TEXANS LOVE OPTIONS: Tex Mex or barbecue, Lone Star or Shiner, the beach or the Hill Country. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on your view), when it comes to getting from one Texas outpost to another, there’s often only one main highway available to the auto-bound, choice-loving traveler. To get from Austin to Dallas, take Interstate 35. When going from Houston to San Antonio, take Interstate 10. But for Texans going from Austin and Houston, or vice versa, there are options: U.S. 290 or Texas Highway 71.
As a Houston native and recently graduated Longhorn, I’ve driven both highways countless times. As a college student, U.S. 290 was my concrete artery of choice. More recently, my 1992 Honda Accord heads for Highway 71 when I embark on the two-and-a-half-hour journey. In all my travels there and back, I’ve made it home unscathed and ticket free. But each time I made the trip, I also made the grave mistake of breezing past the dozens of historic treasures and quaint Texas towns hidden along the way . . . until now.
Of course, there are more beautiful roadways laced across Texas and the other 49 states, but U.S. 290 and Highway 71 have their own distinct charms. And each highway has its moments of Zen for the big-city-bound Texas driver. Both U.S. 290 and Highway 71 string together a handful of small towns that drivers often speed past while trying to get to the state’s capital or its largest city to the southeast. When seen from the highway, towns like Bastrop, Elgin, or La Grange don’t always appear especially enticing. But that’s only because the charming downtown squares, courthouses, and eateries are tucked away a short distance from the main thoroughfare on business highways or county roads. The hearts and souls of these small towns are waiting to be discovered (or rediscovered) by the curious Texan or Texas transplant. On a recent trip to my native Houston and back to my newer digs in Austin, I discovered that it’s worth taking the time to stop and smell the roses on the way.
Each highway will get you to your destination in about the same time, but U.S. 290 has a few more traffic lights, fewer Colorado River crossings, and less divided highway than Highway 71. U.S. 290 has plenty to offer the Houston-Austin commuter.
Heading for Houston from Austin, you’ll find Elgin about nineteen miles into your trip. The city was established as a stop on the Houston and Texas Central Railroad in 1872. The town derived its name from Robert Morris Elgin, the railroad land commissioner who was instrumental in its design. A major flood of the Colorado River in 1869 diverted the railroad to Elgin from its original route ten miles to the east.
Often called the Brick Capital of the Southwest, Elgin has been ordained the Sausage Capital of Texas by the Texas Legislature. And no trip to Elgin would be complete without stopping to sample the town’s famous hot sausage. On my last trip I stopped at Southside Market and BBQ, which is located on the right side of U.S. 290 as you approach Elgin—the big red building is hard to miss.
The sausage plate goes for about $5.25 and includes beans, potato salad, and two slices of bread. (You know it’s good barbecue when it comes with disposable dinnerware.) The back dining room walls are stocked with stuffed bucks and the like in addition to Texas A&M bonfire paraphernalia, adding to the authentic Texas feel of the place. Finish off the meal with a scoop of your favorite flavor at the Blue Bell ice cream stand inside the building. And for the serious meat shopper, Southside’s meat market has everything the Texas chef needs for his next cookout.
Once back on U.S. 290, turn left onto East Eleventh Street and right on North Main. Sitting on the right side of the road, you’ll see the redbrick Nofsinger Home, Elgin’s City Hall. The two-story structure was built of bricks from an old Elgin clay pit (call 512-281-5724 for more information). The Chamber of Commerce building (114 Central Street; 512-285-4515), the oldest edifice in town, has held on to its twelve-foot ceilings and original floors since it was erected in 1872. Stop by from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. on a weekday for a tour.
About thirty miles east of Elgin is the town of Giddings, which was also established on the Houston and Texas Central Railroad line when the track was laid there in 1871. Directly off U.S. 290 (on the right) just as you enter the city limits, the cemetery offers a little peace and quiet. Be sure to visit the grave of notorious Texas outlaw Bill Longley. The trouble-making gunslinger was hanged in Giddings in 1878. Look for the Texas historical marker at his grave site.
