The History of Barton Springs

Photograph by Benjamin Gustafsson

If you’ve read Monday’s post, then you know about Sam Houston’s feud with Mirabeau B. Lamar over the location of Texas capital. One can easily understand why Houston wanted the capital to be located in the city that bore his name, but why did Lamar insist that it be moved to the little-known frontier town of Waterloo that would one day become Austin?

Apparently, Lamar had fallen in love with an area near Waterloo, owned by a friend of his named ‘Uncle’ Billy Barton, where he would hunt for buffalo and rejuvenate himself in the refreshingly icy pools of water created by springs from an underground aquifer. When Lamar was missing, his staffers would travel to this area and follow herds of buffalo to find him.

When Austin became the capital of the young republic, Lamar moved into a residence only two miles away from the site that would later become known as Barton Springs.

Arguably the crown jewel of city, one can easily understand that the Barton Springs—the source of the largest metropolitan swimming pool in the country at 900 feet—had something to do with Austin’s emergence as an urban center.

The Edwards aquifer, which provides the icy water of the springs—and much of Austin’s drinking water—was created millions of years ago during the tectonic shift that created the Balcones Fault.

During its prehistory, the Native American tribes in the region knew the springs as a sacred place where they could heal their wounds. Yet, the springs did not become a public swimming facility for the residents of Austin until the 20th century.

In 1901 A.J. Zilker, the first Coca-Cola Bottler in Austin, bought the land and developed one of the springs into an amphitheatre style swimming pool (modeled after a roman bath) for the local Elk Lodge. Eliza Springs, as the amazing, archaic looking pool is now known, is again closed to the public due to alleged dangers in its construction and because it has become a preserve for the endangered Barton Springs Salamander.

File:Eliza spring.jpg

In 1917 Zilker began donating his land along the south bank of the Colorado River to the Public Free Schools of Austin on the condition that the city of Austin would buy the land. That same year the area became a public park, and Austinites began flocking to the springs.

Between 1929 and 1932 the pool was extended to its current size and shape with the addition of concrete dams on the lower and upper ends and given sidewalks along its banks. The pool, including its smaller offshoots, was now approximately a thousand feet long.

Located near the center of Austin in Zilker Park, Barton Springs is the undeniable heart of the city. In the summer, when temperatures consistently rise over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, the whole city gathers at the shores of the great, old pool, where the water remains a chilly and perpetual 68 degrees.


  1. avatar Ray Harch says:

    Anyone know the Native American name for Barton Springs?

  2. avatar salazar says:

    was it in February 17 OR 18

  3. avatar Josh Conrad says:
  4. Sam Houston and Mirabeau Lamar did indeed quarrel over where to put the capital. Contrary to popular belief, though, Houston had no love for his namesake city, which by law was supposed to remain the capital only through 1840. He fought to keep the capital in Houston only until then, arguing that to move it sooner would impose an unfair financial harship on Houston businessmen who had invested in the infrastructure needed to host the government. He had no problem with moving the capital elsewhere after that, but he favored a more eastern location in the settled portion of the country. Lamar favored Waterloo, not primarily because of its beauty (although he did indeed admire the area’s asthetics), but because he wanted a metropolis positioned to capture the trade between the US and Mexico that passed through Santa Fe. Although those dreams evaporated with the disastrous Santa Fe expedition, the capital did indeed come west, fortunately for us modern Austinites!

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