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The place is a poem

Featured Article

Austin's Eternal Swimming Hole

The Chill Pill we need

Article by Natalie Jardine

Photography by Matthew Brown; Natalie Jardine

Originally published in East Austin Lifestyle

Nestled between limestone ledges and steep grassy hills  — but within walking distance of downtown — sit springs that have come to represent Austin to the world as a city that values nature, recreation, and wide-open public spaces. 

In fact, for thousands of years before Austin grew from a sleepy college town to the bustling, technopolis and center of government it is today, these eternal springs have mesmerized human beings, invoking awe and an often spiritual response.

Legend has it that the pool we know today was formed when a rainbow split open the shelves of limestone that run in chalky veins throughout central Texas. Every day since, thousands of gallons of pristine water have risen from deep within the earth to fill our favorite municipal swimming hole — Barton Springs Pool.  

This natural wonder — home to turtles, perch, bass, ladybugs, salamanders, ducks, pecan trees, and crow — unites all parts of our city, because water pulls people together, calms us, and replenishes us. It invites us to participate in something bigger and more beautiful than ourselves. The place is a poem.

Barton Springs is an inclusive sanctuary with a long and interesting history starring a cast of characters all of whom felt a deep reverence for the place. First at the springs scene, long before European settlers arrived in the mid-1800’s were nomadic tribes: primarily Tonkawa and Comanche. They camped, hunted, fished, and used the sacred land for rituals. A colorful settler, William “Uncle Billy” Barton purchased the land in 1837, and the Springs, after a couple of false-starts, eventually took his name. His two tame buffalo attracted sight-seers to the place despite periodic attacks by the neighboring tribes of Native Americans. 

In 1876, soon-to-be-famous Austinite Andrew Jackson Zilker entered the scene. Having made his fortune manufacturing ice (people in Austin did want ice water!), he soon began purchasing hundreds of acres of land on the south bank of the Colorado river — land we know today as Zilker Park. Upon his death, the land and the springs on it were bequeathed to the city.  Zilker called Barton Springs “a sacred place” that “ought to belong to all the people of Austin.”  His legacy of community lives on and can be felt with each entrance into the pool.

Sometimes called the Soul of Austin, cool things in science, history, culture, art, and spirituality have organically emerged from this watery paradise:

  • The springs have been officially blessed twice: once in the summer of 2006 by Chinese monks and then in April 2011 by Tibetan Monks from India. 

  • In the summer of 1961, Azie Morton, a young black woman, courageously took a plunge in the whites-only pool which created a ripple effect and ushered in an activist stage to desegregate Austin.

  • Robert Redford learned to swim at the pool when he was 5 years old, and in 2007 he and Terrence Malick co-produced The Unforeseen, a documentary highlighting the environmental impact on the Edwards aquifer by a nearby real estate subdivision. 

  • The annual New Year’s Day Dip, hosted by Friends of Barton Springs Pool Polar Bear Club, provides an opportunity to take a collective swim to refresh your soul for the new year.

  • In August 2000, while playing with my dogs at “Barking Springs”, my water broke — telling my pregnant self that my first child was ready to become an Austinite.

Communities are dynamic, and always change — especially as more and more people move to Waterloo. But the Springs remain constant. They allow us to hit the pause button, reconnect with nature, play, and discover peace within ourselves. I’d like to think the Springs are the Chill Pill we need so we can focus on making the world a better place to live. Be a watery warrior and jump into the clear and icy 68 degree treasure known as Barton Springs. 

Barton Springs Pool now requires reservations - make yours reservation at austintexas.gov.

"Barton Springs is medicine. To the city because it is our soul, it literally replenishes the waters that sustain us all here." Sera Bonds long-time Austin resident and Springs swimmer

  • The place is a poem