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Barton Springs
Austin, Texas

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox
Many see Barton Springs, the fourth-largest natural waterworks in the state, as the soul of Austin.

At first thought, that might seem a relatively modern viewpoint, but the cold, crystal clear waters emptying into the Colorado River have been attracting attention for a long time. Indians camped there long before Europeans arrived in what would become Texas, and the Spanish are believed to have built a temporary mission there, even though no traces of it have ever been found.

Possibly the earliest international attention given Barton Springs came in the 1840s, back when "America" meant three things to geography-minded Britons: Canada, the United States and Texas.

British publications reflected an on-going interest with developments in the former colonies and the upstart nation called and Republic of Texas.

In Scotland, brothers William and Robert Chambers published the Edinburgh Journal, a weekly literary review. On Saturday, May 18, 1844, Journal readers found a short article called "Curious Indian Traditions."

"Some two hundred miles in the interior of the republic of Texas," the piece begins, "where the flat interminable prairies have ceased, the rolling country has commenced, and the evergreen summits of the verdant and flowery hills are in sight, was built not long since, on the very skirt of the territory of the fiercest and most turbulent Indian tribes, a small town to which the name Austin was given."

That, of course, constituted old news in Texas. Austin had been founded in 1839 at the republic's capital.

But the article did not have much more to say about Austin. The rest of the short item focused on what it called "Barton Springs."

"Not far from the town," the piece continues, "gushing from the broad fissure in the rocky base of a hill, is a pure and delicious fountain, known as Barton Springs…Surrounded on all sides by rocks or lofty trees, interminable groves of which branch off on three sides, it does not feel the effect of the sun's rays but during a very short period of the afternoon, when, through a large opening between certain lofty and stately cedars, the beams of the great luminary fall upon the spring, and gild its parking and virgin water with ever tint of the rainbow."

That period of luminescence lasted only about 45 minutes, the article says. Though short-lived, the effect must have been striking.

In fact, the interaction of low-angle sunlight and water as clear as glass gave birth to what the Journal article labeled a "most curious" and long-forgotten Indian legend.

"In ages gone by," the article explains, "during a severe and terrible storm…a more than usually gorgeous rainbow was driven along with such force against the base of the hill from whence the spring gushes, as to shiver the rocks, and give place until the water which instantly welled forth."

The legend held that "the rainbow received equal damage with the more durable material, and being shattered to pieces, the fragments…mingled with the fountains, and caused the prismatic colours which, though brought out by the sun, are ever resident in the translucent body of the fountain; and the tints of the rainbow were blent with the wave."

Readers enjoying that colorful word picture must have found the end of the article jarring: "Both town and fountain are now abandoned to the aborigines, the war with Mexico having so weakened the resources of government as to render them incapable of defending their infant capital from the assaults of the Indian marauder."

While Austin languished as a virtual ghost town until Mexican military forces gave up on an attempt to reclaim their nation's lost territory, Barton Springs bubbled on, outlasting that trouble and everything since then. In time, Austin lived up to something else the Edinburgh Journal had printed: "It gave every prospect of becoming one of the most populous and active, as it is the most lovely city in this exceedingly picturesque and beautiful country."



© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" - March 17, 2006 column
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