AUSTIN (KXAN) – Referred to by some as the “The Crown Jewel of Austin,” Barton Springs as a city facility has provided Austinites a cool refuge during blazing summers for over a century.

While going for a dip on a hot afternoon may be the most interesting fact to some, here are a few more historical tidbits about the iconic three-acre pool you may not have known. 

While the springs as we know them have been used for hundreds of years, the history of Barton goes back even further.

Barton Springs Pool

According to historical accounts, modern use of Barton Springs began nearly 200 years ago when colonists settled in the region. William Barton came to Texas from Alabama in 1828 and settled in Stephen F. Austin’s Little Colony. 

Barton came with his wife, five kids and five slaves. He worked on a survey crew for Austin’s Little Colony and was granted an area that included a small creek – known now as Barton Creek, according to historical accounts. However, whether the land that includes Barton Springs belonged to William Barton is up for debate, said Sarah Marshall, who works with Historic Preservation and Tourism Program for the Austin Parks and Recreation Department. 

“The land wasn’t actually granted to him when he moved [to the Little Colony]. That was disputed later on. But the springs and the creek were named after him posthumously,” Marshall said. 

“William Barton was known as someone who wanted to participate in the extinction of Native Americans,” Marshall said. “And the fact that he enslaved people, we just want to make sure that that’s known as well,” she said. 

After multiple exchanges, the land where Barton Springs is located ended up with Andrew Zilker in the early 1900s. He later sold 50 acres of his land, which included the springs, to the City in 1917. He gave even more acres to the City in subsequent years, which is known now as Zilker Park. 

But long before Barton and Zilker were in the area, others used the springs. Marshall said that the use of the spot dates back 12,000 years. The Tonkawa, Lipan Apache, Comanche and Kiowa tribes were more recent tribes that used the springs when Anglo colonizers started entering the region. 

“A lot of people think that they use the springs as sort of a religious [and] gathering type place because it is [so] special,” Marshall said. 

Barton Springs was segregated.

Marshall said that African Americans were discouraged from using Barton Creek and Springs in the late 1800s and well into the 1900s. Then in March of 1928, the Austin City Council adopted the “Austin City Plan of 1928,” which codified racially segregated City parks.

In 1960, students at Austin High School organized a “swim-in” to protest the segregation of the pool. Marshall said it was tradition for the Austin High School seniors to hang out at Barton Springs during their final year. Because their Black classmates were not allowed to swim, some White students bought extra tickets for them. 

Joan Means Khabele's yearbook portrait was provided to KXAN by the Austin Parks and Recreation Department which received the photo from Khabele before her death.
Joan Means Khabele’s yearbook portrait was provided to KXAN by the Austin Parks and Recreation Department which received the photo from Khabele before her death.

Joan Means Khabele is thought to be the first Black person to jump into the pool as an act of protest. She was honored for her efforts last year.

By 1962, all Austin parks were desegregated, Marshall said. Beverly Sheffield was the Director of the Austin Parks and Recreation Department at the time, and he agreed that City parks should no longer be segregated. Marshall said Sheffield didn’t want any pushback for this effort, so it was not announced and not a great deal was written about it in the media at the time.

“It would have been a lot harder if they publicized what they were doing and trying to do,” she said.

But just because segregation ended in 1962 does not mean racism did.

“We have a lot of oral histories from people through the 60s, 70s and 80s [of them] going out to Barton Springs and Zilker Park, and it was not a welcoming experience for them at all. That resentment still stood.”

It is home to two endangered species.

The Barton Springs Salamander is a species found only in the spring that outflows from Barton Springs, according to the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. It is a small, entirely aquatic creature – about 2.5 inches in length – that can be gray, purple, grow-brown or yellow-brown. 

Close-up of a blind Texas salamander crawling along rocks

The salamander was placed on the endangered species list in 1997. It relies on a clear, pure, continuous flow of water from the Barton Springs Acquifier. Development around the Barton Creek Watershed poses a threat to the water because of things like urban runoff and toxic spills,  according to TPWD. 

The species population dropped sharply between 1970 and 1992, partially due to the diminishing quantity of aquatic plants in the area. Because of restoration efforts, the salamander population is improving, but not back to pre-1970s levels, according to TPWD. 

Also on the list of endangered species that can be found in the cool waters of Barton Springs is the Texas blind salamander. This species has a slightly larger territory than the Barton Spring Salamander and lives in the water-filled caves of the Edwards Aquifer, according to TPWD. 

It was listed as an endangered species in 1967 because of threats to the water where it lives. 

Historical Designations

Barton Springs Pool was registered with the National Park Service as an archaeological historical district in 1985, Marshall said.

Then in 1997, the designation was expanded to encompass all of Zilker Park, which is now the Zilker Park National Historic District.