Austin

Why capitol builders abandoned these granite blocks in Austin in the 1880s

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Texas capitol turns 131 years old Thursday, but you don't have to visit the building to see the history surrounding its construction.

Massive granite blocks are scattered along rail lines throughout Austin, dotting the landscape visible from Capital Metro's MetroRail routes between Leander and downtown. The blocks — at least 50 of them in all — are accidental monuments to the effort that went into building the statehouse in the 1880s.

"They would have been in the capitol if they'd gotten there," Mike Cox, a longtime Austin writer and amateur historian, told KXAN.

Cox's latest book, "Legends and Lore of the Texas Capitol," published in 2017, tells stories about the iconic pink dome, including how the massive blocks of almost-capitol arrived at their new homes along Austin's rail lines.

He first started hearing the tale as a kid. "My grandfather's father...was actually among the laborers who helped build the capitol," he said, so when he was young, his grandfather would point out the granite along Airport Boulevard and explain a piece of Texas history.

Back in the 1880s, when construction began, a quarry in Marble Falls agreed to donate all the "Sunset Red" granite needed to build the 302-foot-tall capitol. Contractors originally planned to use limestone but realized it became discolored when exposed to the elements due to iron in the rock.

In exchange for the granite, workers built a rail line to haul stone from the quarry up to Burnet, where it was shaped by masons from Scotland, and then down into Austin.

Some 4,000 train-loads stacked with nearly 190,000 cubic feet of granite rolled into the capital city during the six years of construction leading up to the building's dedication on May 16, 1888. But not all of it made the entire trek.

Hauled on flatcars riding a small-gauge rail, some of the blocks simply fell off the train; since the state was getting them for free, it made more sense just to haul in more instead of spending the effort and money to pick them back up.

Most of them are still where they fell more than 130 years ago. "Not likely to be going anywhere at 168 pounds per cubic foot," Cox said.

MetroRail commuter trains now follow the same route as the granite-haulers; though the tracks have been modernized, the blocks have stayed put. 

A large collection sits along the track at Waters Park Road, near Mopac and Parmer Lane. Less than a mile south, several more blocks are visible at the crossing on Gracy Farms Lane, and a smaller chunk is hidden in the brush where the tracks cross 38th 1/2 Street in east Austin.

In at least one instance, train cars derailed completely while crossing a bridge over Brushy Creek in northwest Austin, sending about three dozen blocks into the creek bed below. The Brushy Creek Greenbelt grew up around them, and visitors can see and explore the piles of almost-capitol granite. The state installed a historical marker near the site in 2008.

Cox also found a solitary block in Bertram. There are likely more along the miles of track between Burnet and Austin, he said, but they're either hard to access or covered up by brush. 

One place he can't find them, though, is the spot that spawned his interest in the story and in history more generally.

"The only ones that I know that have been reclaimed were the ones that I used to see on Airport Boulevard," he said. In all his research, he's never come across a reference to the stones being removed, and can only speculate as to what happened to them.

"I'd sure like to know if somebody does know where they went," he said. "It's not the kind of thing you can just go over there and pick up and put in the trunk of your car."

That's why many of the blocks haven't moved in the last 130 years. They've withstood the test of time, each one a memorial to the work that went into the capitol all those years ago; each one a piece of almost-capitol.



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