History of Austin

Uncover the hidden history of Austin's most famous attraction

Uncover the hidden history of Austin's most famous attraction

Zilker Park Austin parks
Zilker Park went from housing horses to Austin's premier attraction. Austin Parks and Recreation Department/Facebook

The 350 acres of lush land in Central Austin is known around the world as Austin's "Crown Jewel" — and comes with an illustrious history. Though the land had been inhabited for thousands of years, little was documented until Spanish settlers moved into the area in the 18th century.

In celebration of Zilker Park's 101st anniversary as a city park, we are digging deeper into the hidden history of one of Austin's most famous places. 

Andrew Jackson Zilker's park
In 1876, Andrew Jackson Zilker (1858-1934) moved to Texas at the age of 18, with just 50 cents in his pocket. He was ambitious and determined to prosper in his new home state, and promptly moved to the Capital City.

Working odd jobs — like helping to build the Congress Avenue Bridge — Zilker eventually realized there was money to be made in ice. (After all, this was Central Texas before air conditioning.) Zilker prospered in the field of ice manufacturing, going from foreman to opening his own plant in a matter of months.

The enterprising Zilker the began purchasing prime property surrounding Barton Springs, eventually owning 350 acres of land. Zilker used the property to raise the horses and mules that were the key to the ice plant operations.

Zilker also used the clear Barton Springs water to produce the ice in his business, and built a pool and amphitheater at the site of one of the springs for fellow members of the local Elks Club.

The energetic and ambitious Zilker quickly became one of Austin's first millionaires, ultimately becoming a philanthropist and supporting many local programs. He found time to work as a volunteer fireman and served as the president of the Travis County School Board. Another first for Zilker is that he owned the first Coca-Cola distribution and bottling plant in Central Texas.

In 1917, Zilker donated this priceless land to the City of Austin with the stipulation that an endowment be produced to create shop and home economic classes in local schools. Because of his donation, Zilker Park and Barton Springs pool is beloved by Austinites and revered around the world.

Zilker died in 1934 and is buried in the Oakwood Cemetery (originally named City Cemetery) just south of UT's Disch-Falk Field. Zilker Metropolitan Park was officially named in 1934 and registered with the national list of historic places in 1997, ensuring Andrew Zilker's permanent place in Austin history.

William Barton's springs
William Barton (1782-1840), known as Uncle Billy, is often called the Daniel Boone of Texas. This colorful character was born in South Carolina 1782 and relocated to the Lone Star State in 1828. 

He moved to the area of Waterloo after it had been occupied by Comanche and other Native American tribes, eventually buying property near the Colorado River in the future town of Austin. Like Zilker, Barton foresaw the potential in the land as a recreational area for all to enjoy, and eventually named the springs after his daughters, Parthenia, Zenobia, and Eliza. When Zilker purchased the property in 1901, he kept Barton's name as part of the springs.

And not only does the reputation of Uncle Billy live on through the pool, but also the Uncle Billy's Brewhouse & Smokehouse on Barton Springs Road, located on a tract of land that originally owned by Barton. The business name was chosen to represent the independent spirit of Barton as well as the laid-back vibe of Austin.

Residents and visitors to the city are fortunate to be able to experience a place as inviting and bountiful as Zilker Park. And in the dog days of summer, there is nothing like taking a dip into the massive 3-acre spring fed Barton Springs pool to temporarily beat the Texas heat. The next time you enjoy these world-famous attractions, it will be with a little more understanding of its hidden history.