urban bat colony in the world. This huge colony of Mexican free-tailed bats lives beneath the road, in the gaps between the concrete thanks to a 1980 renovation of the bridge.  

From late March to early fall, around 1.5 million Mexican free-tailed bats spend their time in Austin before migrating to Mexico for winter. There are more bats in the city than people. The bats emerge at dusk and make their flight across the lake to feed. Of course, there is an annual Bat Fest held every August to celebrate the temporary guests.

There is so much to see and do in Austin which the state’s fourth largest city. Take a stroll down the street and get lost in the local history of this great city with a walking tour.

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