Imagine Austin, a dusty frontier town on the north bank of the Colorado River in 1876, when the state fathers decided to erect a government building modeled on the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C. At completion, it would rise 15 feet taller than the original. The granite superstructure would dwarf the one- and two-story buildings of the Texas capital city in the 1880s. It was as if the spirit of Donald Trump had taken hold of the post-Reconstruction Texas Legislature.
But the state was poverty-stricken. Receipts in 1874 did not meet even half of the state’s expenditures. What were legislators thinking?
They wanted a symbol of power to rival that of the federal government. It would be a boost to Texas’ battered psyche. After all, between 1835 and 1875, the state had survived three major wars (Texas Independence, the Mexican War and the Civil War), several national economic depressions and six complete overhauls of government.
So the state commissioned a grand building to serve as a sign of independence and stability.
But if you’re an agrarian economy that hates to tax itself, how do you pay the staggering $3 million price tag to build this capitol? Well, Texas might have been cash poor, but it was land rich.
When the Republic of Texas joined the Union in 1845, it brought a large debt as part of its baggage. So the federal government cut a deal with the state, allowing it to keep its unappropriated land to sell to pay off its debt. That land did not become federal property like most of the vast unclaimed tracts of the western United States.
Railroads got 32 million acres of land, the equivalent of one-fifth of the state or all of Alabama. An additional 20 million acres of state lands went to the benefit of public schools.
In 1876, Texas still owned 61 million acres, most in the western reaches of the state. The Constitution of 1876 designated 3 million of those acres to pay for building a state Capitol. The land sold for about 50 cents per acre, generating about $1.5 million for construction of the Capitol. The designated land made up large parts of 10 Panhandle counties: Bailey, Castro, Cochran, Dallam, Deaf Smith, Hartley, Hockley, Lamb, Oldham and Parmer.
Running about 220 miles north from near present-day Lubbock to the Oklahoma Panhandle and averaging about 30 miles in width, the land was dubbed the XIT Ranch, probably stemming from a brand devised to thwart cattle rustlers. Another 50,000 acres were appropriated by the Legislature in 1879 to pay for surveying the land. When the old Capitol burned to the ground in 1881, work speeded up on designing and building the new one.
At the same time, the developers of the XIT had their work cut out for them. They turned to a syndicate of British investors, who put up the equivalent of $15 million to finance initial operating expenses and to stock the ranch with cattle. For a time, the Earl of Aberdeen and his British associates held the note on the XIT, at the time largest fenced ranch in the world. In the late 1890s, huge swaths of the XIT began to be offered for sale to pay off the British investors.
With financing secure, the look of the building was cemented when the owners of Granite Mountain near Marble Falls donated the distinctive pink granite used for the structure. The stone was largely quarried and the structure built by convicts and migrant workers, including stone masons from Scotland, swarming the site a thousand-strong at times. After six years of construction, the state Capitol was completed for a total cost of $3.74 million. When it was dedicated in 1888, it was said to be the seventh largest building in the world.
One century after their sale, the lands exchanged for the Capitol’s construction were valued at nearly $7 billion.
Geoff Rips, a former editor of The Texas Observer, directs Foundation Development & Special Projects for the Austin Independent School District.