Three years into the Texas secession from Mexico, the Republic’s leaders sought a new town to be the seat of government for their young nation. Mirabeau B. Lamar, the 2nd President of Texas, had an obsession with Barton Springs and the green space’s cold water creek that ran through a small frontier town called Waterloo. It was surrounded by luscious greenery with a series of springs nearby that were not only beautiful, but were what the capital selection committee considered “the greatest and most convenient flow of water to be found in the Republic.”
Since the spring’s role in making Austin the Texas capital, it’s allure has not been lost with over 800,000 visitors a year rushing to jump in the 900-foot long pool area. It’s easy to see its draw. Water temperatures averages around 68 degrees all year round thanks to the damming of the creek that keeps the pumping its cool flow into the remnants of the Republic’s prized swimming hole. However, it has gone through several modernization projects since 1901 that have transformed this natural wonder into a three-acre semi-natural pool.
For thousands of years, the springs in Zilker Park near Austin’s downtown was considered sacred land and used for purification rituals by the Tonkawa tribe who inhabited the area. The creek was also believed to have healing properties as the tribe would bathe in the water to nurse battle wounds.
The arrival of European Americans brought a new chapter in Texas history, forming their own nation – the Republic of Texas. When it came to choosing a new capital in 1839, the Republic’s leaders Sam Houston and Mirabeau B. Lamar were bitterly divided. Houston argued for the city named after his namesake because It was the biggest settlement, however Lamar felt the frontier town of Waterloo (now Austin) would be best, almost exclusively because of the springs. Lamar was good friends with William “Uncle Billy” Barton who owned the land near the town that was home to the cool springs named after his three daughters Parthenia, Eliza, and Zenobia. Lamar was so enamored with the springs that his staffers would travel to the area when he went missing and would follow herds of buffalo to find him.
In 1901, wealthy ice manufacturer A.J. “The Colonel” Zilker purchased the land between the Colorado River and Barton Creek, including the surrounding Barton Springs, which he used to pasture his horses that transported the shipments of ice. Zilker, a member of the Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks, constructed a small concrete pool and amphitheatre for the lodge members at the site of Eliza Spring. It was modelled after Roman bathhouses, however its construction was considered dangerous and was overrun with the rare Barton Springs Salamander. Zilker was the last private owner of the springs, when he donated the land of the banks of the Colorado River to the Public Free Schools of Austin in 1917, then subsequently bought by Austin Parks & Recreation for $100,000, as per the terms stated by Zilker.
During the 1920s, the city undertook a construction project to create a larger swimming area by damming the springs and building side walks.
Barton Springs Today
Today the springs are commonly referred to as the “Soul of Austin.” On a hot summer day in the Lone Star State you’re almost certain to see long lines at the gate and often longer on Saturday afternoons. The long pool at Main Barton Spring has been a staple of Texas childhood for generations, including some celebrities such as actor Robert Redford who learned to swim at the spring when he was 5.
Barton Springs was added to U.S. National Register of Historic Places in 1985. In order to preserve its rich history, the City of Austin is in the midst of a master plan to restore and maintain the water quality at Barton Springs Pool that is susceptible to impurities from storms. The City is also making renovations to the Sunken Gardens and historic structures such as the bathhouse.
The Barton Springs salamander is a rare reptile only found at the site of the springs. They are usually 2.5 inches in length with color variations from dark purple to light yellow. They were added to the Federal List of Threatened and Endangered Species in 1997 and have forced Austin Parks & Rec. to cease using bleach to clean the pool, which they had done for 70 years. Little is known about the salamander, but it appears to feed primarily on small crustaceans. Austin Parks & Rec. make their well-being a priority and were granted an Incidental Take Permit by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service that allows for temporary removal during cleaning. In fact, 10% of revenue from the pool’s entry goes towards research and habitat enhancement.
If you and your child want to get the most of Texas’s favorite swim hole, why not check out our private swimming lessons right here in Austin!