The Enduring Placeness of Laguna Gloria
Updated: Jul 23, 2022
We just completed a cultural and historical landscape study for Laguna Gloria in west Austin. The beautifully preserved 1916 estate once owned by Clara Driscoll and now devoted to the visual arts is an elegant oasis in the ever-changing residential fabric of west Austin. The Italianate mansion, with its mixture of formal gardens and wild spaces punctuated by clever landscape features and decorative follies are a fine example of Texas’ own Gilded Age aesthetic of the early 20th century. During her lifetime, Driscoll often credited her Mexican born groundskeeper, Nazario Galvan, for the landscape’s thoughtful design and maintenance. Indeed, so integral was he to the estate that Driscoll left its upkeep in his care even after she donated it to the Texas Fine Arts Association in 1943. When she died in 1947, she left him a small monthly stipend as final measure of respect. Since that time, the landscape and the gardens have stayed true to Driscoll and Galvan’s collective vision.*
However, a deeper dive into the history of Laguna Gloria revealed some hidden aspects of its history that have been obscured not only by the Driscoll estate, but also by increasing urbanization. The modern landscape, with its network of city streets, houses and manicured lawns, a country club, a water treatment plant, and the impounded Colorado river, all make it hard to imagine a native landscape around Laguna Gloria. But try to envision, if you will, what it may have looked like two hundred years ago.
Back then, the rugged hills of the Edwards Plateau were covered with cedars and live oaks interspersed with patches of high, rolling grasslands. The area that is now Laguna Gloria was on a low river terrace at the foot of one very prominent hill -- today’s Mount Bonnell, which rose nearly 300 feet above the river. Even in those days Mount Bonnell drew Native Americans and early European travelers to its summit, the views from which were (and still are) nothing short of breathtaking. Below the summit, the waters of the Colorado River unspooled like a glittering ribbon toward a grassy prairie full of buffalo, deer, birds, and all manner of wildlife. Nineteenth century visitors called the panorama from Mount Bonnell “unparalleled for beauty and sublimity,” and among “the grandest and loveliest in nature.” 
The oak and cedar covered hills around Mount Bonnell hid a number of rock shelters worn into the limestone cliffs, and below those a cluster of natural springs gushed out of the bedrock, trickling into the steep ravines leading toward the river. The water from the springs flowed into the waterway where low, rocky falls also formed a natural river ford (Indeed in later years this rocky ford would become part of a formal road crossing the river). The output of the largest of the springs, located close to the river near where Laguna Gloria is now, rivaled that of Austin’s better-known Barton Springs. A stream of water spilled forth, “as thick as a man’s arm.” Even in periods of drought, when all other springs had gone dry, the ones at the base of Mount Bonnell faithfully pumped water into the river below it. Laguna Gloria was right there, a key point in a memorable constellation of articulated landscape features.
This place was imprinted in Native American cultural geography and passed down through generations. The Comanche trail from the hill country came down Bull Creek and over Mount Bonnell, then down to Laguna Gloria and through the cedar brakes into Austin, along Shoal Creek. During the 1840s, the new town intruded on Comanche buffalo hunting grounds, not to mention traditional lands of other native peoples who returned time and again to the vital springs in this area. In 1846 Native Americans stood along the banks of the Colorado river at Laguna Gloria below Mount Bonnell, watching grim-faced, as the first steamship from the Gulf of Mexico made its way to Austin. It trundled up to the falls below Mount Bonnell, and then triumphantly circled back to the new city a few miles below. The belching steamship was just a harbinger of bigger changes. Despite the Comanche’s repeated raids on their settlements, the light-skinned settlers kept coming. Seven years later, Comanche hunters stood in this same area atop Mount Bonnell and watched a new Texas Capitol being built.
