On this scorching midsummer’s afternoon in Lampasas the air temperature is more than 100 degrees, but the water at Hancock Springs is cold.
How cold? According to the scale on a Kodak deluxe darkroom thermometer (certified accurate plus or minus ½ degree), it’s a chilly 73 degrees Fahrenheit at the inlet. At the free-flow pool’s outlet, due to the constant, inexorable force of the springs, it’s only warmed by 2 degrees — still a goosebump-inducing 75. Cold enough that even the lifeguards gingerly ease themselves feet first, in slow motion, into the crystal clear water at Hancock Springs.
Lampasas flourished in large part because of this spring and others in the town. Beginning in the late 1800s the alleged medicinal powers in the sulfurous waters drew health-seekers to the settlement first called Burleson, after John Burleson, who was awarded 1,280 acres in 1850 for his role in the Texas revolution. The town became known as Lampasas Springs after the nearby river, which was named Lampasas in 1721 by Spanish explorers.
A bewildering array of owners have claimed Hancock Springs, the greatest of the six or seven major outpourings of sulfur water in Lampasas. A multi-story Victorian resort called the Grand Park Hotel flourished during the heyday of the “healing waters” era, only to burn to the ground in 1895. San Marcos Baptist Academy established Marlamont, a camp-like summer school from 1921-1929 for high school students. Two men purchased the 109-acre park-like site for $12,710 in May 1929, moving and rebuilding the old dining hall, Hostess House, to where it stands today on the south side of the pool.
In the depths of the Depression, February 1936, the city of Lampasas bought the property for $15,000. Now an official public park, it was leased to the Army from 1942-1946, acquiring a new name: Panther Recreation Park. Termed a “convalescent camp” in June 1946, the Army declined to renew the lease and it once again became known as Hancock Springs Park.
The spring water emanates from the restored ruins of the old bathhouse, which dates from the 1895 hotel days. Erupting from the sandy bottom, the flow is said to be 1,500 gallons per hour. One published analysis reports the presence of sodium chloride (salt) and hydrogen sulfide, appropriate for a spring that is the source of Sulphur Creek. The limestone walls rise from a Caribbean-like clear pool of spring water, diverting a portion of the chilly flow beneath the viewing area into the vast pool.
“We begin draining the pool every Sunday at 6 p.m.,” said Nicole Sales, 21, pool manager. “Then on Monday morning, it’ll be empty. We power wash and use brushes to clean the sides and bottom.” The fill-up starts Wednesday afternoon. “By noon Thursday, it’s full,” Sales said. No chlorine or any other chemicals are added to the pool’s spring water, which flows from the source spring through the pool and into Sulphur Creek.
A shallow area with broad steps caters to small children. “This place is very quiet and family friendly,” said Lampasas resident Maggie Ryan. “My grandson loves it.”
On this hot afternoon, Darby Maceyra, a head life guard and seven-year Hancock Springs veteran, describes a popular event: ‘It’s our Moonlight Swim. The Saturday closest to the full moon we open the pool and have a live band, too.” Maceyra also does volunteer landscaping at the park, planting and tending trees.
Today is a far cry from the summer of 1997. That’s when the State Health Department condemned Hancock Springs Pool. Unacceptable cloudiness and leaks in the pool which “prevented proper levels of chlorine” in the impounded, non-circulating water forced a shut down. After some concentrated brainstorming, city officials and civic leaders arrived at the unfiltered, free-flow spring-fed solution. And in 2008, it made Texas Monthly’s list of “Twenty-five Best Swimming Holes.”
There’s another city pool in Lampasas, Hannah Springs. It has a slide, little kid-friendly fountains, a more current water-park feel to it. Plenty of concrete, not many trees and lots of chlorine.
When asked why she’s at Hancock Springs instead of across town at the other, more conventional pool, 15-year old Audrey Kerns smiles.
“I like it here,” she said. “It just feels cleaner. There’s more shade and less people. And the water’s really cold.”