For a taste of the town’s Wendish heritage, head farther into town and then south (right) on U.S. 77 from downtown Giddings. The road will take you past Lee County’s 1899 octagonal courthouse and then fork. Be sure to stay to the right on FM 448. Go another seven miles and turn right on FM 2239. Two miles down on your left, you’ll see the Texas Wendish Heritage Museum, a church and a cemetery. Wendish immigrants settled the nearby town of Serbin. The museum honoring their history displays old documents, photos, antique furniture, tools, household items, and other Slavic and Wendish artifacts. It’s open Tuesday through Sunday from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Decorative headstones dot the cemetery grounds next door, and several oddly-groomed trees make for an interesting landscape.
It won’t be hard to make it back to U.S. 290, and once there, you can set your sights on your final destination. The highway will dump you onto Loop 610 in Houston, which will connect you with Interstate 10, 45, or 59. But, if you want to continue the adventure, explore several other towns along the way such as Ledbetter, Brenham, and Hempstead.
Texas Highway 71
Leaving Austin for Houston, Bastrop is one of the first towns situated along the highway. One of the state’s oldest settlements, Bastrop is home to more than 130 historic structures listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The city’s Main Street is lined with these historic buildings that now house shops and diners. This picturesque downtown strip has appeared in a number of movies for both the big screen and television. It’s not visible from Highway 71, but it’s only half a mile away.
Take a left on Loop 150 to get to the Historic District. You’ll drive alongside the city’s Old Iron Bridge, which spans the Colorado River. Just past the bridge on the right, you see the Crossing, a cluster of restored cottages that have been converted into bed-and-breakfast cabins, antiques shops, clothing stores, a restaurant, and a coffeehouse. Stop in at the Yacht Club, a casual steak, shrimp, and burger joint decorated with retired fishing gear. Many of the restaurant’s tables offer a view of the Colorado and the Old Iron Bridge.
For early morning drivers, or if you just need a jolt of caffeine, go to the Memory Lane Cafe next door to the Yacht Club. The cafe also sells its own pies, croissants, and other baked goods. Before getting back on the road, take a stroll along the Colorado or browse through downtown shops, just a block from the Crossing.
About forty miles east of Bastrop on Highway 71, you’ll come across La Grange, the seat of Fayette County since 1837. The county is named for Lafayette, and the town gleaned its moniker, which means “the Meadows,” from his estate in France. The first exit, Highway 71B, will take you into downtown where the 1891 courthouse forms the town’s square. One of Texas’ famous trees, the Muster Oak (because it served as a muster point for men in six conflicts), sits on the northeast corner of the square.
Just a block past the square, turn right on U.S. 77. After the road crosses the Colorado and then winds upward, turn right on Spur 92. This road will take you to the Monument Hill and Kreische Brewery State Historical Parks. The 48-foot-tall Monument Hill granite vault on the river’s bluffs overlooks the Colorado and the town below, creating a breathtaking view. The monument, dedicated in 1933, is a tomb housing the remains of Texas fighters from the Mier and Dawson expeditions who were killed by Mexican soldiers in the 1840’s.
The property was also home to Heinrich Ludwig Kreische and his brewery, one of the first commercial outfits of its kind in Texas. The family home and brewery were built with limestone quarried from the bluffs. Guided tours at 2 p.m. and 3:30 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday offer direct access to the brewery (it can be seen from an overlook if you can’t make the tour).
Once you get back on Highway 71, you’ll continue on past Ellinger to the town of Columbus. From there, Interstate 10 takes you to toward Houston.
I’m more partial to Highway 71 than U.S. 290. There are fewer stops and a little more to see. My favorite spot on this route sits just after Highway 71 puts you on Interstate 10. You’ll pass the Colorado River for the umpteenth time, but on this last encounter with the river, you can see it wind to the south—its banks bare and worn by recent rains. But then again, change is good, and it’s always nice to know that U.S. 290 is there when the Honda and I want to spice things up. No matter which road you choose, there’s plenty of Texas to see and experience along the way.