By this time, the lands around Mount Bonnell and Laguna Gloria were well known to American settlers. In fact, Stephen F. Austin singled out this exact spot for his own use. In an 1832 letter to his land agent he described the falls, the springs, the timber, and Mount Bonnell very precisely, going so far as to include a map. Others noticed too. Republic of Texas President, Mirabeau Lamar was so besotted with the views from Mount Bonnell and its articulated resources that in 1839 he sent a committee to investigate the viability of placing the new Capital of the Republic of Texas near this spot. The committee spoke of the excellent timber, particularly oak, cypress, and cedar in the hills near Mount Bonnell; and of limestone, which could be used for building materials. The following year, George Bonnell came through on a surveying expedition and commented on the economic potential of the springs and falls along the river. He wrote that the springs below Mount Bonnell “afford the finest water power in the world. They have a sufficient supply of water for all the purposes of machinery. They are never affected by long droughts, nor heavy rains, and there would, consequently, be a constant supply of water…”
It didn’t take long for word to get out. In 1846 a breakaway group of 130 or so Mormons came to the new Capital at Austin and built a small village at Laguna Gloria. They wasted no time in building a dam at the springs and the infrastructure to power a grist and sawmill. Their mill—the first in Austin-- ground corn and wheat, and cut the lumber to build the new city jail. The Mormon settlement of about 25 households along the river was short-lived, however. Within a few years they moved on and sold the mill and its equipment to another enterprising settler, Jacob Dancer. Dancer improved the mill pond dam by building a fender along the river, but regular floods repeatedly damaged his millworks. He finally gave up around 1858.
It was during these years that Laguna Gloria and Mount Bonnell became popular picnic destinations for Austinites seeking amusement outside the city limits. Outings to the springs and Mount Bonnell were a favorite occupation particularly for young lovers of the time. It was generally said that “when a man and woman together visit Mount Bonnell a wedding is foretold.” A popular poem of the day recounted “Up to the top of Mount Bonnell/I with my love went climbing/When evening’s golden sun-rays fell/And vesper bells were chiming.” No trip from visiting dignitary, politician, and journalist was complete without an excursion up to Mount Bonnell and the springs below it. The views from the summit generally captivated all who beheld them, while the cool springs below offered refreshing water and shade where parties could revel in leisurely picnics.
The springs around Mount Bonnell and Laguna Gloria have largely dried up in the twentieth century. Or they have been submerged under the impounded waters of Lake McDonald (ca. 1891-1900), which is now Lake Austin. The falls are also completely hidden under the lake. Today, almost no one remembers they were there. While the landscape around Laguna Gloria and Mount Bonnell is still undeniably picturesque, and continues to attract many visitors each year, their once-vital connection to each other and other natural features has been severed. These features formed not just a lifeline, but an important physical and cultural landmark for Native Americans and the earliest non-native Americans of central Texas. Collectively these features formed a spiritual place, a traditional place, and focal point for many generations of native and non-native Texans alike.
*Direct quotes are footnoted below. All other information can be found in A Cultural Landscape History of Laguna Gloria 1800-1943. By Rachel Feit, prepared by Acacia Heritage Consulting for the The Contemporary, Austin, 2022.  Melinda Rankin. Texas in 1850 (Texian Press, Waco) 1966; and George Bonnell. Topographical Description of Texas, to Which is Added an Account of the Indian Tribes. Reprinted by Texian Press, Waco) 1964; Quoted in O’Donnell, Historical Ecology of the Texas Hill County, 2019:A-9.  Ruth Lewis. “Days of Mormon Church Near Here Recalled.” Austin American Statesman, 2 Aug 1940:8; see also Austin Weekly Statesman, 10 Aug 1879:4  George Bonnell, Quoted in O’Donnell, Historical Ecology of the Texas Hill County, 2019: A-9.  Austin Weekly Statesman, “Cupid’s Pranks,” 24 April 1884, 3.  Weldon Brewer, “Mount Bonnell Parkers Follow in Footsteps of Old Indian Lovers,” Austin Daily Texan. 4 August 1942, 7